Using Art to Teach Children with Special Needs


by Irene Helen Zundel, June 2005

Children who have special needs can be a challenge to teach. Because they have oral, tactile, visual and/or motor difficulties, (and sometimes an overabundance of energy!) they often find it difficult or frustrating to succeed in "hands on" activities. Using art as a means of teaching increases a child's chances for success---and makes the experience pleasurable as well.

To teach a child with special needs, you need to keep a few things in mind:

First, it is important to be patient, and positive in your approach. Focus on the process far more than the results. In time, the concepts you are trying to teach will be mastered. The idea here is to build self-confidence and to allow the student to have a sense of accomplishment.

Second, don't overdo it on the rules! It is hard for some children to stay focused on an activity. If they constantly hear "Don't make a mess!!" or "Sit up straight and don't wiggle" they will become distracted and frustrated in trying to complete the craft. Aim to make the experience fun.

Third, allow plenty of time for the project, so things flow at a steady but non-pressured pace. If you, or your students are feeling stressed, remember to take a few deep breaths, and smile!

Finally, be lavish with your praise and encouragement. Children don't mean to vex you with their impishness, or wear you down with their boundless energy. Overall, they are eager to please you. Children respond best to kind words, compliments and affection.

Following you will find several simple craft ideas, along with some great books and website links for more information and encouragement.

Why not give them a try?

Make a potato picture:

Cut a potato (or any other hard vegetable) in half, and carve a simple shape or design into it. Let your student dip the potato into finger paint and press it on a clean piece of paper, aluminum foil or on a paper bag. Use the finished masterpiece for a homemade card, wrapping paper, or trick or treat bag.

Paint with Ice Cubes:

Put dry tempura paint of various colors into saltshakers for sprinkling.

Let your student shake some paint on a piece of paper or on a paper plate.

Put an old pair of mittens on their hands to keep them from getting too cold.

Have them pick up an ice cube and swirl it around through the paint to make a pleasing design.

Let the paintings dry and attach a yarn or pipe cleaner loop on the back for easy hanging.

Create critters and things from edible clay:

To make the clay, you'll need:

1/2 cup peanut butter

1/2 cup honey

1 cup dry non-fat milk solids

1 1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Mix well.

For eyes, ears, tails, hair, and other finishing touches, try using:

grated coconut, chocolate chips, banana or apple slices, carrot curls, celery slices, etc.

For easy clean up, eat the results!

Make treats to feed the birds:

Pine Cone Bird Feeders

You will need:

Large pine cones

A butter knife

Yarn or ribbon, cut in 12 inch lengths

Peanut butter

Bird seed or sunflower seeds

1. Spread the pine cone with peanut butter.

2. Roll the pine cone in a tray of seeds.

3. Tie yarn or ribbon around the bottom of the pine cone.

4. Hang from a tree branch.

Little Bird Bowls

You will need:

A small ice cream scoop

Orange halves (with the insides scooped out)

Crisco shortening

Bird seed or sunflower seeds

1. Cut the oranges in half, and scoop out the fruit.

2. With the ice cream scoop, scoop out a ball of shortening.

3. Roll the shortening ball in a tray of seeds.

4. Place the seed ball inside the hollowed out orange half.

5. Put the "bird bowl" in the crook of a tree.

Hanging Bird Food Ornaments

You will need:

Yarn or ribbon cut in 12 inch lengths

A Straw

Cookie cutters

Some stale bread

Peanut butter (optional)

Bird seed or sunflower seeds (optional)

1. Cut the stale bread into pretty shapes using a cookie cutter.

2. Using a straw, poke a hole in the top of the shape.

3. Thread the yarn or ribbon through the hole and tie both ends together to form a loop.

4. If you like, put peanut butter or peanut butter and seeds on the bread.

5. Hang the ornament from a tree branch.

** Or you can hang pretzels or little donuts from the yarn if you like!

Make your own jigsaw puzzle:

Have your child draw a picture, or find a nice one in a children's magazine. Glue the picture onto a piece of heavy paper or cardboard. After the glue dries, carefully cut or tear the picture into five or six large pieces, and have your child put it together again.

Helpful Books:

Making Sense of Art: Sensory Based Art Activities for Children with Autism, Asperger Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorders
by Sandra R. Davalos
Based on the belief that every child has a right to participate in a variety of art experiences appropriate to the child's needs and interests, this resource guide offers visual art activities developed specifically for children with autism, Asperger Syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders who are served in a variety of settings.

Making Sense of Art (ages 3-5)
by Sandra R. Davalos
Focusing on the inherent strengths and needs of young children, the book stimulates the senses through manipulation and exploration, arouses curiosity and creativity and develops a sense of mastery.

My First Paint Book
by Dawn Sirett
Twenty-two activities, from stenciled boxes to T-shirt designs, are presented along with step-by-step, full-color photographs and clear instructions, in a visual introduction to making and decorating things with paint

Helpful Links:


Art Ideas for Special Artists

Start with the Arts

Teaching Art to Special Needs Students

Special Needs Resources (Links)


Bio: Ms. Zundel is a freelance writer. Visit her website at