CREATIVE MESSES Beyond finger painting

The babies wearing white T-shirts and diapers -- no pants or shoes -- were a tip-off this wasn't going to be a prim art session with watercolors and pencils. Indeed, just minutes into the class for 12- to 24-month-olds at Art Experiences in Redmond, Wash., the 15 toddlers had used their bodies as canvases for tempura paint as much as they had the paper provided.
"After the first class, you know what to expect," said Dana Adams of Kirkland, Wash., whose son, Trent, 19 months, had one leg painted in red and one in white, as well as (washable) red paint on his shirt, his toes and in his hair. "You know to have them come in a diaper and shirt that can be destroyed."
This is art as sensory experience: Gushing between fingers and tickling with brushes. It is, experts say, exactly what art for young children is supposed to be.
"Art is about the process of using materials on their own," said Hether Reed, Frye Art Museum educator for school and family programs. "Kids won't experience that if parents are superseding their ideas and correcting them. They need to be left alone to do that."
Getting started
Art Experiences and new programs at museums offer parents of young children several options for immersing kids, both literally and figuratively, in art. Art museums that started targeting elementary-school children years back are now lowering their sights to the preschool set.
For very young children, art goes back to the basics: red vs. green, rather than Picasso vs. Monet. At Art Experiences, owners Meagan and Adam Buckmaster set out materials such as paint, play dough, sticky paper and tinsel on tables and on the floor for kids and parents to explore at their leisure. Kids can also play in plastic swimming pools filled with such things as cotton balls, cornmeal, flour and oatmeal.
"Babies naturally love to get messy," said Kathleen Miller of Sammamish, who brings her 15-month-old son, Mychal, to Art Experiences. "He gets to do all the things he needs to do developmentally -- but it's not getting all over my floor."
Stephanie Szot of Redmond gives 17-month-old daughter Audrey pens and other art supplies at home but "I have to be more controlled with it," she said. "I can't put paint on the floor and let her roll in it."
And no surprise: At the end of the hourlong session, the Art Experiences floor is covered with all colors of paint, pieces of paper, tinsel,, cornmeal, oatmeal and sticky cotton balls.
"Young children are so creative," said Meagan Buckmaster, who lives in Sammamish, Wash. "It's great when parents can say 'Go for it' rather than saying 'Stop, stop' all the time. Here they can make a complete mess and then just walk away."
Parental adjustment
Even so, it sometimes takes parents awhile to get comfortable with the unadulterated joy of creation. "I'm kind of a neatnik, anal person," admitted Laurie Mott, who enrolled 14-month-old Kennedy after seeing how much her older daughters, Hallie, 2, and Madeline, 4, enjoyed their classes. "It was hard to let her get like this, but I succumbed."
The Buckmasters opened their new business in a former bakery last summer. Meagan is a former preschool teacher with an early-childhood education degree; Adam has an art degree and used to work at Microsoft. They had an art room in their house where their three children, ages 7, 4 and 3, could create and Meagan could just shut the door on the mess. "All our art stuff is here now," she said.
She can't stand craft classes where the parents basically do the project. "I wanted everything to be age-appropriate so the child can do it," she said.
Museum for kids
At The Children's Museum in Seattle, children have long been able to explore artistic media in the museum's workshop, Imagination Station. But it's now also partnering with the Seattle and Bellevue art museums to offer child-friendly, hands-on exhibits that tie in to more formal exhibits at the art museums.
For example, The Children's Museum's current "In Studio with Jacob Lawrence" coincides with Seattle Art Museum's "Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence." Its "Festival de los Artistas" tied in to SAM's Frida Kahlo exhibit this fall, while Children's Museum's Eastside arts facility is offering activities related to Bellevue Art Museum exhibits.
"We are establishing ourselves as an 'audience developer' for the arts," said Carol Stripling, The Children Museum's marketing director. "We are able to connect children otherwise too young to appreciate greater art with an understanding of their work."
At "In Studio," kids can paint and use tools, all the while surrounded by reproductions of Lawrence's art. "We get rid of all the formality," said education coordinator Brynn Hale. "The art is there on the walls, but this is an overall experience. It's not just looking at pictures and reading text blocks that they don't really understand."
Even the art museums themselves now encourage preschoolers. The Frye Art Museum, which offers a popular open family studio on selected weekends, recently added a weekly "Stories and Art" program for kids age 3 to 8 with an adult.
During the programs, Reed will read books and explore basic art themes. For example, "Mouse Paint" by Ellen Stoll Walsh, a book about mice that mix colors, will lead to finger and sponge painting. In "The Squiggle" by Carole Lexa Schaefer, a girl finds a red string and uses her imagination to transform it into a dragon's tail and a tightrope. Related activities will include making lines and playing with streamers.
While kids probably won't become professional artists, early exposure can encourage imagination and improve a child's ability to express himself. Years later, maybe they won't be afraid of art as adults. "A lot of parents are more inhibited than the child is," Hale said.