Got found objects? Make a collage
by Barbara Langham
A class of 4-year-olds finishes their nature walk in the neighborhood and dumps their collection of leaves, acorns, pecans, and pine needles on the picnic table.
“I found this one,” Ashley says, proudly pointing to a large red maple leaf.
“I like the yellow leaves best,” says Clifford.
“Can we crack the pecans and eat them?” asks Seth.
“Let’s instead separate our findings by color—red, yellow, brown, and green,” says Ms. Scott, offering a reusable aluminum pie pan for each category.
While the children sort the materials, Ms. Scott calls attention to shape, size, and texture. “This acorn is smooth here, but rough on top.”
“Like an elf cap,” says Mason.
Ms. Scott smiles and nods her head. Then she places construction paper and glue on the table. “Now let’s use these materials to make a collage.”
“Yes!” the children say, clapping their hands in excitement.
Collage is a favorite art activity of many early childhood educators. It can be as simple as sticking pieces of paper onto a sheet of construction paper or as complex as gluing three-dimensional objects inside a frame or shallow box.
The term collage comes from the French word coller, which means “to glue.” The term is attributed to Cubist artists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, who were experimenting with the technique around 1910. They were not the first to make collage-type art, but their work influenced hundreds of other artists and spawned a movement that continues to this day (Richman-Abdou, 2017). Picasso’s “Still Life With Chair Caning” (1912) and Braque’s “Violin and Pipe” (1913) are classic examples.
Collage is an excellent first-time art activity for toddlers and others with little or no experience in art. Moreover, it can be adapted for all ages of children and incorporated into much of the curriculum. Making collages offers several benefits for children’s development. It helps build fine-motor skills, encourages problem-solving, enhances creativity, and allows freedom of expression. When working within a group, children practice language and cooperative skills.
The goal of collage is to enable children to feel comfortable with art materials. It’s important to allow children to explore the materials without pressure to make anything. Having all children make the same collage by copying a sample you provide is craft-making. Art is not about a finished product but rather the creative process.
Provide the basic supplies
Children will need ample work space; a table in the art center will do nicely. Cover the work surface with newspapers or an old plastic shower curtain to make cleanup easier. Have materials sorted by type or color, and store them on shelves within easy reach of children.
Format paper. The base or background onto which items will be glued needs to be sturdy. Construction paper, cardboard, or card stock is best. Toddlers can work well with a size of 8 ½ by 11 inches, while school-agers may work easily within a range of sizes, from 7 by 9 inches to 14 by 20 inches and larger.
White school glue. Mixing white glue with a little water in a cup makes it more spreadable. A small paintbrush will allow children to spread it without getting their hands too sticky. Glue sticks and rubber cement are other options. A wet towel nearby allows children to wash off their hands between gluing different materials.
Objects. The possibilities are vast. Ask parents and friends to donate items from kitchen drawers and recycle bins. Collect scraps of all sorts of paper—newspaper, shopping bags, wrapping paper, tissue, packaging, old holiday cards, foil, corrugated paper, contact paper, and polyurethane. Cut pictures from magazines or print new photographs from your computer.
Save fabric swatches, yarn, ribbon, lace, and other sewing notions. Search junk drawers for metal washers, paperclips, string, wire, and old keys. Cut up netting from citrus fruit bags.
Collect items from nature, such as leaves, seeds, nuts, cork, twigs, tree bark, wood scraps, sea shells, and pebbles.
Before you begin, some cautions. Avoid small collage pieces and loose parts that pose a choking hazard, especially to children younger than 3 years. Use non-toxic materials; check glue and paint labels carefully. Provide safety scissors for preschoolers; encourage younger children to tear the paper they want to use. Supervise to anticipate children’s needs and offer encouragement.
Remember that art is about non-verbal communication. It uses a different part of the brain than reading and writing. Children will likely create art from their feelings and experiences. Avoid questions like “What is it?” As you go from child to child, describe what you see. “I see the red squares at the top. Tell me about that.”
Emphasize effort: “You had to tear out a lot of pieces for that part.” Avoid comparing one child’s work to another’s or singling out one or two pieces as the best. All children’s work is valuable.
Display the finished collages in the classroom. Invite children to sign their work and save it in the child’s portfolio so that you can evaluate progress and show parents in conferences.
Around 18 months to 2 years, toddlers will be able to pick up items with the thumb and forefinger. Start with paper squares and strips at least 1-inch wide. Allow free exploration—picking up, dropping, and moving around. Apply a band of glue to a piece of construction paper and demonstrate sticking a paper square or strip to it. Encourage children to do the same. They may or may not follow your lead. They may be more interested in gluing their fingers together, which is fine.
As an alternative, consider using a piece of contact paper, with the sticky side up, as the base. This option allows toddlers to take their time sticking paper pieces to it, without worrying about the glue drying up.
At first, toddlers will make prefigurative art—random arrangements, squiggles, and lines. As they gain experience, offer different materials, such as cotton balls, feathers, yarn scraps, fabric swatches, and lace, for example.
Children ages 3 to 5 will enjoy making prefigurative collages and gradually move toward figurative or representational art. Their attempts will often be fanciful and out of proportion.
Rotate materials—offering paper pieces one week and fabric swatches the next, for example. You can also add crayons, markers, or paint and equipment such as a hole punch, rubber stamp, or stapler and watch what the children will do with them.
Collage offers a great way to introduce or reinforce concepts in learning centers other than art. Some examples:
How does the caterpillar in The Very Hungry Caterpillar change?
How does Dory locate Nemo in Finding Nemo?
How would you make the letter M (or another alphabet letter)?
How would you write your name in a collage?
What are some different ways to make a circle (square, rectangle, or triangle) out of collage materials?
Can you make the numeral 2 (or another numeral)?
How would you make a house or a car in a collage?
What are some different ways to make a bridge?
Can you put together pictures of your favorite things to eat?
How would you show your favorite place outdoors, or a room in your house?
Can you make a sunflower or an oak tree?
How would you show the parts of a pecan?
How would you show your feelings when you hear the song “Let It Go” from Frozen?
Collage offers older children a way to relax after a day of school. Freed from the structure of a classroom, they can cut and glue to their heart’s content without regard to a right answer or a recent test.
Consider pairing best friends to make a collage together. A group of children may be willing to create a group collage on a current theme such as “I’m thankful for ….” Be sure to save their unfinished work so they can continue working on it another day.
Occasionally a child may say, “I can’t think of anything.” This may indicate a feeling of fatigue or loneliness. Suggest that the child lie down on a cot with a favorite book. Try listening with empathy. Ask what the child liked or disliked about the day. After about 10 minutes of close listening, suggest the child create a collage from current interests, such as an upcoming holiday or a superhero like Spiderman.
Build collage-making into your art curriculum. The following activities will tickle preschoolers and encourage them to see collage as a legitimate, sophisticated art form.
Show children abstract paintings such as those by Vasily Kandinsky. Invite children to choose one and make their own version.
One of Kandinsky’s most famous works is “Squares With Concentric Circles,” from 1913.
Here’s what you need:
a sturdy format paper, 8 ½ by 11, such as poster board
scraps of construction paper
tempera paint or water color (optional)
1. Divide the poster board into a grid of 12 squares, 4 inches on the long side and 3 inches on short side.
2. Cut squares of construction paper to fit each square, or paint each square a different color.
3. Cut concentric circles (rings) out of construction paper scraps. Circles need not be perfectly round.
4. Glue at least 3 circles to each square, largest on the bottom and smallest on top.
Variations: To create a 3-D effect, first glue a small piece of cardboard or polystyrene under each circle so that they appear raised from the surface.
In most collage, the items glued onto the base form the image. Invite children to make a reverse image with tape or contact paper that they peel off.
Here’s what you need:
a sheet of construction paper, preferably a light color
masking tape or contact paper scraps
various collage items
1. Invite children to choose a piece of construction paper as the base.
2. Have children apply a few strips of masking tape or pieces of contact paper to the base.
3. Glue various collage items to the rest of the base, covering it completely.
4. Peel off the tape or contact paper. Voila! The base color appears.
Variation: Have children use the tape to write their name.
For a stronger 3-D effect, consider making a box collage, or assemblage. The box can be a shadow box of the type sold in craft stores, or you can use picture frames, gift boxes, shoebox lids, milk cartons, and facial tissue boxes cut to the desired size. Here are some examples.
Here’s what you need:
shallow gift box, approximately 11x8x1 inches, for each child
paint or contact paper to cover the outer sides of the box
wallpaper, solid or patterned wrapping paper, or magazine pages as the backing for the inside of the box
assortment of small boxes, such as matchbox, business card box, or paperclip box or pieces of cardstock to use as dividers
various collage items to fit inside the smaller boxes, such as toys, plastic flowers, photos, buttons, medals, trinkets, and tiny perfume bottles
items to fit between the small boxes, such as pine needles, yarn, confetti, or ribbon
1. Explain to the children that they will make a collage with a frame or box, noting that they may choose to use the smaller boxes inside a larger one—collages within a collage.
2. Encourage them to select smaller boxes or dividers and collage items they wish to use.
3. Have children paint the outer sides of the large box or cover them with contact paper. Allow to dry.
4. Do the same with the smaller boxes.
5. Glue wallpaper or other paper to the insides of the large box and the smaller boxes.
6. Glue collage items (trinkets, toys) inside and between the small boxes.
Beal, Nancy and Gloria Bley Miller. (2001.) The art of teaching art to children in school and at home. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Richman-Abdou, Kelly. (July 14, 2017). “Exploring the cutting-edge history and evolution of collage art,” My Modern Met, https://mymodernmet.com/collage-art-collage/.