5 Steps to Painting Nature Rocks with Preschoolers

Every day after her preschool ends, I take my daughter, Mae (four), and my son, Miles (two) out “exploring” in the thick woods that border our property. The purpose of these expeditions is simply to “see what we can see,” as Mae says. We poke with sticks in damp dirt, looking for worms. We point out holes in tree trunks and wait anxiously for squirrels to return home. We listen to birds chirping in the branches high above and call out the colors of their feathers.

Mae, like most preschoolers do, loves doing art projects (as evident by the daily pile of her artwork that gets sent home from school!). Last weekend, inspired by our nature adventures, we decided to paint rocks with some of our favorite scenes from the natural world. Painting rocks is a fun way to engage your child in the world around her, and it’s a great opportunity for you to share with her some cool knowledge about the animals that live in her very own backyard.

1. Gather the supplies.

Like with any art project, painting rocks can get messy, so we took our supplies outside to minimize the mess. You don’t need much to complete this project—just a few rocks, some paintbrushes, water, and acrylic paint (which adheres best to the rock surface). Some people suggest adding a clear finishing spray varnish, but we skipped out on that, and you can, too.

Smooth rocks, like river rocks, work well for this project, but if you use some rougher specimens from your backyard, that is completely fine. And it could be fun to “hunt” for rocks with the kids before you begin! You might want to sand down some of the roughest edges, but the uniqueness of the stone adds personality to the finished product.

2. Look for inspiration.

Here’s where the real fun kicked in—before we even put brush to rock, I asked Mae (and, to an extent, Miles, too) about her favorite things from nature (animal or otherwise) that she’d want to paint. We’d been “exploring” enough times for Mae to have a lot to draw on. She decided on a butterfly and the “puffy” clouds in the sky. Miles (with some help from Mom) settled on painting a ladybug.

If you live in an urban area or your little one doesn’t have as much nature experience, that’s okay! Give some helpful suggestions, or perhaps even suggest zoo animals and pull up images of zebras, peacocks, and monkeys on your phone or in children’s books to help guide your child.

3. Engage with your child.

Ask why she likes that particular animal. Build off of her answer as an opportunity to teach her something new about the animal. For example, if she says she likes the pretty red color of the ladybug, tell her how the red color is to ward off other animals that may want to eat the bugs. (This is a true fact!) If you don’t have something to build on, that’s okay. Google is our friend these days. Suggest to your child that you look up why the animal is that color. Now it’s a teachable moment for both of you.

4. Get messy.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a neat freak. If you are, too, I suggest adding a smock or some strategically placed towels to your kid’s outfit. Also, admittedly, I’m a bit of a control freak. But now is not the time to hover over your kid’s rock, monitoring every paint stroke. What makes this project fun is seeing your child’s interpretation of the natural world around her. So if her butterfly wings aren’t symmetrical, that’s okay. Your preschooler will be able to handle this project fairly easy, especially four-year-olds. Three and younger might need some guidance from Mom (as my two-year-old, Miles, did), but really in a minimal way.

If your child is having trouble painting, or wants to give up on the project because she can’t picture the animal perfectly in her head, consider reverting to your old friend Google again. Pull up some pictures of, say, those ladybugs on your phone. In this example, have your child count (or help her count) the spots on its shell. Scroll to other pictures. Point out that animals are slightly different from one to another. Use it as a moment to show her that her painting can be slightly different, too.

Once complete, the painting rocks should sit out to dry for at least an hour. Store the rocks high up so inquisitive two-year-olds can’t get to them!

5. Play hide and go seek.

The great thing about nature rocks is that you can literally return them back to nature! With kids in tow, wander around your backyard (or even around your town, if you’d like to share your kids’ art with others!) and have your kids point out locations to “showcase” the rocks. Mae and Miles both enjoyed placing rocks around our backyard. These tiny masterpieces make for great conversation starters next time you have friends and family over to play lawn games.

Another cool variation on the nature rock is the kindness rock. Once done with the painting and it has dried completely, turn the rock over and add a positive message—something as simple as “You Rock!” works. Then hide these kindness rocks all around town, and enjoy watching strangers stumble upon your sweet creations.

There’s no right or wrong way to paint a rock, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the fun with your kids. And, if you’re not inspired by my children’s designs (shown below), consider these beautiful nature rock masterpieces.

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