Day 3: Painting

by | Tutorials

Pinterest is chock-full of painting ideas for kids.  Many of the images I find include children who can hold a paintbrush or can stand at the easel and produce creative works of art with ease.

Painting does not come so easily for children with sensory issues, fine motor or cognitive delays, or other disabilities.  This post shares tips/ strategies to help you adapt a painting activity so that your child can also enjoy creating with paint.


Painting Pinterest board screenshot

There is no lack of painting inspiration on Pinterest.

Why painting may be a challenge for neurodivergent and disabled children

  • For children with fine motor delays, holding a paintbrush may be difficult.
  • For children with tactile sensory aversions, even finger painting may pose a challenge.
  • For children with cognitive delays, they may not be developmentally ready to produce images with or without a tool.
  • For children who still mouth objects, they might be tempted to scoop up and taste paint (which may or may not be toxic).


Suggestions for adaptations/ modifications for painting

  • Begin slowly.  If this is your child’s first attempt at painting (or if all of the others went badly), you simply need to slow down the process.  Using hand-over-hand is the best way to start.  Sometimes, that’s the only way your child will paint – maybe ever.  That’s ok.  It’s still a new experience that should not be avoided just because you think your child can’t paint.  You will be surprised at the progression – no matter how tiny.
  • Use familiar tools rather than bare hands.  While most school teachers and parents are encouraged to teach painting by using fingers and hands, this may not work with a child with tactile sensory aversions.  It’s true that finger painting is a great exploratory activity for some children, but the last thing you want is a meltdown in the middle of painting if your child gags just by looking at it!  Give yourself permission to skip that step and move onto using tools instead – even if your child has fine motor difficulties.  Don’t begin with the obvious use of a paintbrush.  Instead, bring in familiar objects your child already holds or plays with easily.  Think: plastic toys.  Your child isn’t going to be expected to create a still-life.  You’re going to work on abstract art – so whatever pattern you can get with an object your child holds well is great.
  • Introduce one color at a time.  You might be tempted to take out all the colors of the rainbow just because it comes with the paint set, but I highly discourage this.  First off, it’s visual overload for children just exploring paint for the first time. You don’t want your child shutting down before he even gets started.  Begin with the primary colors (yellow, red and blue) and acquaint your child with the lightest color first.  Make an all-yellow painting, then an all-red painting and an all-blue painting before ever mixing the colors together. Do this over a span of several days. Sign the names of the colors and repeat them as you paint.  My son gets a kick out of the sign for “yellow”.
painting with the disabled child

The first time I attempted painting with my son, he had a major meltdown because I went straight for the finger painting thinking he’d love it.  Instead, he was disgusted by the paint on his hands. Luckily, I had chosen to work with the lightest color, so when it landed mostly on the two of us, it wasn’t so bad to clean up.

  •  Use non-toxic finger paints – even if you’re not finger painting.  If you’re worried about clean-up of toys/ tools/ your child/ yourself, use finger paints (as opposed to tempra) as they wash off everything easily.
painting tips

I use paper plates for painting because it makes for fast clean-up – even though it’s not very eco-friendly. As a parent of a disabled child, I need short-cuts, so please forgive me Mama Earth!

painting strategies

These are non-toxic finger paints that have a fruity smell to them. While that might tempt some children to taste it, my son, who doesn’t even want to touch them, gets to enjoy the different scents instead.  If you worry about your child putting paint in his mouth, make your own paint using food products like pudding.  Pinterest is the place to be if you want to find homemade painting recipes.

  • Vary the tools.  Explore other tools that your child can easily grasp.  Some additional ideas are: egg cartons, fruits/ vegetables (apples, potatoes, carrots , celery are all solid enough to print with), and non-traditional art tools found at your local art supplier.
apple prints using cuts in apple for handle

Cut into fruits and vegetables to create handles for easy gripping. (I’m always on the look-out for possible activities. I found this one on Pinterest and recognized its potential immediately.)

painting with tools - painting with the disabled child

I found this idea on Pinterest as well, and knew in a flash that my little guy would be able to grab the inner part of the egg carton for stamping.

  • Modify authentic painting tools.  Sometimes, all you need to do is modify tools that are naturally intended for painting.  For example, paintbrush handles can be thickened by taping foam around them.
  • Practice the fine motor skills you’ll be using before your child ever paints.  Introduce the unfamiliar paint tools at playtime.  Vary the verbal routines: “tap, tap, tap” for tools that are best for printing, “zoom, zoom, zoom” for tools best for scraping, etc. By the time you bring the tools to the paint table, your child will anticipate what to do with them and you will find the whole experience a lot smoother.
art tool for fine motor development 2

I found this tool at our local art shop. It’s made of silicone and it’s weighted. Even though it’s intended for adult use, the top part fits nicely in any hand. I introduced this tool to my little one without using paint for a few days. He held it, he tossed it, and he mouthed it (of course). I also created a verbal routine knowing the end goal was to use it with paint. I held it in my hand and repeated, “Zoom, zoom, zoom” while he watched me whisk it back and forth in front of me. Eventually, I did it hand-over-hand, and he allowed me to do it while anticipating the “zoom” part of it. This was all done during play, without paint, for several days.

  • Have all materials ready ahead of time.  It seems like an obvious tip, but you don’t want to be running across the room for materials when your child is sitting at the table with all of the paint within arm’s reach.  No. You just don’t.  While we’re on this point, have clean-up materials nearby as well. (Speaking from experience).
  • Tape the paper onto a painting board.  If you don’t already own one, make or buy a painting board.  All it is is a board (plastic or wood) that is larger than the painting paper you use.  This is great for kids who don’t use an easel.  Taping the paper down prevents the paper from slipping and sliding and ending up on the floor.  (Not only is this messy, but it disappoints, and possibly frustrates, your child when you have to reach down to keep picking up the paper when he just wants to paint!)  Having a paper taped to a board allows you to turn the board around or move it closer to your child so that he can gain greater access to all parts of the paper.
paint board tip 1

Painting with a child with significant fine motor delays may be challenging at times. Use a paint board underneath the painting paper as it makes reaching to all parts of the paper easier (you can easily turn it or bring it closer to your child). Tape the sheet to the board so that your child doesn’t repeatedly toss the work of art on the floor.

  • Sing or tell a story while painting.  Try to incorporate other parts of your day into painting as well.  Sing the apple songs you’ve worked on all week. Create a new story about an apple that likes to tap-dance, etc.
  • Alter the positioning.  If your child can stand at an easel, then that’s wonderful.  Of course, painting doesn’t necessarily have to happen at an easel.  Your child can paint at his adapted chair/ table, or even on the floor if that is easier for him.  Play around with the positioning of the paper.  Does it need to be flat (horizontal) or can it be elevated slightly to better access for your child?  If you don’t have a desk/ table that slants, you can create one using cardboard or wood.  If your child is sitting often, then use his standing frame and encourage him to stand at an easel.  The legs of the standing frame usually slide right under the legs of the easel for maximum access to the paper.  Just be sure to adjust the height of either the easel or the stander.
slanting paint table - painting with children with special needs

We don’t own an easel. When we paint, my son sits at this adapted desk (while seated in his adapted chair). I find it easier to keep his body “quiet” in this position so that we can focus on the fine motor skills. What I love about this desk is that it tilts upwards at varying degrees. We mostly use it horizontally, but it’s nice to have this option for some tasks.  

  • Have fun.  While painting can be a messy activity, try to relax about it.  Some parents can paint alongside their child, but if you know your child needs your full attention, don’t even go there.  Paint on your own – with your child observing you – at another time.

How do you adapt painting activities?


  1. chantal

    Great article once again!
    I suggest for those who dont have tilting table to use a 2 or 3 inch binder to angle the work of art.

    • Gabriella Volpe

      That’s a great idea, Chantal. I think there are more and more slanted pieces of equipment on the market today, but when you can create something for cheap, it’s even better!

  2. Koogle

    Love your adapted painting ideas, Gabriella. Your words, “For children with tactile sensory aversions, even finger painting may pose a challenge” rang So True!!

    I came across an idea for finger-painting minus the “getting-the-hands-dirty” part of it. My son loved it!

    Thanks for another great post!

    • Gabriella Volpe

      I will try that painting tip, Koogle. I’ve adapted playdough play in a similar manner, and will definitely try it with finger painting too! Thank you!

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