The Language of Printmaking with Toddlers

For the past four months, our whole school has studied printmaking. Printmaking is a thinking art form. Unlike clay and other artistic mediums, the process of printmaking is multi-layered and indirect in that it requires “in-between” steps that move from the creation of a printing block and the inking and preparation of the objects, to the composing and placement of the inked objects in order to pull or make a print.

So, what does printmaking look like for our youngest children?

In general terms, our studio work with the younger children and toddlers often takes the form of introducing the children to different mediums and the tools and objects related to creating with those mediums. We engage, we invite, and we encourage experimentation. Much like the “babbling” stage of verbal language acquisition, the children playfully discover aspects and properties of different mediums and materials that they then can apply and use over and over, and in different ways.


Stamping was one of our first printmaking experiences. Using stamps is a process that allows for open-ended exploration but also requires hand eye coordination, builds the gripping muscles in the hand and promotes sequential thinking (first the ink, then the paper, repeat).


After exploring stamps, we introduced a new method of printmaking: monoprinting. Monoprinting is a form of printmaking that permits the creation of unique, freeform printed images every time. Unlike the more common relief printing, which uses a block stamp to reproduce the same image over and over again, monoprinting allows you to create each image anew. 

In contrast to the stamping (repetitions of the same images), monoprinting allows for the production of more abstract compositions and more complex details. 

As always, these beginning steps of learning the language of printmaking with the youngest children are  all about engaging their curiosity, providing exposure to vocabulary and tools as well as opportunities to practice techniques.  

First we roll, roll, roll the brayer to spread out the ink into a thin layer.

Then, we use a cotton swab to draw designs into the ink.

Finally, we cover the design with paper and press and smooth. Then we pull the print!

Relief Prints

The Art Studio is full of countless objects that are interesting to look at and use in our creative work.  The very nature of using these recycled and found materials in our artistic endeavors opens us up to inventive possibilities and very often, surprising and unexpected results. Materials such as these are great additions to our traditional printmaking materials. It shows the children that art can be made with anything and everything. With this in mind, we introduced the children to printmaking using a variety of unusual materials.

We met on the rug to give the children a brief demonstration using some materials we thought they might recognize, as well as the printing tools the children are already familiar with (a brayer, ink, and inking plate). We created relief prints using an old tv remote, a license plate, and a few other objects we found around the studio. All sorts of items can be used to create interesting prints!

Masking and Layering

We explained the concept of masking and layering to the children making the connection between the masks we often wear on our faces to the printing items and materials that we might use to cover up parts of our ink or inking plate. Just like masks covering parts of our faces, masking in printmaking refers to covering portions of the rolled out ink, or inking block, plate, etc. to keep the integrity of a color or paper’s texture. Masking enables the artist to make layers which can work together to form a specific image or stay separate from mixing or blending color. Using these techniques opens up myriads of possibilities for us as artists to play and take creative risks.

Our intention was not to focus on precision in lining up our paper and layers, but instead to invite the children to engage in playful experimentation with their registration and layers.

Creating Stamps

After exploring a variety of printmaking tools, techniques, and ideas, we opened up our work to go beyond the parts of our process from inking and pulling to imagining and creating printing blocks/stamps which will be used in combination and collaboration during the coming weeks.

The children were invited to create collaborative stamps using stiff brushes to apply liquid glue to a circle stamp base. 

Then, the children worked to add their printed stamps to PSA’s collaborative mural of a sky and garden. All of the children at PSA, from the youngest toddlers to our big kindergarteners, contributed to this mural and together they produced an beautiful texture across the garden mural.

Printmaking with Wheels

After weeks of exploring printmaking with the children, it is clear that this is a group of children highly invested in the motion of printing, both in the forms of moving their own bodies and in materials and objects that move.

With this in mind, we tapped into this by using vehicles to explore gestural printing by making tracks. The children were offered a variety of vehicles with interesting wheel treads and some rubber toy tires that fit nicely onto paint rollers. We were curious if we might engage their interest in movement while also offering them an opportunity to see some visual marks made from movement.

The children enjoyed dipping cars and trucks into trays of ink and then driving them around the table creating a variety of painterly tracks. They explored rolling their ink- covered vehicles around obstacles and down ramps.

Gelli Printing

Gelli printing is a relatively new form of monoprinting that utilizes a flexible gel plate along with acrylic paint to create textures and layers of color. Introducing these new materials, combined with methods and tools the children are fluent with, our intention was to encourage the children to use their cumulative knowledge of the Language of Printmaking to experiment with confidence. The results they achieved were pretty spectacular!

We began our time together with a quick demonstration of the gelli printing process. To start, we passed around a small gelli plate so the children could explore the unique, squishy texture. 

First, they rolled out a layer of yellow paint to cover the entire surface of their plate, and used a cotton swab to draw a design into the paint. After they were satisfied, the children were given some paper to pull their first layer. This would serve as the background to their final print.

Next they chose and rolled out a second color. Then, choosing from a variety of  stamps available, the children pressed marks and textures into their plates. 

Finally the children pulled a print of their second color layered over their first, to reveal their final print. 

While they worked, we observed many children repeating methods and phrases we’ve used throughout our printmaking experience. 

“One, two, three–UP!”

Final Self-Portraits

To wrap up our many weeks of printmaking, all of the children at PSA created print self-portraits. The creation of the self-portraits utilized many of the concepts and techniques we have explored over the course of studying this language.

The creation of the self-portraits called for using a variety of these techniques. The children began by rolling out a thin layer of acrylic paint onto the gelli plate. After, they used a cotton swab to make marks into the paint, we placed a “face blank” over the paint to mask the paint from adhering to their photo. 

After clearing their gelli plate, the next layer began the same way (rolling paint and placing the face blank) before using the cotton swab to make more marks. This technique is something the children are familiar with from our work doing monoprinting.  

The layering paint produced lots of variation of color depending on the chosen order of colors and the marks that the children made.

To prepare for the third color and pull, the children once again cleaned their gelli plates. They completed their portraits by printing a final layer which added to the overall look of their spectacular pieces. 

Printmaking is a complex, multi-step process, and requires practice and experimentation. With each week engaged in our study of printmaking, we have observed the children utilize their gained knowledge. Though these young toddlers may not use and/or repeat the vocabulary that we discuss while creating in the studio, they show they understand various tools and processes by using them correctly, and by having repeated opportunities to hone their skills. Each week, we built upon the previous week’s explorations. This enables the children and us to revisit (materials, tools, vocabulary, techniques), and scaffold what they know and learn. 

Reflection by Jo KaLhoun, Rasha DeIuliis and Kelly Blondin, Art Specialists

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