Sometimes when I tell a parent we’re going to paint in therapy today, I’m met with stares of disbelief or even groans. Yes, painting is messy and can be a pain (especially when a child isn’t developmentally ready, as in he wants to eat the brush!), but for many toddlers, it’s new and fun and will hold their attention since they’ve never done it before.

Getting Started:

Gather paper, washable paint, and a paper plate for holding the paint. Try paint brushes if a child is tactile sensitive, which means he doesn’t want to touch the paint!

Assemble some easy-to-find materials to paint seasonal shapes. For example –

Make snow and snowballs – Use cotton balls or q-tips (a big hit!) for painting snow on dark paper.

Make a heart for Valentine’s Day – Collect empty toilet paper or paper towel rolls. To make a heart, push the center of one side of an empty toilet paper roll into the shape of a heart and tape it to make it more secure for little hands to hold while painting.

I also keep cleaning supplies handy. (Baby wipes are my fave so I can also wash little hands and other body parts, but a paper towel or rag is fine too!)

Tips for Playing and Including Language:

Tape sheets of paper to the table to keep them stable.

Even though you’re using washable paint (you better!), it may still be necessary to make sure a child is wearing play clothes and not his best outfit. Some toddlers will tolerate wearing an over-sized shirt or painting smock, but most of the time, this is a distraction and may ruin the activity before you begin!

BEWARE… if you spend more time policing the activity, as in constantly redirecting the child so he won’t get paint everywhere, then it’s not a good therapy activity. Either lower your own expectations, prep better, or wait until a child is a little more mature and follows directions without you losing your mind!

As the child (and you!) are painting, remember to emphasize keys words. Your language is what will make this and any activity therapeutic or educational. Key Words I use: paint, heart, snow, push, wet, dry, blow, hand, finger, push, dot (an easy word many toddlers will try to say if you’re silly when you model painting with a q-tip.)

To help a child receptively identify objects he’s painted, ask, “Where’s your heart?” Model pointing to the picture as a response the child should imitate.

Include exclamatory words such as “Wow!” as you admire your finished product or “Uh oh!” as either of you make mistakes while you paint. Model a silly play word like “Boop!” as you push the heart or cotton ball on the paper to paint. Don’t get locked into always naming or labeling while you talk to a child. Try action words which are more functional like “Push!” or a word like, “See?” when you’re admiring your artwork! Vary your patterns.

Establish some verbal routines for painting by saying repetitive words as you paint. As noted above, I say “Dot! Dot! Dot!” as I’m painting snowflakes with a q-tip.  Select your target words based on the child’s developmental level. “Heart” may not be a great choice for a child who is minimally verbal.

To target joint attention, show a child your painting and then encourage him to hold up his own paper to show you. Words like “See?” and “Look?” are super expressive targets for this goal too! I also add, “Let’s show Mom!” providing physical assistance as necessary to teach a child to hold up his paper or point to his masterpiece.

If you’re teaching signs, be sure to model the word and sign as you’re playing. Move the paint out of the child’s reach to prompt him to initiate and ask for the paint. Don’t negate the value of using signs like “more” or “please” to make requests since these are words and signs parents will practice and practice during daily routines!

Toddlers love to blow the wet paint to help it dry. Remember that blowing does not help a child learn to speak clearly, but learning to imitate mouth movements is an important step for some late talkers. Kids with reduced core strength due to low muscle tone may also benefit from this extra practice to increase respiratory support for speech.



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