Explore Art and Develop Toddler Fine Motor Skills With Collage

The word collage comes from the French verb coller, which means "to glue." And if there's anything toddlers love to do, it's playing with glue. Why are they drawn to this sticky, messy stuff? Who knows! But let's use it to our advantage and work in some learning at the same time. 


Introduction to Making Collages With Toddlers

Stone Soup Collage
This collage was made after reading the book Stone Soup by Marcia Brown. Many toddler books can be turned into fun collage opportunities that reinforce concepts and allow individual expression and interpretation. Photo © Stephanie Brown

Your most basic collage will consist of just three things: A piece of paper as the base, torn or cut paper as the collage material and some sort of glue to hold those two things together. Early on, you will be responsible for most of the setup. You may need to stabilize the piece of paper. You may need to cut or tear the materials yourself. You will definitely want to be very picky about the type of glue you allow.

At first, your toddler won't know what to do. I suggest that you sit down beside her and put together your own collage. Model how to use the glue. Model how to place the pieces on the paper. Show them what happens when you use too much glue and also what happens when you do not use enough.

Realize, too, that when you model these things, they are still probably going to test things out on their own, so be prepared and patient. Let them explore.

Several great things come from collage in the toddler years:

  • It allows the reinforcement of concepts when done in a more guided, structured way.
  • It allows your toddler to express herself through art when done in an open way.
  • It has plenty of art process (which is the part your toddler loves) and also allows for a finished product (which is the part most parents and art-as-gift recipients like grandparents love).
  • It teaches cause and effect.
  • It's an outstanding way to not only help your toddler's fine motor skills develop but to gauge where those skills are at any given time.

Important Safety Measures: Always offer constant supervision when doing art projects with your toddler. This is especially true of collage materials which tend to be small and could pose a choking hazard. Always use non-toxic materials and use safety scissors. When the project is finished, be sure to hang it out of your child's reach.

With all that in mind, let's learn all that you can do with your toddler and collage.


Your Toddler's First Collages

You can start doing collage with your child as soon as you notice that she is picking things up and moving things around with care and deliberation, which is usually around the 1-year mark. You'll probably notice this during mealtimes. You might even notice them starting to arrange food on a high chair tray. (Toast over there, fruit front-and-center, eggs in the corner...)

They'll do even better if they've started to refine that pincer grasp, which happens in the last half of the first year. It's also a good idea to wait on doing collage until your child is past the point of exploring every little thing with their mouth.

Initially, you will probably want to draw or print something for her to place materials onto and you'll also want to cut or tear the materials for her. A good first collage that introduces a concept is a collage of squares like the one shown here. You can:

  1. Draw a square on a piece of paper.
  2. Cut large squares of construction paper.
  3. Place a thick band of glue along the line of the square.
  4. Encourage your child to place the cut squares on the glue line.
  5. Allow to dry flat and hang later to display.

Sometimes you may feel like you are doing most of the work of the collage since you are setting up all of the materials. That's true and nothing to worry about. The more collages you do, the more your child's skills will improve and the more involved she will be in future collage preparations.

Other easy collage ideas for toddlers who are beginners (typically in the 12-18 month age range) are:

  • Dipping macaroni pieces into a shallow dish of glue and placing them on paper.
  • Going through a magazine together to find pictures on a theme (red things, mommies, babies, diapers, etc.) and gluing those to construction paper.
  • Placing stickers on paper.
  • Using decals on a window (like those you can purchase for holidays).
  • Using refrigerator magnet letters (only with constant supervision and look for the kind that are flat decals or have magnets sealed inside since toddlers have died from swallowing two magnets and toys with magnets that can come loose are recalled all the time).
  • Using the sticky side of contact paper face-up as adhesive.
  • Using Wikki Stix (only with constant supervision and keep the finished product out of reach as they could be rolled into a ball and pose a choking hazard).

Paper Techniques

The type of paper you use will depend on the type of collage your toddler is making. If you want to reinforce a color concept, you might make a collage of something red like red fruit. Examples:

  • Find a line drawing of an apple, print and have your toddler place pieces of red paper onto it.
  • Find line drawings of different red fruits, print them onto a piece of red construction paper, cut those out and allow your toddler to glue them on one page.
  • Look through food magazines with your toddler for pictures of apples, cherries, raspberries, and strawberries, cut those out and glue on one page.

To improve fine motor skills, you can encourage your very young toddler to tear the paper for the collage. Cut the paper into strips about an inch wide and show your toddler how to use the pincer grasp to hold the strip with both hands and then move her hands away from each other (one toward her body and the other away) to tear it.

You may need to stand in front of or behind them with your hands over theirs to show them how this is done at first.

Folding and Tearing

As your toddler gets better at this type of tearing, you can introduce her to other types of tearing, like folding paper first and tearing along the crease or folding first and tearing along the edge of a table when your child is around 3 to 4 years of age.

Safety Scissors

Around 2 years of age, you can start to use a pair of safety scissors to cut the strips of paper instead. When she gets the hang of cutting the strips of paper, you can let them tackle larger pieces. At first, draw thick lines with a marker for her to cut along to make her own strips. Later, only make dashed lines to cut along. Finally, don't give her any lines when her skills are advanced.

Hole Puncher

Another activity to introduce once she has the motion of the scissors down is a hole puncher. This will not only strengthen her hand but using the tiny bits of paper from a hole punch for collage is another good way to improve fine motor skills. If she's not ready for the hole puncher, you can always use packaged confetti as a collage material at first.

Types of Paper

Using different weights of papers can make tearing and cutting easier. Tissue paper, for example, is easy to tear and fun to crumple up. It makes an interesting texture and it can offer a new auditory dimension to your toddler's project. It's also delicate, so care must be taken when gluing or the colors bleed and it will start to stick to her fingers. This is a good way, however, to learn things like cause-and-effect.

The paper that you use as your toddler's canvas is also important to consider, not just for artistic purposes, but for strength. Toddlers are heavy-handed with glue until they learn more control, so you'll want to choose a paper that can handle that moisture level and weight. You'll also want to consider heavier papers when you start to use collage materials other than paper (like buttons or noodles).


Gluing Techniques

Initially, you will probably want to control the application of glue when doing collage with your toddler. You can even use bottled glue or glue stick to draw the item you're wanting to reinforce, like an apple outline for example. I like the glues that have some color in them but dry clear. They allow your toddler to be guided but they don't ruin the final product.

Later, you can experiment with different levels of glue freedom. Your toddler may develop certain skills before others, so you'll want to watch her own unique development to know what to introduce next. For example, you can cut a piece of a sponge into a square about (1 inch by 2 inches) and put that inside a clothespin.

Liquid Glue

Then pour some school glue into a shallow dish and let her use the clothespin as a handle to dab glue onto her paper with the sponge. When she gets the hang of that, she will be ready to start brushing glue onto paper with a paintbrush or a sponge brush from a hardware store.

The last thing I would do is hand a toddler a 4-ounce bottle full of school glue. That takes practice. Start with the smaller bottle first (less mess) but do let her experiment with the amount of squeezing it takes to get out a dot versus a giant blob. Another option is to use the little squeeze bottles that are used for cake decorating since you can control the size of the hole.

Glue Sticks

Glue sticks can be deceptive. It's not as messy as school glue but it's hard for toddlers to see how much they are applying, though there are some that are colored to help with that problem. They also dry a little faster so by the time your toddler gets around to placing her collage materials, they may not stick.

I can't tell you how many glue sticks my toddler has broken by extending it too far and then pressing down too hard. Still, give it a try and see how it goes. It's got a steep learning curve, but once your toddler learns how it works, it can be pretty great in the cleanup department.


If your toddler and glue are like oil and water, try using double-sided tape or using contact paper (sticky side up) for those first collages. Use clear contact paper and then place another piece over it when she's done and hang it in the window for a fun suncatcher or Christmas ornament.


Other Art Materials

Using paper as a collage material is just the beginning. Just look around you for other things. Pasta is a good collage material because it comes in so many different shapes. Your toddler can use thick spaghetti to imitate the lines of a house or use fusilli for curly hair.

Collage Materials Box

Start building a box of random materials to have around for rainy day collage making. Fill it with yarn scraps, fabric pieces, buttons, sequins, cotton balls, feathers, bottle caps and tin foil. There's no limit on what could be useful from around the house.

Step outside and think of things from nature, too. Pebbles, grasses, leaves, twigs and flower petals all make beautiful collages. If you paint glue onto a page, you can even make a lovely sand or salt collage. These materials are a natural fit to reinforce colors, textures, shapes and seasons.

You can group together like materials, too. For instance, if you've been talking about safety or if you're helping your toddler cope with an injury or get ready for a hospital visit, make a first aid collage with band-aids, cotton balls, gauze pads and medical tape.

Again, when doing any art project with your toddler, it's important to offer constant supervision. Collage materials can definitely present choking hazards so you want to be present and watchful throughout the entire project and then hang the finished project out of reach.

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Article Sources
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  2. National Capital Poison Center. "Toy" Magnets Are Dangerous for Children. Updated January 2020.