Kids Outside Art Activities
Who This article Is For:
This article contains suggestions for outside art activities for parents and children to do together. Several of the activities could also easily be adapted for use in schools.
From an early age you can introduce children to art activities outside. In fact, taking ordinary art materials outdoors is a great way to reduce mess in the house! When my kids were little we often moved the paints and paper out onto the patio and then splashes didn’t matter. If the weather is calm, you can just lay the paper on the ground and paint. If it’s windy, you will need to use something to keep paper in place: either fasten paper to a board with bulldog clips, or keep paper on the ground with stones.
Small children will also enjoy joining in on tasks such as gathering leaves for pressing or arranging objects into art.
Around the age of 3 or 4 they can draw with chalks or do some simple rubbings, and by school age they can do most of the activities suggested here.
This article is divided into 2 sections: the first has ideas for how to use traditional art techniques to record what is seen around us when outdoors. The second section involves more interaction with what we see.
A professional Impressionist painting
Paint like the Impressionists
The picture at the top of this article is one my daughter painted after we looked at some Impressionist paintings. The Impressionists were a group of painters who lived in France in the 19th century and whose work revolutionized art. They liked to paint outside, known in France as “en plein air.” The Impressionists were interested in capturing the effects of light. Because light changes rapidly, they painted quickly, and in their paintings brushstrokes are easily visible.
Impressionism is a perfect way to introduce painting landscapes to children of around 8 – 10. By that age children are able to comprehend instructions more easily; on the other hand they are also becoming aware that they can’t always get pictures to come out the way they’d like, and can lose confidence. Instead of trying to a paint a perfect picture and worrying that they don’t have the drawing skills, they can enjoy learning about painting techniques, color and how light or distance affects it. In my daughter’s painting she has created depth by making the background more subdued.
Older children and teenagers can also enjoy this activity: I loved setting up my board and painting like the Impressionists when I was learning about them in High School. This was when I first tried oil paints: not recommended for younger children!
Painting boards available on Amazon
Choosing the right brushes
Before you go outside:
Take a look at some Impressionist landscapes together. If you don’t have any in your house, don’t worry – there are many on the internet. Wikipedia Commons is a good place to look. The painting by Claude Monet shown above is one of many that you can see there.
Equipment you will need:
Art boards. For best results, I recommend using artboard rather than paper. Paper wrinkles when it gets wet; art board does not. Another advantage is that an art board is far easier to handle outside than a sheet of paper!
You can buy packs of art boards cheaply in Lidl or Aldi stores, or Amazon has packs of 12 that are very good value. Another alternative is to use cardboard that you have saved from shoe boxes or other packaging. This will not be as good as art boards, but will be much better than paper. As long as you or your children mix the paint thickly, the grey cardboard will not show through.
Paint. You don’t need any special paints – ordinary kids’ ready-mixed poster paints will do fine. If you want to be authentically “Impressionist” then limit your use of black paint! Although some Impressionists did use it, they generally used small quantities.
Brushes. It’s fine to use brushes aimed at children, but do make sure the bristles are firm rather than floppy. Flat brushes are particularly good because you will be working quickly rather than trying to paint detail. The brushes to avoid are those often found in kids’ painting sets but that are so floppy they make it hard for children (or anyone) to control the brush. Usually they have plastic handle and a few nylon bristles that splay out into a cone shape. See the photo opposite for what to use and avoid.
Water. It's best to take water out in a plastic container to avoid breakages.
Optional: an easel. If you have an easel for your kids to use, it can make painting outdoors more fun, but it’s not essential. Without an easel, everyone just sits on a bench or rock with the board on their lap.
How to paint like the Impressionists
Instead of very carefully blending paint, the Impressionists used short brushstrokes of different colors so that most of the blending is done by our eyes when we view their paintings. (The Pointillists developed this even further by placing dots of color next to each other.)
Choose where you will paint, and then draw a rough outline, either in paint or with a pencil. Then, using a fairly stiff brush, paint in short strokes.
Playing Around with Color
Sketching for Kids
As well as painting like the Impressionists, kids will also enjoy sketching like artists. All they need for this are a few pencils and a sketchpad. The sketches can be detailed or just a quick outline. As with the painting exercise, it’s a good idea to show children examples of artists' sketches so that they realize everything doesn’t have to be finished off. Often a drawing where one part is done in detail and the rest left sketchy can be beautiful.
Opposite is an examples of a partially completed sketch. The cat moved before I could finish the drawing! If children realise this happens and that it doesn't matter, they can relax and enjoy drawing any subject.
Although you may be taking photographs of artwork that you leave behind, photography can be an art in its own right. Children (and adults) can learn about composition by noticing what works well in a photograph and what does not. Older children can also have fun and learn about color by playing around with different settings. For example our camera has a setting that picks out one color and leaves the rest of the photograph black and white. Opposite are some examples of photos my children took by playing around with this option.
Collecting objects to make into art
There are many different ways you can approach this.
- You can create art right where you are, and leave it for other people to enjoy and for the elements to absorb or change.
- You can collect objects and take them home for use later on.
- You can take rubbings of objects you find.
1.) Create Art to leave behind.
Art doesn't need to be permanent, and nor do you need to take it home with you. We are all familiar with sandcastles, but how many of think about them as art? They are of course, and some people even take part in sand sculpture contests. The joy is often in the creating, particularly for children. If you have a camera you can take a photograph as a reminder; we did this with the sculpture above, which one of my daughters made with seaweed and stones.
Installation by a professional artists.
Some professional artists make non-permanent art installations in other places besides the beach. There are artists who carefully arrange rocks on mountain tops or in remote empty spaces. Some choose to create in more public spaces. The photograph on the right is of a project at Los Angeles Arboretum. The sculpture is made of willow and although it will probably last longer than yours may do, it will eventually be returned to the earth by the elements.
When it comes to creating art with objects found in nature, there are no rules for what you can make, but do be sure not to destroy nature in the process. It is also a good idea to be sure that nobody will object to you making art in any particular space. My daughter created the sculpture in the photo at the top of this section by the edge of a quiet beach. A woman came marching down a nearby garden path, and ordered her to remove it. It turned out that the land belonged to this woman.
2.) Collect Objects to take home.
You can use objects you have found to make into collages. Suitable objects might be shells (or pieces of shell), dry twigs or dried up leaves or seeds.
Another way to use them is to collect leaves or garden flowers to press and then later on add them into pictures. It's fun to make cards for birthdays or Christmas this way. In some countries it is an offence to collect wild flowers. If it is allowed in your country make sure you don't pick flowers that are rare. Stick to varieties that are abundant.
Opposite is an example of a card made with pressed flowers, created by a professional designer Marianne Ryder.
Rubbings of leaves and woodgrain make a tree
You have probably heard of brass rubbings, and they can be fun. But young kids also enjoy taking rubbings of buildings or objects found in nature. Anything with a definite texture will do! Here are a few suggestions of where to take rubbings. The picture opposite contains rubbings of leaves and a wooden fence. The picture below right shows these cut into shapes and made into a picture.
- Wooden benches or fences
- Rough surfaces such as a concrete patio or brick wall – collect a variety of rubbings from different surfaces.
Equipment you will need to take Rubbings
- Paper: Choose a paper that is fairly thin, no more than 90 grams per square meter (90 gsm). If the paper is too thick the rubbings won’t be so detailed.
- Wax crayons: The thick stubby kind or block crayons are best for small fingers. They break less easily. Beeswax crayons are a good alternative to paraffin wax crayons, especially for smaller children who sometimes try to eat crayons. Most crayons are not recommended for children under 3, due to their small size.
- Paper or card to make a finished picture: This is optional; some children might prefer just to do the rubbings.
How to take rubbings:
Please note, small children up to around age 6 may need help holding the paper or objects in place. Lay leaves or other small objects on a flat surface before taking a rubbing.
- First make sure your chosen object is dry. Lay the paper over it. If you or your child is taking a rubbing from something large, such as a fence, decide how much of the paper you want to fill with that one texture.
- Lay the long side of the crayon flat on the paper and move it over the object. When taking rubbings of small objects such as a leaf, color over a large enough area for the edges of the object to show. (Take a look at the top leaf on the sheet of rubbings above right: you can clearly see the edges. That’s perfect!)
When your kids have taken one rubbing, encourage them to see how many objects with different textures they can find. Use a variety of colors too.
When you have filled a sheet with textures, it can be fun to go indoors to cut out shapes and make a picture. The tree opposite has was made with rubbings of leaves and wood-grain . Rubbings from a patio or bricks could be used to make a house.
Or your kids might prefer a brick textured tree!
Washable sidewalk chalk for drawing outside
Art on your doorstep.
And finally, an activity that doesn't quite fit into either of the two main categories, but that appeals to children for many years: drawing with chalk on the sidewalk or on a patio. There are many chalks available that can easily be washed off. Your little ones may not want to wash them off straight away, and our children's chalk drawings often stayed until the rain did the job for us.