Preschoolers should be offered the opportunity to explore art every day. The process of making art is a vital one: it is how we explore our world from the inside out, as opposed to outside in, the way scientists do. As adults, we tend to make the mistake of valuing art based upon the finished product, on how beautiful or creative it is, but the real value lies in the process in which the children engage, even if the resulting “art” is little more than a messy swirl of what I call “preschool gray.”

A couple years ago, on the first day of school, I was watching a four-year-old paint with a brush in each hand, swirling together red and blue tempera paint to make a dark purple. To my adult eye, it looked like little more than scribbling, but I knew something deeper was happening because she was so intensely focused. Occasionally, I thought I saw her entire body quiver, betraying some strong emotion. At one point she began to paint with her hands near her mouth, as if speaking the paint onto the paper. And then I understood: she was painting the emotion that can only be called "the first days of school," a purple storm made with intensity.

As I watched, she spoke, not looking at me, but at the paper that was beginning to wrinkle under the force and wetness, "I can make anything I want." She said it again, "I can make anything I want." She was speaking to herself, to her painting, to me, and to the school. "I can make anything I want." She painted for several more minutes, stopped, decided to add a few dots of orange and green, then declared to the room, "I'm finished. It's time to get it dry." 

Needless to say, art is about far more than a product to take home to hang on the fridge. For many children making art becomes one of the centerpieces of their life and it can be a real challenge for their important adults, be they teachers, parents, or child care providers, to keep up with their demand for artistic experiences. 

Over my two decades as a preschool teacher, I’ve found that the key is to be prepared by maintaining a well-equipped storage room. Here is my list of top ten items that no art supplies shelves should be without: 

Tempera paints
You’ll want the primary colors (red, blue, and yellow). The secondary colors (orange, green, and purple) are nice to have, but not necessary since you and the children can mix all of those from the primaries. I also like to have black and white around so that children can experiment with creating different shades like pinks, lilacs, and grays. I purchase tempera paints by the gallon.

Paint brushes
For most preschool purposes, the standard “chubby” brushes are sufficient, but I always like to have some smaller brushes on hand, especially if there are going to be four and five-year-olds around so that they can work on their fine motor skills as they start to want to make representational art.

Liquid watercolors 
These beautiful, versatile paints are a nice way to change things up from the usual routine of tempera paints. Crayons and markers I know what you’re thinking: painting is great, but messy and you don’t always have the time or energy for a major clean-up. That’s where crayons and markers come in.

Okay, so you have paints, markers, crayons, and brushes, now you need something onto which the children can apply their pigments. The most cost-effective solution is any sort of scrap paper. As long as it has one blank side, the kids will use it (and they’ll probably be happy painting on the printed side as well). My friends who work in offices know that I’m always after their supply. As for paper you purchase, I always like to have a roll of butcher paper around for providing larger canvases. (It’s not entirely necessary that you have a butcher paper roll cutter, but it does make managing a large, heavy roll easier). 

A large table top or the floor will suffice for most of your art projects, but children also need the opportunity to create on vertical surfaces while standing. Painting at easels allows children to use their entire shoulder and arm, which is important to their large motor development. Of course, you could always just tape paper to a wall for the same effect, but you will get paint on your wall, which isn’t for everyone! You can, of course, purchase easels, but if you (or someone you know) has even a modest amount of woodworking ability, they can be made for a fraction of the cost. 

Construction paper 
A selection of colored construction paper gives children the opportunity to “build” art in 3-dimensions. This thicker paper is great for projects that involve folding, cutting, and rolling, and the colors add excitement. 

Many adults are nervous about putting even blunt tip scissors into the hands of preschoolers, but in my decades of teaching, I never knew a child to hurt him or herself with these essential tools (although there were a few instances of hair cutting!). For the youngest children, just snipping paper can be the work of an hour, while older, more accomplished kids can explore everything from cutting straight lines and shapes to the magic of folded-paper cutting. 
If the kids are going to be cutting, they are also going to want to be able to construct and adhesives like tape are an easy way to make that happen. Not only that, but managing tape is a fantastic way to work on those fine motor skills. A few rolls of regular masking tape does the trick although I always liked to make it a little more exciting by providing a rainbow of colors for the children to use. Often that was the entire art project: sticking lengths of colored masking tape to paper! Transparent tape also has its place, although if you’re only going to provide one kind of tape, the children will almost always prefer colors. A tape dispenser isn’t essential, but can make it easier for the children to help themselves. You can also make your own for a fraction of the cost.

Glue sticks
Glue sticks are a tidy way to stick paper together and are useful for all sorts of art projects from construction paper builds to collage and mosaic art.

Toilet paper tubes
Of course, these are far more than mere art supplies, but your toilet paper tubes can form the foundation for all manner of 3-dimensional artwork and diy toys, from binoculars and microphones to race cars and rocket ships. Combine them with paints, tape, markers, construction paper, or pretty much anything and let the kids create! The best thing about this art supply is that they’re free and if you ask the families of your charges to keep you supplied, you’ll never run out.

There are literally thousands of other “nice to have” materials and tools, but if you have these things on hand the children will always be able to find ways to exercise their imaginations, to create, and to explore. (You will perhaps have noticed that I’ve not included art smocks on my list: that’s because I’ve never used them, nor have I ever taught children who wanted to use them. Instead of protecting their clothing, I just required parents to send their kids with at least one change of clothing per day. If you’re concerned about the mess, you might want to add smocks to your list.)