Play-Based Art Activities for under 5's

We love play-based art activities, especially for under 5’s. We define play-based art as simply art that has no real “goal” or finished product – the aim is just to experiment & have fun! We usually start our art sessions with a story or two, and then get making. Each of these art activities generally last about an hour, or longer if kids are happy playing!

Volcano art

Volcano art is always a favourite! It’s fairly messy (we promise it’s worth it), so we always use a dropsheet, or set this activity up out in the garden. All the materials are water soluble, so it’s easy cleaning.

To start this activity, I usually bring out all of the materials. At Paper Bird, we set up our art activities on an IKEA tabletop, placed on the ground (no legs) – this way, we’re not worried about sitting on chairs and everyone can access the materials easily.

For a group of around 10 kids, we’d use:

  • A 1.5L bottle of vinegar
  • Food dye (try and find natural food dye, if you can, as it is less likely to stain skin)
  • 1 x 500g boxes of bicarb soda
  • Thick watercolour-type paper – I like to buy small card sheets. 
  • Assorted jars & jugs
  • Water droppers, cups, and spoons

I’ll usually help kids decant the vinegar into smaller jars to start with, but then it’s all theirs! If there’s hesitance, I might try asking some questions – should we drop some food colouring into this vinegar? What do you think will happen if we put some bicarb and vinegar together?

The aim of the game is simply to let the kids discover. We usually end up tasting everything, touching everything, and mixing everything! Some kids might dip their paper into their concoctions, some might sprinkle bicarb onto their paper & drip some vinegar to make cool patterns. We usually end up with someone dumping a whole heap of bicarb into a vinegar jar & making a great big volcano!

Balloon stamping

Balloon stamping is a fun variation on painting & gets lots of laughter and games. It’s another slightly messy activity, but absolutely worth it! 

We start with the following materials:

  • Balloons (eco-balloons, if you can find them, are great)
  • Big sheets of paper
  • Paint (we use Chromacryl Kids, which is easy to clean)
  • Some bowls or plates to pour paint into

Kids usually know what to do with balloons, so we start with trying to blow them up! This gets fun, as we might try letting them go too – making a game of balloon chasey. Once we have a few blown up, it’s all open-ended from there, and fairly simple. You can play games with the balloons to start, or get into painting – what would happen if you dipped your balloon in the paint? Can you mix colours? Should we put some paint on our paper? Can you paint on the balloon?

Some kids love getting their hands mixed in the paint, and some don’t! Either way, balloon art lets everyone play, and the aim is just to keep experimenting.

Play-dough art

Play-dough art is great, as it has so many variations you can take. It all starts with play-dough – so you could even make some together! Here’s some excellent dough recipes, including my favourite play-dough recipe that uses warm water, (safe for little hands who like to cook with you) and edible dough too. The aim of the game is to experiment - in this case with building, creating different textures, mixing, squeezing, chopping & lots more.

With dough art, I usually try and use all compostable materials, so at the end everything can be popped into the compost bin! Here are some of my favourites:

  • Salt
  • Flour
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Fresh veggies (like broccoli, tomatoes, sprouts, herbs)
  • Seeds
  • Sticks
  • Mulch
  • Flowers
  • Sand

You don’t have to buy things for this activity – you can use leftover bits in the pantry or fridge or go hunting in your garden. Collecting is half the fun!

After you’ve got everything collected, it’s up to you where you go! I always like to ask lots of questions – should we feel all of the materials? What’s crunchy? What’s soft? What smells good? Do you think we could mix this into the play-dough?

Some kids just love to mix and concoct potions. Others might make something more sculptural – either way, this activity often keeps kids occupied for ages.

P.S. Worried about snacking? You can make eat-safe dough here & use all food-safe materials!

Note on pictures:

We don't always take photos of what we're making (we're usually too busy playing), so the photos here are variations on these activities. They're meant to inspire, not to instruct, so take what you will and make your own ideas!

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