Friday, February 14, 2014

Coloring with Cornstarch, Crayons Can Wait

A few days back, I was asked by an aunt whose endearing daughter just turned 1 y.o. if there were crayons that would already suit her little Lucy and if these were available in our local National Bookstore. I told her that before rushing to the bookstore (which was a little too late that time because, turned out, she was already there), since little Lucy just turned one, she can try coloring with something already available in every other home's kitchen cupboard: Cornstarch! And water and food coloring.

Easy for us to prepare and safe for the children to do independently, 
this is one of my favorite beginning art materials.
Just a note about our mixture: I usually mix water and coloring first and then
add cornstarch to get the consistency. Make sure that the consistency is not too
watery, but also not too thick that it makes lumps on the paper because the lumps
will fall off when the cornstarch mixture dries. Enjoy experimenting.
Always have a newsprint (or in my case, re-purposed brown paper grocery bag).
Not only does it help keep your child's work area as neat as it can possibly be,
it also helps train your child identify his/her work area and consequently, 
encourage focus on that area only. Remember that focus is an important thrust
of Montessori and many of its activities aim to, increasingly, develop attention and concentration.

The children dip their finger/s into the cornstarch-water-and-food-coloring mixture and "draw" 
or make any free strokes on blank paper. They appreciate how they can easily see the color/s on their paper, unlike the light lines that they tend to end up making with crayons because they have yet to develop stronger fine motor skills.

Also, when you immediately give a young child crayons or markers before he/she is ready for them, he/she will most likely use the fisted grip. While this grasp is natural, letting the child get accustomed to holding writing and coloring materials this way can pose challenges in transitioning the child to the correct and comfortable tripod grip. As a preschool teacher, I have been increasingly seeing more children, who come to us at an older age, need more time to adapt to the tripod grip because they have been so used to the fisted and palmar grasps too long and/or the tripod grip had been insisted on them too early that the focus was on the correct grip instead of the development of motor skills, both gross and fine.

I also like using this coloring with cornstarch activity or finger painting in training children to color within a space. Instead of starting the child off with crayons to color pictures or shapes, use fingers (dipped in our cornstarch mixture or non-toxic paint) on blank paper so the child is free to make any strokes he/she likes. Note that even when you transition to using crayons, start on blank paper as well so that the child is free to practice his/her strokes with the crayons before having to control his/her strokes within a picture or shape. Even writing starts with blank, unlined paper.

Later on, a level of difficulty may be added by drawing a simple shape on the paper. Use crayons when you draw the shape because crayons repel the water in our cornstarch mixture so the child can still see the line of the shape that should have been followed even if he/she colored outside the shape. This helps train the child earlier on that sometimes, we would need to color within a limited space.

Isolate level of difficulty by letting children color within a limited space using their
finger/s first. This way, they only concentrate on one thing i.e., coloring within a
limited space; and not on two things i.e., coloring within a limited space and
controlling the crayon. Later on, another level of difficulty may be added by combining
two shapes together (e.g. a triangle and a square to make a house) and coloring each
shape with a different color.

So while a nice, crisp box of crayons is an exciting and enticing purchase (and I really love the smell of new Crayola), invest first on developing your child's fine motor skills. And if you can bear a little stain on your and your child's fingers (because I have yet to find a food coloring that washes away from the fingers quickly; incidentally, if you know a brand, let me know please), coloring with cornstarch is a nice art activity that has many profound benefits as it also suits your child's sensitivity to tactile tasks. Remember to respect the pace of the child. Observe. If the child can do something successfully, then that something is precisely what he/she is ready for.

Here are some links to other great fine motor skills activities:

You can try The Imagination Tree's Homemade Edible Finger Paint Recipe for a thicker consistency (Anne of Itty Bitty Love said that "the magic happens when you cook it").

You can also read about Anne and her daughter Elise's experience with coloring with cornstarch in her post Finger Painting with a Toddler: A Simple First Art Activity.


  1. Yes! I am so glad to read this - my daughter is 19 months old, and I feel like I've been under pressure from friends and family lately to have her coloring with crayons and markers. I've resisted because I don't feel like she's ready for these tools - for many reasons... fine motor control, organization, etc. Cornstarch finger paint here we come! :)

  2. Hello, Anne!

    I'm so happy to hear that this post backed up what you already knew and felt is best for your daughter. :)

    I'm going to be a mother soon, in a few months; and I can already foresee relatives and friends, while they always mean well, will react differently to some of the things I'd like to do and try with my child.

    Will write about those, too.

    Thank you, Anne. :)

    Mars M.

  3. I did this with my kids!! My little girl, about 18 months enjoyed it, big time. However, my boy just enjoyed mixing the colors. After a few painting sesh, he's done. Haha. I still had fun though and was able to use the paint for a week!

  4. Hello again, Camille! I did this with my 16-month-old cousin and she loved it, too. My 12-year-old sister also did. :-) My baby cousin really loved dipping her hands in the mixture. It was a lot of messy fun.

    Thanks for letting me know that the mixture can stand a week. :-)

  5. I will let my son do this (when he is a little older)... I may not like the mess right now... fantastic Idea.. thanks for this

    1. Enjoy then with your now "officially a school boy" (sniff, sniff)! :)

  6. Sounds fun!(: another activity for me and my kiddo! But what is the proportion in making the "paint/cornstarch"?

    1. Hi, Kaity! I usually do 1 cup water and half cup cornstarch first and then just add more cornstarch as I go until the consistency "feels" right so it's really more of gut feel for me. :) I sort of like that it's watery because it gives a nice light, airy feel and finish on paper. But if you want to try a thicker consistency which is easier to manage, you can try The Imagination Tree's recipe which I linked up to on the post. :) Have fun!

  7. Since the first time we did this, Little V has always been asking me to "prepare" his paint for him. He even reminded me to buy cornstarch at the grocery! Ha ha! He really enjoys the activity. He's a bit messy though, which gave me the idea to make an apron for him from an old sando I had. And thankfully, all those brown bags I stashed previously are being useful. Thanks for sharing this :)

    1. Hi, Kat! Did he say "prepare"? :) And it's so endearing he even reminded you to buy cornstarch haha! I love how you repurposed an old sando to work as an apron--sometimes we just need to find something that would address an issue we have. Thanks for sharing, Kat! :)