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How to teach Elementary Art. Tips, tricks and everything you need to know to get started!

Updated: Apr 11

I was a high school art teacher for 14 years, and I loved it. We would spend days, sometimes weeks working on projects. The sky was the limit with what you could teach them and there was no shortage of time. But after having children of my own I became immersed in the world of process art, fun quick projects that led to creativity and invention! Once my kids entered Kindergarten it seemed natural for me to gravitate towards Elementary Art. Last school year I was hired at my kids school to teach Kinder through 6th Grade Art. I scoured blogs and books trying to figure out how to teach Elementary Art. I found some good nuggets of information with people like Cassie Stephens, but all in all, I had to figure most of it out on my own. After one and half school years of teaching Elementary Art I can happily say I mostly have it figured out. I say mostly, because I still have a lot to learn! I'm writing this blog post to help those new teachers who are trying to figure out how to teach Elementary Art!

Here is my current classroom!

The first thing to consider is classroom set-up. Are you taking over a classroom that is already set up and stocked, or are you are starting from scratch? If you are teaching multiple grade levels like me, you most likely will want to have two areas: tables and a rug. The younger grades, K-3 are comfortable starting out on the rug. You will typically have them sit on the rug, explain the project and then send them to the tables to work.

This is my rug area, where my kinder - second graders always start.

Older grades, 4-6 always start at tables (sometimes my 3rd graders start at the table as well). If you are teaching all of these grades it would benefit you to have a rug area and tables. If you don't have Kindergarteners you could skip the rug all together and have more space for tables.

Make sure you have enough chairs for your largest class. My largest class this year is 28 students. If you are teaching all the grades like me you are probably wondering what size desks and chairs to use. Some of you may not have an option, you may be stuck with whatever was in the room. You may have tiny tables and chairs, and both small and big kids. If you have a choice I recommend large, rectangular tables with small (18") stools. I am in the process of trying to order 6 of these tables (30"x72") Ideally you would have 4 kids at each table, I will have 5 on some because I have a small room. If you have a large room order 8 of these tables. These are the stools that I want. I prefer stools because they take up less space and are easy to put on the tables at the end of the day. They will take some getting used to for the kinders, but these are stools that they will grow into, you will really appreciate them with the older kids. Try to set up your tables so that as many chairs as possible face the front of the room. Avoid the cute tables that are weird shapes, getting kids to look up front and listen when their backs are to you is too challenging.

I was given a room that had not been the previous art room, so I was sort of starting from scratch. First I took down everything off the walls, I wanted to start fresh. The walls were already painted bright colors, bonus! I was lucky, my room had some pretty cool furniture in it. I moved the furniture around to create a rug space for the smaller kids at the front of the room, and spread the tables around the room behind the rug.

You will need a few more important areas. You will need a drying rack area that has enough drying racks for at least 3 classes at a time, maybe 4. You will need a supply area that is large enough to leave out supplies for a project or two. You will need a "Finished Early" area where you will have blank paper and markers. You will need a storage cabinet to store work in progress. Sometimes you will finish a project in one day, but sometimes it will take two or three days and you will need a place to store it (see photo of my storage cabinet below). And lastly, you will need a large empty wall for displaying student artwork.

Next I moved on to taking inventory of what I had. I literally took everything out of every drawer and cabinet. I got rid of the things I didn't need and then put everything back, in what I thought would be the best places. Later I went back through and labeled all the cabinets, drawers and containers. As I did all this organizing I kept of list of supplies that I needed, when I found something I crossed it off. At the end I knew what I still needed to order.

One of the most important things I ordered was a new tall standing cabinet for storing student artwork. This was a major budget item, but very necessary when you have 28 different classes to keep organized. Room organizing takes a lot of time, but is worth it.

Budget. Find out what your budget is and place your order. Make sure you don't spend everything right away, you will need more stuff throughout the year. Different schools have different ways of placing orders. I typically order from Blick, Amazon and Molly Hawkins (paper). I place a big order through the office, then when I need a few things here and there I order them myself and get reimbursed from the PTA. Some schools do not reimburse, so before you buy things with your own money check with your school secretary and always save your receipts.

This is the tape that leads the littles to the rug, it is also where all kids line up to leave.

How do kids enter the classroom? This is something I never had to think about when teaching high school, but it is a big one in elementary school. First of all, will you be picking up the kids, or will the teacher be bringing them to you? Hopefully the teacher will bring them to you. Put a piece of long colored tape outside of your classroom door along the wall and have the teachers line their students up there. They can come in after you come out of your door and greet them. Let them know right away if they should meet you on the rug or sit at the tables (follow the red line to the rug). Grades K- 3 can usually meet you at the rug and grades 4-6 will go right to their seats for instruction. I have this second long piece of red tape inside my class where I tell my students to line up on when I see their teacher coming back to pick them up.

I always meet my students outside of my door. For most of last school year we were required to wear masks inside, so it was especially important for me to greet my students outside with my mask off so that they could see my smile and hear my voice clearly. I greet them as they walk in, then I enter my classroom. With my younger classes, I am always sure to tell them whether they should head to the carpet or tables.

Rusty Brush.

The first day. With so many new classes the idea of the first day was stressful. I'll be honest, I didn't know what to expect of Elementary kids. I mean I have two young kids, so I generally know what K-3rd graders are like, but I wasn't sure how a class full of them would be and I had no idea how the older grades would act!

I started by sitting the younger kids down on the carpet and handing them Mr. Rusty Brush. They passed the brush around and told me their name and one thing about themselves. They loved this. The little ones could go on and on telling me about themselves, and they did. After a few weeks I became an expert at getting them to move on. Next I quickly went over the rules (painted on a canvas). I mean quick. I could have

Why not paint your rules on a canvas!

gone even quicker. These kids have heard all about rules in their classes, for many years, they know the general rules of a classroom. Elementary students (especially the lower grades) are generally very enthusiastic about helping their teachers and following rules, which is different from the high school kids I used to teach, this was a nice surprise for me!

I decided for the first day I would teach every class the same thing. You are juggling a lot of things on the first day, so if you are going to do a project keep it simple and keep it the same for all of your classes. I read my students a short book about Frida Kahlo (I ended up paraphrasing the book so they would have more time to draw). Then I briefly explained what a self-portrait was and showed Frida Kahlo's self portrait. Next I go over the seating chart. I let them choose their own seats my first year and began to regret it half way through the year. Make sure you have a seating chart done on your first day, this will help you with names. With the older kids (4th -6th) we started in seats and sent around Rusty Brush with the same get to know you question. I stand at the front of class when teaching them, just like high school. After each child completed a small self portrait on an index card I put all 600+ cards up on the classroom wall for all the kids to see. The second year I did this I glued each classes cards to a poster board and gave it to their teacher after displaying it.

First day project from last year. This year I glued each classes index cards to a large sheet of poster board paper, it worked better.

You are on your own! Before I started teaching I wasn't sure if the teachers would be staying in the classroom with their kids. The answer is no, these teachers are busy, and they use this as prep time. The exception is the Kinder teacher might stay on the first day to make sure her kiddos are comfortable with you. Get parent volunteers to help you with kinder, especially the first half of the year. Create a signup genius for this. Use parent volunteers with other grades as well on a project specific basis. For example if you are doing clay with 1st or 2nd graders, get parent helpers. Sometimes you might prefer being on your own, because having more adults in the classroom can be distracting. Having parent volunteers is totally a personal choice, do what works for you.

Speaking of Kinders. These kids are a breed all of their own. One thing I learned real quick was don't ask them too many questions (unless you have time to kill, then ask away), their answers are always waaaaay tooo long and drawn out. You will seriously loose 15 minutes of class letting these kiddos talk. Their answers are adorable though. If you can get a parent volunteer to help you in the kinder class it will make your life easier.

Seating charts, or no seating charts...I struggled with this one. I decided not to do seating charts at the beginning of last year, because I had 28 classes and honestly I just didn't want to spend an entire day making seating charts. I know some people have easier ways of making seating charts, but I do it the old fashioned way, with stickie notes on an actual diagram of my classroom. I regretted not doing it and ended up creating one half way through the year. The problem with no seating charts is as the kids start getting more chatty it makes it very hard to learn names and call kids out on their behavior if you don't have a seating chart. This year I made seating charts at the beginning of the school year. I highly suggest making seating charts.

Label your tables. I have a color hanging from the ceiling above each table. This way I can say "Green table, please clean up." It also helps kids remember where they sit.

What to teach. I could go on and on about this, there are California Art Standards that you should look at, but let me warn you they are a few hundred pages long. What you basically need to focus on are the Elements and Principles of Art and some Art History whenever you can! I show lots of examples of real artists work with each project we do. We all have our own teaching styles and focuses. I tend to focus heavily on process based art, especially with the little kids. This could mean a structured project, but also lots of painting, mixing colors and opportunity for free choice!

Most Elementary classroom teachers focus on crafts and draw-alongs. For me, Art class is different. There is definitely room for some crafts and draw-alongs, but I find that much of this limits creativity, and I'm all about creativity in the art room! I focus on process art with the younger kids and really start to bring in fine art in 4th grade and up.

I focus on teaching all my students to be brave artists. My goal is that no two works of art look the same. There is no right or wrong way in the art room, creativity is king! Always stay positive, give praise generously, but also be specific in your compliments. The goal is to create kids who love and appreciate art. This will only happen if you make the art room a fun place to be!

With the Kinders you have to teach them everything, from how to wash their brush to how to write their name small and at the bottom of the page. One of the greatest things about teaching elementary students is you will have the same kids, year after year. If you do a good job of teaching them the basics while also allowing them plenty of freedom to be creative, it will get easier and easier for you and them as the years go by!

Project planning. When I first started I thought I would have to teach a different project for every single class. YOU DO NOT need to do this, especially your first year! Make it easy for yourself and have Kinder and 1st do the same project, and 2nd and 3rd. Generally speaking 2nd and 3rd graders will like the same projects as Kindergarteners. 4th could go either way, sometimes I have them do stuff the 5th graders are doing, sometimes I have them do their own stuff, and sometimes they will do what the younger grades are doing. If it is your first year, you can teach anything without having to worry about if they already did the project last year! My greatest joy has been learning that my 5th and 6th Graders are capable of doing projects that my high schoolers used to do (drawing skills, color theory, etc.). They are VERY capable and willing to learn fine art skills, so we have been focusing heavily on this. They can also sit through powerpoints!

During your second year of teaching you can add in more projects. Also you can do the same project, just change it for each grade level. For example we do styrofoam printmaking with Kinder, 2nd, and 3rd, but I change it up. Kinder does a small one making patterns. 2nd grade does a city scene, and 3rd grade gets to choose what they want to draw.

Use books. Children's books can be a great intro to a project. Find a children's book you like and figure out a way to have kids make a similar project. See my first grade winter collage project as an example, based on the book "Snow." Or this first grade project based on the book "Color Blocked." Here is a video link explaining an Eric Carle Project for 3rd graders.

Other websites to find fun art projects: Deep Space Sparkle, Cassie Stephens. Or check out more of my blog!

I painted and laminated the stars, then glued them to a magnet. I take one down when the class gets too loud.

Classroom Management. Find out what other enrichment teachers do at your school. My school does a star system. Basically kids can earn 5 stars in their classes, so I made 5 big shiny gold stars, laminated them and hot-glued them to a magnet and put them at the top of the board. When they don't clean up like they are supposed to I announce that I am taking a star down and then, suddenly, all of kids want to clean up, it works like a charm! If they are too chatty, they lose a star. My students almost always end up with 5 stars, because I am a softie, but also because they can earn one back if they clean up/improve their behavior. This is such an easy way to keep them on track. They know that if their teacher comes to get them and sees they only got 3 stars she will be disappointed and possibly have a consequence. They love telling their teacher they got 5 stars at the end of class. For me the biggest challenge in the art room is noise. Kids love to talk, and the older they are, the louder the class. I'm still working on noise control.

Call and Response. This is something I wish I had known about in when I taught high school. Elementary school teachers have come up with some fun ways to get their students attention. You will find that all the teachers have their own sort of call and response. Pick one of them and use it for all of your classes. You do this when you need kids to get quiet and listen to you. You may do it 5 times in one class. Don't be afraid to use it. One that works well for me is, "Ba ba ba ba ba" and then they all say "Ba ba." It's really magical, totally weird and works every time! Another trick is turning off lights. This will get kids attention, especially the older ones. Fifth and sixth grade doesn't seem to use call and response like the younger grades do. Oh, and with the older kids, you may have teachers tell you to send them back to the classroom if they misbehave, do this and the rest will stop misbehaving.

Directions to the bathroom on the floor.

The bathroom. In high school I gave kids bathroom passes, because high school kids love to wander around and socialize, but in elementary school you don't need to do this. Generally kids will only ask to go to the bathroom when they need to...or if they are in Kindergarten they will ask to go when someone else does...seriously, if they hear one person say they need to go then 5 more kids will immediately need to go. This will die down as the year goes on. Remember for the Kindergarteners your classroom is brand new to them, and they are not used to being outside of their kinder bubble. This can be a bit scary for little kids, if they seem nervous ask a brave friend to go with them.

Finished early? Kids will often finish early. If you have the rug area it helps to have a box of books near there. The little ones like to sit and read, and this means less clean up. Another option is leaving out white copy paper and some simple drawing materials. I made the mistake of putting scissors, 3 staplers, and tape out the first year. They loved it, but it got a little too crazy, because then they needed help with the tape and staplers, etc., and you just don't have time to help a kid staple a book and then unjam a stapler when you are also trying to help 22 other kids with their art and clean up.

Clean up. When I taught high school art I had a huge art room with two sinks. My elementary classroom is much smaller, with only one sink. But it had a drinking fountain. I asked our maintenance guy if he could switch it out for another faucet and he did! Now one child can wash brushes while other kids wash their hands.

You have to make clean up super simple and quick in elementary art. I usually only give students about 5 minutes to clean up after painting projects. I used to use plastic pallets when I taught high school art, and my students used to wash their own pallets. In elementary you have so little time that I recommend using paper plates. I usually have one child volunteer to wash all of the brushes, but I'll be honest, I usually end up washing them a second time, because little kids just don't do a great job of quickly washing brushes. I also only use one large water cup per table. Less to clean up. We paint a lot in my class, because I love painting, but painting clean up makes for a lot more work for sure! It's worth it though, kids love to paint!

Portfolios. To have portfolios or not to have portfolios. I wish I had space to keep portfolios for all of my students, but I don't have enough space. So this really depends if you have the space for it or not. If you only teach K-3rd then I would go for it and use portfolios. But if you teach K-6 at a big school, it might get crazy keeping track of all the portfolios. I do have a tall cabinet with a space for each class. If we don't finish a project in one day I have a place to store all the projects until we come back to it. I keep some of the work all year in this cabinet for the art show. Some projects I give back to the teachers so that the cabinet doesn't get too crowded.

Voice Amplifier. The best possible investment I bought last year (during the time of covid and masks) was a personal voice amplifier. Having to wear a mask while talking all day long was absolutely exhausting, even without masks having this many classes a day means you are talking a lot, so I needed the voice amplifier. This helps so much with students following direction and in getting their attention, it was a total game changer for me. This year I don't use it as often, but I do often use it when I'm standing in the front and doing a demo on the board for the older kids. My noisiest classes are my 4th-6th graders. For me, they are also the hardest to quiet down and having the amplifier helps.

Rosters. Make a binder with all of your class rosters in it. Put your seating charts in here as well. When there is a fire drill you will need to take this with you. Having this binder helps me stay organized.

On the left my monthly planner, on the right my binder with seating charts and rosters.

Planning book. I never used one of these when I taught high school, it was a breeze compared to elementary. In high school art I had a maximum of 5 classes a week, 2 different "grade levels to prep for and 180 students. Now I have 28 classes, 8 different grade levels to prep for and nearly 600 students, so I have to be super organized. I mean SUPER organized. This means I like to plan out projects a month in advance or more. I write them down in my planner book so that I can quickly glance at what is coming up next and prep for it before I leave for the day. You have to be ready to go with elementary kids, the class periods typically only last 30-50 minutes, so you will have no time to waste.

That was a lot of information. I really hope this helps some new teachers who are just starting out in the world of Elementary Art teaching! Your first year will feel overwhelming. Know that it will be easier your second year. Some of you will have lots of prep time, some of you will have back to back classes. Some of you will have 10 classes a week, and some of you will have 30+ (yikes)! Ask for what you need. Maybe classes will need to be shortened so you have enough time to transition between them. Maybe you will need to ask teachers to drop off and pick up their kids. Maybe you won't do a school wide art show your first or second year, or ever. Art is the most prep intense class in all of the school. If you include clay, watch out, your prep time (prepping clay, schlepping projects to bisque and glaze firing). It is okay to cut out things that are too prep intensive, you shouldn't be the last teacher at school every day.

My favorite part of teaching elementary school is the fact that I get to see the same students every year, for 7 years! Watching all these kids grow up is so amazing. Feel free to ask me anything, and tell me how it is going for you in the comments below!

Here is my project wall, I switch it out by grade level every few weeks!

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