Is it Ever Appropriate to Use Tracers in the Art Room?

Here at AOE, we like to tackle touchy subjects. From How-To-Draw books to using teacher samples, we’re not afraid to delve deep into the subjects teachers really think about. That’s why today, I’d love to take on another delicate topic…tracers.


So, is it ever appropriate to use tracers in the art room? For me, the answer to that question is yes, but only in certain circumstances. In fact, in my mind, the only time to use a tracer in the art room is when a tracer provides a necessary size or shape requirement for a project. Let me explain.

When my second graders make coil pots, I have each student start with the same size circle for the bottom. This makes storing the projects easier and allows students to get to the main objective of the project, rolling and attaching coils, much more quickly. Here, the tracer serves a direct purpose: helping me fit all the coil pots on the tray and helping the kids have projects that they can successfully finish in the allotted class time.

coilpots copy

Another example is a patterning project that I do with my kindergartners. Students begin by tracing and cutting out a large mitten. Each student is then tasked with creating different kinds of patterns on the mittens using paper shapes. Again, the tracers help students have a large enough surface to explore patterns and have nothing to do with the main objective of the lesson.

patternmittens copy

So, I’d love to know, when, if ever, do you pull out tracers in the art room?

Are students allowed to use stencils? Let’s talk!

Amanda Heyn

Amanda is the Senior Editor at AOE. She has a background in teaching elementary art and enjoys working to bring the best ideas from the world of art ed to the magazine each day. 


  • I try to only use tracers to help students over a hurdle in the sketching or prep stage- never as a part of a finished piece. For instance, when creating self-portraits with young students, I’ll have an “egg” shape they can choose to (or choose not to) trace for the outline of their face. I’ve noticed that having this set shape helps them have enough space to find the placement for all the facial features- and all the proportion rules hold true since they are using a symmetrical shape.
    I also use some tracers with kindergarten students when we study Paul Klee and construct dream cities and dream gardens using geometric shapes.

    • Kathy

      I never use tracers (although for the pinch pots that seemed appropriate). I know my view may be unpopular, but I have never allowed students to copy in 40 years of teaching. I would rather see the children’s work, as limited as it may be. If they can’t do it themselves I feel it is not appropriate for the age, and we should look for other ways to teach the concept. I think dependence on copying (whether from photos, master artists, or my examples) is inappropriate in elementary art classes, and undermines the student’s confidence by building dependance. The product may look better, but the child is not really creating it. I show them a variety of examples of work on the topic from the previous year (computer slide show) and examples of other artists aon the same subject and give a demo, BUT I put those away so they are not copied. When a child copies a “Master artist” what are they learning that justifies the copying? –I did this in art school but don’t feel it is appropriate for young children.
      I am very fortunate that at my school homeroom teachers do all kinds of crafts, centers activities, and holiday art where they do most of the cutting and the students copy their examples, so in the art room I can focus on art where the teacher does not have such a heavy hand. Also, I am fortunate to have only 17 children in a class, and for those of you with big classes I am more sympathetic to however you manage to get through your adventures with materials. If your classes are small I encourage you to break away from copying in all forms. Our students deserve better.

  • dawn

    I use them more for their free-draw times than for a lessons. Occasionally we’ll use the compass for large circles (to later use as planets) or when we study Picasso and draw people using anything but circles.

    I don’t see anything wrong with them, we just don’t seem to pull them out for specific elements of the lessons.

  • Mrs.C

    I use them at times during a project when they are necessary for a certain result as you have stated in your post. Mostly, I have the students draw there own shapes/objects and give them ways/tricks to achieve the desired end result. I have many tracers on my activity table that the students love to use in their free time. They can choose from tessellation animals, crazy curves and symmetry shapes. I believe that these are very good for helping to develop their fine motor skills. My kinders love to trace the shapes and cut them out. The students trace them together and use their imaginations to turn them into many objects and scenes.

    • I agree about tracers for free choice. They are a great way to develop fine motor skills!

  • Marcia Beckett

    I was just thinking about this today because we were actually tracing mittens! I agree with you completely.

  • Jennifer Impey

    I primarily use stensils for my kindergarteners and 1st graders. I think in Kindergarten it is important to use them for motor skills purposes. Being able to hold the tracer still while drawing a line around it is an important skill to be able to do! Depending on the students in my kindergarten class will depend on how in depth my tracing projects might be. If I have a group with poor motor skills or a group that finds it difficult to follow directions, I may do multiple tracing, cutting and gluing projects to work on this. However, if I have an advanced group, I’ll hold back on the tracing projects and let them draw their own projects.
    I don’t really use tracers for older students, though I am tempted to purchase some letter stencils for use with the older (5th & 6th grade) students to do advertising projects.

  • Elizabeth

    I usually use the small geometric shape tracers/stencils, when my kids are doing radial symmetry. They want everything to be exactly the same, and they are using colored pencils or skinny markers. It makes it more about the radial symmetry then, instead of having to concentrate on making their shapes.

    I also keep the old letter stencils because there are kids that really like the graphic look of those letters we used on posters in the “old days”!

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  • Suzanne

    I have had students (6th-8th grade) make their own tracers (eg, their initials) out of tag board. Also, I have had them trace large pizza cardboards for radial patterns. It’s what I would do if I were doing a round composition! They have also used small geometric tracers to create interesting abstract compositions. Check out this Art 21 video about Brooklyn artist Louise Despont who makes amazing art with only tracers: