Many parents see art as secondary, to academics. But it’s very important to a child’s development. Art cultivates imagination and nurtures creativity, but it also hones critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

When a child improvises a melody or imagines a sculpture, they’re learning to brainstorm – a vital skill for all academics, but a difficult one to teach. When they discuss why they like or don’t like a painting, they’re developing an argument, and learning to support one. Art experiences also teach children to use reason, invention, observation, discrimination, and problem-solving skills.

While art is important for all ages, it’s especially important for young children, because it engages all of their senses and teaches them how to incorporate them. It develops fine-motor skills. Working with a paintbrush in preschool can help a child with holding a pencil down the road in kindergarten. Working a pair of scissors develops eye-hand control. And all that crayon scribbling pays off later when it’s time to use developed coordination for handwriting.

With budgets being what they are, art often gets cut from the school day. And what that means is, that it falls to parents to pick up the slack. Here are a few things to keep around the house to help get your kids off to a good art start:

Paint: Sure it’s basic, but it’s a staple for a reason. Paint is an amazingly versatile art media that offers diverse opportunities to experiment and explore. Painting different surfaces such as cardboard, styrofoam, or paper is a great way to show kids how liquid reacts to different surfaces. Letting children paint with Q-tips, sponges, or toothbrushes allows them to investigate cause and effect. Start your youngest learners out with finger paint and then move on to short, fat paintbrushes – easy for little hands to grip. The shorter the brush, the easier for children to control.

Drawing and coloring: Coloring is typically introduced alongside painting, but it teaches different skills. Plus, it allows for art with a minimum amount of preparation… and mess! Start your kids with chunky (erasable!) crayons. When they’re ready, move on to colored pencils and felt-tipped pens. Not interested? Take it to the sidewalk with a tub of chalk. Have them test out the effects on rough concrete and smooth asphalt. The more they use crayons, pens, pencils, and chalk, the more prepared they’ll be when handwriting comes along!

Construction art: Want something a little different? Raid your pantry or sewing kit. Making collages with pasta, buttons, fabric, or feathers all helps kids learn about textures. Building with play dough allows children to poke, squish, pound whatever they want – without hurting anyone. Add popsicle sticks for even more fun!

Art can be scary for adults because we don’t think we’re “good” at it. Just remember, there are no critics in your kitchen. Let your fears go and help teach your child the fun of creativity!

Art can be messy but the mess is half the fun. And you’ve probably got a closet full of paper towels and a driveway full of newspapers. So let your children go for it. And sit back and enjoy their efforts.