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Coral Reef Process Art Activity

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An activity for mini artists

When Z was very small, we used to do huge messy art projects together and they were awesome! Here she is at 18 months, getting fully stuck into some process art with bubble wrap and non-toxic acrylic paints. Going back through the old photographs has made me realise that I really need to get stuck into more adventurous art projects with E who is 16 months…

We ended up called this the ‘coral reef’ because in our minds, it kind of looks like one. Really it was just complete luck from the process that it turned out that way. Here’s what we used:

You will need:

  • A large cardboard canvas
  • Bubble wrap cut into rough square pieces
  • Non toxic acrylics or washable paints
  • Paint tray
  • Drop sheet or messy mat
  • Coverall apron
  • Damp cloth

Choosing Colours

I presented Z a selection of colours to try on a large paint tray. I picked out a selection of warm colours (orange, berry red) and cooler colours (baby blue, teal) for this project – there is also a mix of complementary colours in here. If you want to avoid a huge brown mess when letting your little ones experiment with process art, colours need to be selected carefully.

At Z’s age at the time, it made sense for me to choose the colours. HOWEVER, with older children it’s best to let them pick themselves. This is how they learn about colour theories and how colours mix together. Now that Z is 3.5 years, she picks colours herself. Again, if you want some control over how it turns out, don’t offer every single colour you own during a paint session!


This paint project took us a whole morning to finish with me actively joining in with the session. Z and I often create together, especially when it comes to large projects like this one. Children tend to learn by observing and doing – at 18 months, Z liked to follow my lead. First by squishing the bubble wrap into the paints and then onto the canvas.

Finished work:

As you can see, Z was super proud of the finished artwork. What I particularly like about a cardboard canvas is that it can take a bit of toddler tough love. If done on paper, this artwork would’ve ended up covered in holes but on cardboard, it has a lasting quality.

Just as a reminder, we didn’t intend for it to BE a coral reef but the finished piece of artwork just looks like one to us. I think that it is so important in the early years to just let the children explore the paints and materials without the intention of a finished artwork in mind.

Age recommendations:

I’m always hesitant to put age recommendations on as it really depends on the child. Z never tried to taste test anything after 12 months which is why we were able to use non-toxic acrylics aged 18 months. If you’re child still regularly mouths everything, I would recommend trying one of our ‘taste-safe’ projects.

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Sian Thomas

Sian Thomas

Sian is a trained teacher mama to three awesome children and wife to Greg. As a family of expats, they travel the world every couple of years for new adventures. Right now, they live in Vienna, Austria.

One thing Sian is super passionate about? Helping mums worldwide navigate the early years of parenthood.

You can join her on her brand new venture, This Playful Home, by visiting www.thisplayfulhome.com or clicking the email sign up button below!

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