The teacher sets out different colors of paint in several low dishes, then puts out a dish of rolling tools: a plastic pizza cutter, a small wheel off a plastic car, a small plastic paint roller, a large marble. Today the children can experiment with moving paint onto paper with these other tools rather than the usual brushes. The plates of paint and tools to choose from are set on a tray between two large trays covered by sheets of paper; the paint aprons are hung over the back of the little chairs, and each chair is placed in front of a tray of paper. The set up is clear and self-explanatory to the children who self-select this activity: put on an apron, sit in the chair, and use the paper on the tray in front of you.


As the three year olds come up from the yard and into the classroom to begin their day, they look around and choose what appeals to them. Three children hurry to the doll house; a boy goes to the book area and sits down where he can watch the other children over the top of his book as they start to play. A group gets busy in the block area setting up train tracks, two climb into the loft with the dolls and doctor kits, and one child approaches the art table. At first the noise level in the classroom is high; then, as the children settle into their play and connect with their friends, the class hums with the sounds of happy, busy children. Standing near the art table, the teacher offers to write Jacob’s name on his paper while he puts his apron on. Jacob begins to roll the tools in the paint and run them with long strokes across the large sheets of paper on the table. After awhile he begins to talk to no one in particular, just a stream of consciousness as he absorbs the feeling of the slippery paint, and the changes in the colors as the wet paint mixes, and the pleasure of moving his arm in big sweeping motions across the paper. At age three, his experimentation has him fully engaged in the paint and the rolling. Painting alone, he can put his full attention into his work without needing to choose between being social or painting; doing both things at once is still difficult.  Standing nearby, the teacher writes down his words:

“The street is dead.

The trucks are in bed.

Yellow crashed into a yellow car.

Green turned into crashing.

The orange turned into purple.

Yellow turned into poopoo.

Red turned into green.”


What an opportunity to see into the child’s mind as he plays, watching the child’s thinking as it moves randomly along with the physical and visual experience of rolling the paint. This reminds us that a question like “What are you making?” doesn’t make any sense to the child, whose real interest is in seeing how the paint moves on the paper. It is irrelevant to him to think about how the marks on the paper will look when he is done; for him, the activity is all about enjoying the experience of rolling paint on the paper. Our adult minds have been trained to see, and analyze, and anticipate outcomes, which can get in the way of the pure enjoyment of an exploration process. Soon enough the children will want to produce a specific something; for now, good preschool experiences like this let them float in the sea of hands-on sensation.