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ART SUPPLIES FOR little kids 3-6 yrs that encourage Open-ended creative play

It’s not easy being told what to do all day. You may feel this way at work sometimes, but children feel it all day, every day. So it can be a really healthy thing for them to spend some time creating something exactly the way they want it. I’ve seen a lot of kids find their voice through art, when they weren’t comfortable expressing themselves in words.

In this article I will go over some basic art supplies for young children ages 3 and up. All non-toxic, and easy to clean-up. Grown-up artists use art supplies that can be extremely dangerous if not handled correctly, so be sure to read all labels before letting your kids use anything.

As your child grows older, and they start taking their artwork a little more seriously, you can advance them to higher-quality art supplies. But while they are still small, it’s better to keep things relatively inexpensive since they will blow through it quickly.


I’ll start with painting because it is one of the more stressful art projects you can take-on by yourself. But if you follow a few tips, you can pull it off without too much trouble. It’s all in the prep, which needs to happen before the kids are allowed into the room or area in which you’ll be painting.

Start with a large tarp or dropcloth to cover the floor. I bought a nice canvas dropcloth from a painting store years ago, and have used it many times since then. You’ll also need a low table or easel on which to tape the paper ‘canvas.’ In a pinch, I’ve used an extra-large piece of flat cardboard leaned up against a wall at an angle. There are smocks and aprons available for kids, but it’s just as easy to use an old shirt from a grown-up. If any part of your child’s body or clothing is exposed, it will likely get paint on it. In the summer, I strip my kids down to their undies and let them paint outside on the deck.

For paint, you’ll want to use tempera paint. Tempera paints contain organic compounds (traditionally eggs) that make them safe for kids to use, even if swallowed, but this also means they eventually will spoil if left out. Be sure to always close the lid tightly and store them in their original containers. Pour some of each paint color into a plastic cup – you can buy a nice set of purpose-made containers, or use glass jars or sturdy plastic cups that you already have. It’s also nice to have separate brushes for each color, otherwise you’ll need a large jar of water nearby to clean-off the brushes when switching colors. You can also let your child experiment with mixing colors on a palette before applying.

For their ‘canvas,’ use a thick stock of paper. The really thin stuff might be labeled ‘for painting’ but it will rip and wrinkle too quickly. Standard copy or brown kraft paper doesn’t handle the wetness of tempera paint very well, either. I can recommend something like this for painting.


Colored markers are, by far, the favorite drawing tool of choice by most young children 3. They give you a nice, thick, bright line of color without much effort. However, they are also the messiest, and dry-out if you don’t put the cap back on. I’ve spent too many futile hours of my life trying to get my kids to put the caps back on after use. For small children 3+, I would recommend getting the Pip-Squeaks Marker Telescoping Tower set from Crayola. The smaller size is good for small hands, and it only takes one ruined shirt to appreciate how important the ‘washable’ part is. Any quality white or kraft paper or cardboard will be a good surface for marker magic.

Cool Dad Tip: before throwing out large cardboard shipping boxes, let your kids go to town on them with markers. Cut windows or doors for them with a box-cutter (not scissors).

Colored pencils are a good option for kids 5+ who are more skilled with drawing. They can yield much more delicate or detailed drawings, but are more delicate, and require sharpening every so often. But for kids who are interested in increasing their drawing skills, colored pencils are a good next step after markers.

If you’re looking for a gift that will really impress an aspiring artist (and any adults present), check out the Faber-Castell Young Artists’ Essentials Gift Set. This gift-set is definitely Instagram-worthy, with a selection of colored pencils, watercolor pencils, graphite pencils, oil pastels, markers, and a little pad of paper.


The best sculpting clay I’ve found for young children is Crayola Model Magic. It’s soft enough for tiny hands to mold, but firm enough to keep its shape. It comes in lots of bright colors, and it doesn’t stick to your skin or your house - just itself! And after air-drying for 24 hours, you can pain it. Or just display it as art. If you’re child is having trouble getting started, show them how to roll little balls and snakes to build with.


There is a difference between making crafts, and free-form creative play. Often, an organized activity for children will involved creating something specific, step-by-step, like making a snowman from a white sock. This is what I would call a craft, where there is an ideal outcome, with instructions on how to get there. Kids usually try to make it look like the example the teacher shows them.

What I’m talking about is free-form art play, where the child can let their imagination run wild with no rules or objectives (other than having fun). We keep a big box of craft supplies for the kids to dig into anytime they want. Here are the really cheap but fantastic materials that our kids of enjoyed working with:

Pipe Cleaners

Googly Eyes

Pom Poms

Colored Tape

Safety Scissors

Hole Puncher

Colored Paper and Cardboard




As you start to build a collection of art supplies at home, you can keep them together in a box or baskets. That way, whenever your kids feel the urge to create, everything is in once place. We use a rolling utility cart from Ikea for our art supplies, which is easy to access and can roll around the house.

Cool gifts for creative little kids

Great toys for little kids 3-6 yrs that encourage creativity and imagination through open-ended play.

Children get bossed around all day, every day. As an antidote, it can be a really healthy and nourishing thing for them to spend time creating something exactly the way they see fit. Creative playtime for toddlers is a unique time, because it’s time for your child to be the creator; an author, artist, storyteller, or inventor. Here are some of the best toys and activities that our little kids (ages 3-6) have enjoyed the most.

Magnatailes in sunlight ©

Magnatailes in sunlight ©

MAGNATILES (3-9 yrs)

With just a few varieties of tile shapes, Magnatiles can be combined into a surprisingly wide variety of 3D structures, especially with the triangles. As our boys get older, they are able to build new, more complex structures they hadn’t thought of before. They love to use Magnatiles to create space ships and garages for their Hot Wheels and other small toys.

Magnatiles have little magnets along the edges of each tile, so they stick together when placed near each other. This slight amount of magnetic pull is just enough to keep simple structures together, but still weak enough to come apart easily. This prevents any injuries if Junior decides to become a T-Rex and smash it all to pieces. They also make Magna-Qubix, a complimentary set of 3D shapes, like cubes, prisms and pyramids that are similarly designed, but smaller in scale overall.

They aren’t cheap, so I wouldn’t recommend them if they weren’t worth it. We ended up buying additional sets to supplement the first, because they played with them all the time, and would always be run out of tiles! Note: Beware of cheap imitations on Amazon.

LEGO DUPLO (3-8 yrs)

Before the age of 5 or so, regular size Legos are too small and precise for tiny, clumsy toddler hands. Which is why the Duplo 2X scale line of blocks was first introduced back in 1969. Since then, the world of Lego Duplo has exploded, offering  lots of different kinds of tiny everyday people, Disney characters, Superheroes, animals, and lots of other toddler-friendly categories to supplement the basic building blocks.

While basic block-building is more abstract and fundamental in a design sense, the characters, props, and sets give toddlers the chance to be storytellers, or little directors. They can be the amazing Spider-Man, Minnie Mouse, or a magical version of themselves. You’ll able to find some theme within the Duplo series that will inspire your toddler.



This is a really simple toy that uses a simple kid-friendly stylus to ‘draw’ shiny little balls on a grid. The grid on the Kid O Magnetic Drawing Tablet is similar to the way the Light Bright works; almost like an analog pixel-paint device. There is something about the limitations of the grid and the tactile nature of magnetic balls that makes for a really fun, exploratory experience for everyone. Even adults love playing with this thing.



Our boys love any kind of transforming-robot toy. A great way to combine this robot theme with something educational for young kids are the Alpha-Bots and Number-Bots sets from Lakeshore Learning. This is a win-win gift, one that the kids think is awesome, and so do the parents. Note: I can only vouch for the original Lakeshore Learning version of this toy.

Family Camping: Caddis Rapid 6 Tent

If the thought of setting up a tent for your family in the middle of the woods gives you any level of anxiety, I have the solution for you. I did a ton of research online, and visited REI to check some out in person, and ended up going with the Caddis Rapid 6 Tent.

Caddis Rapid 6 Tent

First of all, the Caddis Rapid 6 is probably the easiest tent to set-up in the history of tents. The first time out of the box, it took me all of 8 minutes to have it completely set-up. By myself. It’s quite easy to take-down as well, and actually fits back into it’s bag without much of a struggle. They have a video that shows you how to do it.

The Rapid 6 is also quite tall and spacious (for a camping tent), and has plenty of room for our family of 2 adults and 2 small children on air mattresses. The kids had tons of fun just being in the tent, since it’s basically an outdoor fort. This tent would also be the ideal size for two adults on cots. It stores and transports neatly in the included nylon bag.

One of the great things about camping is the novelty of sleeping outside, surrounded by nature. One thing I love about this tent are the sheer ‘skylight’ at the top, which allows you to see the stars or trees above when you’re lying down. If it rains, you can cover the tent with the included rain fly, which blocks your view but keeps you dry. There are additional ‘windows’ on all four wall panels with zippered rain flaps to maximize your view. There’s also a handy little pouch / shelf for storying your phone, keys, or other small items.


Be sure to buy a basic waterproof tarp to put under the tent. It’s a necessary barrier between the tent and the earth. It should be the same size as the base of your tent, which is 10’ x 10’ with the Caddis Rapid 6.

You’ll also need to get some sleeping pads or cots underneath your sleeping bags. If you’re not going to go camping very often, just get some basic air mattresses. I got two double-sized mattresses, which come with a battery-operated pump. Together, they fit into the tent snuggly, so they didn’t slide around much. If you want to invest a little more into your comfort, there are ‘Self-inflating’ and other foam-based technology pads.

Even when it isn’t pouring rain outside, managing dirty shoes coming in and out of the tent was the only thing that caused us any stress at all. Next time out, I’m going to try creating a ‘landing’ area with a stool just outside the tent door for taking shoes on and off.

Caddis Rapid 6 Tent


Eureka Copper Canyon Tent

Eureka Desert Canyon 6 Tent

For more beginner’s tips on camping with kids, check out Let’s Take the Kids Camping! A Beginner’s Guide.

Take the Kids Camping! A Beginner's Guide

So you want to take the family camping for the first time? This is a good place to get started. I’ll take you through some basic tips on how to camp with small children, and point out some great gear along the way,


When I say camping, I mean car-camping. Not backpack-camping, when you carry everything on your back and hike to your destination. I’m talking about camping in a designated, managed camp site where there is a fire or BBQ pit, a flat open area for tents, and hopefully a picnic table, all located within shouting distance from your car. This means that you don’t need to worry too much about the weight of your gear.

Research camping sites in your area online, or wherever you want to go. You should be able to see what type of facilities are available. Many have bathrooms and showers (shared, of course), playgrounds, and swimming pools. So you can ‘rough it’ to varying degrees, based your family’s spirit of adventure. When making a reservation, always call first to see if everything is working properly. You don’t want to expect running water and not have it available when you show up!


After speaking with friends more experienced than me with camping, they recommended that I go to REI, because they have a good selection, and retail locations in case you need help. The first tent I got from REI had a small issue with one of the poles, but I was able to exchange it for a new one without any issues. Always do a practice set-up of all your new gear at home, well in advance of your camping trip!

Since we were car camping, I opted for something easy to set up. I also don’t plan on using the tent more than a few times a summer, so I wanted something relatively cheap (but not too cheap). For a deeper dive into tents, check out this article: Family Camping: Caddis Rapid 6 Tent


You’ll definitely need to get some lights, you don’t want your little one’s stumbling over tree roots on their way to pee. Headlamps work really well for kids (and adults). They are hands-free, and always point the light where you need it. Kids are also less likely to drop or lose them.

It’s really helpful to have a few Lantern-style lights around as well. Hanging a lantern from the ceiling of the tent will allow you to stay up late reading and playing games. I would recommend investing in something a little more rugged, since your kids will drop these repeatedly. I originally got some really cheap one’s off Amazon but they are really poorly made and broke quickly.

Cool Dad Tip: For a good time with the kids after dark, bring some Glow-Stick Bracelets. They go nuts over them, and it’s way easier to keep track of everyone when they are moving around at night.


For most of my life, I never considered coolers to be any special. Now there is actually a trendy, cool cooler – the Yeti. While quite heavy and smaller inside than you would expect, the Yeti is made in America, keeps things cold for a long time, and provides a very sturdy and handsome seat to sit on. You can plan meals that don’t require any refrigeration, but having a cooler is necessary for keeping meat and dairy chilled. Nothing is better than delicious food cooked and eaten outdoors!


Sure, you can cook over a wood fire. But why go through all that hassle and smoke inhalation when you can just flip a switch and start cooking like you’re at home in the kitchen? All asian families have one of these portable butane burners. My Mom calls it the ‘5th burner.’ It’s a really simple device, and it runs on cans of butane that are super easy to replace. Coleman makes one that looks just like the cheap asian version we have.


If you have a small child who might accidentally fall into the campground’s outhouses, you might want to invest in a portable potty like the OXO Go Potty. You can line it with plastic bags, and dispose of the bag safely (like dog poop) in the trash. In the event of an emergency, you can dig a hole in the ground and dispose of the poop in there, but be sure to do it far away from the campsite and especially any source of water. If you use baby wipes, be sure they end up in the trash, not the ground.


I knew that even with a picnic table at the campsite, we would still want additional surface area for eating, cooking or coloring books. I brought along a handy Folding Table we have for the kids, that has adjustable leg heights. I also purchased a couple of Camp Chairs that were great for relaxing while sipping on your coffee / tea / bourbon. The kids also loved playing in the Hammock that our friends brought.


Obviously there are other things to know before you take the kids camping. Like how to keep bears away from your campsite at night. Or how to start a fire for s’mores. I’ve listed some additional online resources for you if you’re still hungry for more camping knowledge. Good luck with your first camping trip, and let me know how it went!

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