How to teach Elementary Art. Tips, tricks and everything you need to know to get started!
Updated: Jun 26
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. This 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 school year 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!
The first thing to consider is classroom set-up. You may be taking over a classroom that is already set up and stocked, or maybe you are starting from scratch. The younger grades, K-3 are comfortable starting out on a rug. You will typically have them sit on the rug, explain the project and then send them to the tables to work. Older grades, 4-6 always start at tables. 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 was 26 students. If you are teaching all the grades like me you may have small chairs and tables, your kindergarteners will fit great in them and your 6th graders will look huge. It's just the way it is, they don't seem to mind! Try to set up your tables so that as many chairs as possible face the front of the room.
I was given a room that had not been the previous art room, so I started with setting up my room. First I took down everything off the walls, I wanted a 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 back of the room, and spread the tables around the room. 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. I also ordered one new tall standing cabinet for storing student work, 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 in the end.
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 doing 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 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.
How do kids enter the classroom? This is something I never had to think about in high school, but it is a big one in elementary. 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 when 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. Grades K- 3 can meet you at the rug and the older kids will go right to their seats for instruction. I have a second long piece of tape in 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 this 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.
The first day. With so many new classes the idea of the first day was stressful. I'll be honest, I really didn't know what to expect of Elementary kids. I mean I have two young kids, so I generally know what K-2nd graders are like, but I wasn't sure how a class full of them would be! I decided for the first day I would teach every class the same thing. 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 gone even quicker. These kids have heard all about rules in their classes, for many years, they know the general rules of a classroom. And my students were VERY good. Elementary students 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! Next I read my students a short book by 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 asked students to find a seat at a table. I let them choose their own seats at the beginning of the year. If I had it to do over again I would have made seating charts on the first day. With the older kids (4th -6th) we started in seats. 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.
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.
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, 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.
Seating charts, or no seating charts...I struggled with this one. I decided not to do seating charts at the beginning of the 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. The problem with no seating charts is that about half way through the year kids start getting more chatty and it makes it very hard to learn names and call kids out on their behavior when you don't have a seating chart. Next year I will definitely do seating charts at the beginning of the school year. With kids wearing masks, having no seating charts and having over 600 kids it was pretty much impossible to learn names this year. Next year will be better. If you have the time, I highly suggest make 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."
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! 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 and 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! 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. 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! 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!
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 and gets 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.
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! Oh, and with the older kids, you will have teachers tell you to send them back to the classroom if they misbehave, do this and the rest will stop misbehaving.
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 down 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, but sometimes this makes for more clean up. I made the mistake of putting scissors, 3 staplers, and tape over there. They loved it, but it got a little too crazy, because they then needed help with the tape and staplers, etc., and you just don't have time to help a kid staple a book when you are also trying to help 22 other kids with their art and clean up.
Portfolios. To have portfolios or not to have portfolios. I wish I had space to keep portfolios for all of my students, but I have too many, and not 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, 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 made this year 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.
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. I teach two days a week, so I see my classes every other week. Having this binder helps me stay organized.
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 and I had 2 preps. Now I have 28 classes and 8 preps, so I have to be super organized. I mean SUPER organized. This means I like to plan out projects a month in advance. 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 35-50 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! Tell me how it is going for you in the comments below!