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Help children express themselves and communicate in a range of ways by interacting and exploring materials creatively.

Why self-expression is important

Self-expression, through being creative and playing with materials, encourages and supports children’s imagination and thinking process development. It allows them to produce new understandings, experiencing the world from different perspectives. Opportunities to manipulate materials are essential for children to develop their skills and express themselves.

Have a good range of ‘open-ended materials’ that children can use how they like, constructing, manipulating and transforming them through self-directed play. This allows them to explore and inquire in an active and participatory way, expressing their thoughts, actions and ideas in many different ways. They also learn to appreciate the creative work of others, including art, music, dance and performance.

The more confident children are with the range of materials they have to explore and use imaginatively, the more skilful they become in expressing themselves. They will be able to communicate their original ideas, which they could struggle with in other situations.

Exploring open-ended materials supports children with English as an additional language, or those with limited verbal communication skills.


In this video, an early years expert explains the importance of self expression in the early years foundation stage framework. There are also some tips on how to support children in this area.

What the EYFS framework says

Children’s artistic and cultural awareness development supports their imagination and creativity. It’s important that they have regular opportunities to engage with arts, enabling them to explore and play with a wide range of media and materials. The quality and variety of what children see, hear and participate in is crucial for developing their understanding, self-expression, vocabulary and ability to communicate through arts.

Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, page 9, childminder EYFS, page 11, group and school-based EYFS.

What this means in practice

Have a good range of open-ended materials that children can choose how to use. Consider having:

  • different mark-makers
  • a range of paints and brushes
  • different textures, sizes, colours and shapes of paper and card
  • clay or other modelling materials
  • found collage materials
  • found materials such as boxes, tubes and lids
  • roleplay materials
  • small world play
  • space for dance, movement and music
  • instruments, or other things to make music with

Make sure these are well-organised, safe and accessible to children. Allow them to choose the materials they want to use.

Describe what children are doing as they do it, in a gentle and sensitive way. Use words to describe the materials provided, as well as their colours, patterns and shapes. Use positional, dynamic language, such as vertical, horizontal, rotation, spiral, dabs.

Be confident and familiar with all materials. Spend some time exploring them yourself. Understanding each material’s wide range of possibilities helps you observe how children respond to them.

Suggested activities

Discovering materials

Collect a range of materials from around your setting, try to collect with size and interest in mind as well as type of materials. You can provide a collection or you may also wish to go on a hunt with the children. For example look in the kitchen, what is made of wood? Can we find 5 things made from plastic?

Look for different types of materials, such as wood, metal, paper, cardboard, clay, plastic, stone, ceramics or shells. You may collect a single type of material that is expressed in different forms, such as large metal nuts and bolts and washers.

Think about the different properties of the materials you’re collecting: clear, opaque, dense, light, reflective, colourful, plain, rough, smooth, patterned or plain.

Arrange your materials on a surface, at a table, or on a mat on the floor and let the children play and explore the materials. It’s also useful to think about a single colour, such as black card that can provide a base to work on and arrange the collection on. If you have a large collection you may wish to use a frame, a hoop or wooden frame for the children to place their chosen materials inside.

Listen to what the children say about the materials as they handle them, how are they expressing their ideas, are they talking about properties or naming the type of materials?

Observe what the children do with the different materials and ask them questions about what they are discovering. How do they handle them, are they exploring the texture. Do the materials they have selected have something in common for example are they all shiny or smooth.

Try to notice what has interested the children, is it shape, texture, function or size? The children’s selection expresses their interest and tells us a little about them, their knowledge and experience. Are they constructing? Placing and arranging or just handling the materials?

Talk with the children about the materials: What do they feel like, what do they look like, do they smell, do they make a sound, what do they remind you of, how do the materials make you feel, how are the materials different, how could you use materials? There are lots of opportunities to provide a rich dialogue, adding descriptions, ideas and thoughts and feelings about materials.

Gathering the materials with the children, will help to motivate further exploration later and supports their personal, social and emotional development. When talking about the properties of materials children engage in communication and language. They describe their explorations and discoveries supporting their literacy skills. Manipulating small and large objects develops their fine motor skills and gross motor skills. Enriching and widening their vocabulary as well as developing children’s observations of differences and similarities, helps their understanding the world. Manipulating materials varying in size, quantity, weight and type strengthens children’s understanding of mathematics.

Make our own paint

A child painting

You’ll need:

  • paintbrushes, glue spreaders, objects for printing
  • natural materials for making marks, such as, twigs, leaves, pebbles for rolling
  • paper, different textures, thicknesses, shapes and sizes, bark, cardboard
  • water pots
  • printing trays

Help the children to make their own paint. A basic paint recipe is flour, water and food colouring. Experiment with different consistencies, from very thick, like acrylic and oil paints, to runny like water colours.

You could also try an outdoor paint recipe from mud and water. Children can experiment with different consistencies. Children who are reluctant to paint in the indoor art area may be happy to make their marks outside.

There are potential ingredients in the kitchen cupboards. Instant coffee makes beautiful glossy paint. Turmeric and mustard powder make bright yellow paint, but be careful because it stains very easily. You could also try using tea bags.

You could use things from the garden. Use soft fruits by sieving them to make shades of blue and red. Beetroot, rose petals, grass and leaves also make shades of red, green and brown.

Arrange the materials so that the children can reach them and see how they approach the activity. Give them time to explore, experiment and discover for themselves.

Listen to how they express themselves as they make thick and runny paint and a range of colours. Older children may describe their creations and you can scribe their words for them.

Watch how they manage the tools and paint. Children are frequently fascinated by the changes in colour, texture and consistency and do not necessarily want to make marks on paper. This is fine and shows that they need more experience before they do this.

Talk to the children by describing what you see them doing and the colours they create. If they make marks on paper, describe those too. For example, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, up and down, across, rotating, circular, round and round, dabs, shading an area, shading the whole piece of paper.

This activity enriches children’s understanding of the world in scientific, technological and ecological areas. Making paint and colour mixing stimulate and develop children’s communication and language skills. Children use talk to describe what they see and feel, they direct and tell each other how they created different paints and colours. Confident talk helps literacy skills. Using paintbrushes, natural materials and other small tools supports the development of fine motor skills. Children often cover the whole paper providing the experience of area, size and shape (mathematics).

Other activities

Self-expression does not always need bought materials and musical instruments. Try using found materials, such as:

  • natural materials found on walks
  • recycled materials such as cardboard cylinders, boxes, fabrics or carpet squares

Bomomo is an online art program children can interact with to create designs.

How to make edible paint using cornflour, suitable for babies from 6 months from learning 4 kids.

Painting with Petals from the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Soil Art from kids gardening

What other nurseries and childminders are doing

“We have children aged 1 to 4 years, so we let the babies immerse themselves in the materials, alongside the older children. When we are making playdough in my childminding setting, I expect the older children to know how to make it without any adult help. The babies sit in a Tuff Tray and experience the flour.”

Julie, childminder, Ilkley.

“We are experimenting with different materials for painting. Mud Art outside works very well. The children use found materials, such as, twigs, leaves, seed heads to make marks, as well as using their hands. Children use large pieces of bark for the background”.

Mandy, Naturally Learning, Truro.


  • Exploring materials helps children to express themselves and communicate their thoughts, actions and ideas in many different ways.
  • A good range of quality materials will help children develop their creativity.
  • You can use found materials as well as more traditional bought art materials.
  • Children’s interaction and exploration with materials supports their wider knowledge and understanding of the world around them.
  • When you speak to the child about what they’re doing, use rich descriptive language.

Next steps

  • Review the materials you provide to make sure you have a good range of open-ended materials.
  • If you have to pack everything away every day, decide in advance what children will have access to each day. Try to include an opportunity for ‘messy’ play every day.
  • Consider questions that are not too intrusive for children when they’re immersed in the creative process.
  • Consider finding a local artist who is interested in working alongside young children. Make sure there’s a shared understanding of the unique qualities of a child’s creations and imagination.
  • Share photographs of what you provide with others to create a network of ideas to keep things fresh and exciting for the children and their parents and carers.
  • Review your curriculum to ensure you cover the requirements in the EYFS for this area of learning.