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Preschool Education Articles


Art and craft activities are two of the most common activities found in educational and child care settings.

Activities like painting, drawing, or working with clay introduce children to basic art concepts. They also promote exploration, creativity, and expression of emotion. Because art activities do not require the creation of a specific product, they can be used with children of all ages. In contrast, craft activities, like making bird houses, flower baskets or embroidery from kits, usually require that the child make something according to a model.

Crafts can help children to develop specific abilities, such as being able to hammer a nail correctly, or sewing with proper tension. They also help children to evaluate their project against a standard. Because children do not develop the mental or physical abilities needed to achieve these goals until the later elementary years, craft activities are usually most successful with older children.

While art and craft activities may differ in some ways, they do have one thing in common - both may use materials that could pose a serious health threat to children and adults. Some types of paint, glue, model materials, and solvents may contain substances that have been shown to produce cancer, organ and tissue damage, mental retardation, and other serious health problems. Anyone who offers art activities to young children needs to be aware of these potential hazards.

Many art materials have been designed and tested for adults. Unfortunately, children's bodies may be more sensitive to these substances, and they might use these materials in ways that adults don't (e.g., putting things in their mouths).

Children tend to be active and curious. They have less well-developed fine motor skills and often do not understand the potential danger presented by an activity. As a result, children may spill supplies, or get them on themselves or others. This can increase the risk of harmful exposure. Children may also put their fingers in their mouths, or suck their thumbs after having their hands in the materials. While this is more common in children under five, nail-biting continues well into the school years.

Children's bodies are not as strong or as fully developed as adult bodies. Therefore, they are more sensitive to poisonous substances, like lead, especially if eaten. Children also tend to breathe faster than adults and often breathe through their mouths instead of their noses. As a result, they might breathe in more of a poisonous substance than an adult would. Their air passages also tend to be narrower than adults' which make them more sensitive to irritation by chemicals.

Because children may be especially sensitive to the effects of art and craft materials, providers should carefully examine the materials provided. Listed below are ways to reduce the risks to children.
  • Use only art products designed specifically for children.
  • Avoid art materials with artificial fruit or food scents that may tempt children to eat them (or other materials nearby!).
  • Always provide close supervision, no matter what the child's age.
  • Provide clear instructions on the proper use and clean-up of art materials before children begin the project.
  • Pre-mix powdered paints, glues or model materials. Wipe or wet-mop the floor rather than sweeping. This reduces the chance of children breathing in dangerous chemicals.
  • Separate eating areas from work areas. Store materials in original containers, not food or drink containers.
  • Limit the amount of materials given to any one child, so that they cannot eat quantities large enough to harm them. This is especially important for children under six years old.
  • Strictly enforce hand-washing after activities. Substitute other projects for finger painting projects when children have open cuts or sores.

Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care - NNCC. Todd, C.M. (1993). Art materials: Use with caution. In Todd, C.M. (Ed.), *Day care center connections*, 2(4), pp. 3-4. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.


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