Letting Students Choose Materials: Do You Dare?

I saw a tweet that read, “The job of the artist is to have an idea and find the best material to express it.”

As art teachers, we are programmed to distribute materials. For the little ones, we hand out cut paper. At the middle school level, we pour tempera paint. In high school we pass out 12″ x18″ sheets of drawing paper.

If our job as art teachers is to create artists, how do we facilitate this idea if we are dictating the materials? At what point do we surrender control of the medium and let the students decide?

student choice

An ideal lesson that allows students to decide which materials to use starts with a question or theme-based project. The student is presented with a question or theme and then is required to find a solution that answers that question. Since the answers can vary widely, the media needed to complete the project will vary as well. Before letting students choose their own materials, consider the following three concerns.

1. If every student chooses a different material, won’t that cause chaos?

In a word, yes. You need to consider your own tolerance for disorder. Some teachers thrive when much is going on, while others need to maintain a sense of order. Allowing students to choose materials doesn’t necessarily mean they can choose any media. You can reduce chaos while still allowing choice by limiting the scope of the materials.

2. Will students use supplies reasonably and responsibly or will there be waste?

When the art teacher distributes the materials, she can control the amounts being used. However, in this situation, the students are not learning to take responsibility. Students that distribute their own materials will periodically make poor choices. Guidance and correction from the art teacher will be needed to help students learn as they become artists.

3. How will students learn how to use a particular material if the art teacher is not making sure the student selects it?

There are times when we wouldn’t allow choice of materials because the objective of the lesson is to learn skills and techniques specifically related to a particular medium. However, once students have had exposure, their choices will provide an opportunity to further explore those skills and produce more advanced results.


How does it work in your classroom? Do you dole out supplies or let students take control? 

If you let students choose materials, how do you keep it manageable? Let us know in the comment section!


Ian Sands

This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • Charmaine Boggs

    I follow TAB posts, so I do think choice is important in the art room. My art studio at school is large, but so are some of my classes, so I do have to set some limits to the choices. When I do have choice times, I set up separate areas for the materials that can be chosen so that the chaos is minimal and the students know where to find, and put away, whatever they need to use. I do have some students who occasionally take more paint, paper, etc. than they need, but that’s part of the learning process. When that happens, I challenge them to find a purpose for the materials, share them, or recycle them. By fifth or sixth grade, they are all pretty good at estimating their needs for a project.

  • Carolyn Ibarra

    I let my middle schoolers choose their 2D media when the lesson does not dictate it. The way it is kept manageable is to have certain items always stored in certain locations. It works fairly well, but I have learned that I need to spend some more time explicitly teaching clean up procedures for each station / material.

    • It’s great to hear everyone’s experiences with TAB in the art room. It’s an area we want to cover more of here at AOE. Thanks for sharing!

      • talimum

        Hi Jessica, Amanda, Ian,

        I have been following AOE (my favorite art ed blog!) for about a year now. I was just hired to teach art to grades 1-8 at a Montessori school AND will be switching over to TAB as well. From a semi-new art teacher’s point of view, it seems like TAB is growing in supporters. I would love to see TAB start to make it’s way onto this blog (or maybe bring someone on AOE who is teaching this way?).

        Thank you for all of the time you spend to help all of us art teachers in what we do! :)

  • Toby

    In many of my lessons we have many choices/selections of materials on the counter to best communicate the ideas the students are working on. I will have a variety of materials and walk through how/why we would use one over another. This way they are pre-thinking of maybe what to use for certain parts…They also have a resource section and should they finish early they read about an artist or an art style…as well as draw. Some days we have an iPad available for use on an interactive art project. My students have been most responsible with the materials… taking out, using and putting away… All in an elementary setting! We start in kindergarten and its learned for all the other grades. They make me proud! This also gives them a chance to experience mixed media in a way we maybe didn’t even brainstorm about. They create new ideas and share with the rest of the class! There is movement in the classroom but it is responsible and helpful.

  • Beth Ensign

    I run a choice-based classroom: letting students choose is central to what I do. I have found it is essential to teach very explicit procedures for the use and care of materials, and, within the choice format, to limit the amount of materials that are available. Too much choice is overwhelming. I use themes, and periodically have a time of intense focus on a certain type of process, to help children progress in their understanding of materials and to push their conceptual thinking. Chaotic? sometimes, but so very rewarding.

  • whiteline

    Oh lets get serious here, when I first started teaching I dreamed of the day when I would be able to give a student an extra piece of paper if they made a mistake. I still have the same dream. I bought all the paint and the brushes for my class, and we have no budget for art supplies…I have to control the supplies with a tight fist, as I don’t want to run out of supplies before I run out of year…

    • I am sorry to hear about your art budget. It sounds like you are doing the best you can, with what you have. Thanks for commenting and sharing your story!

    • iansands

      I hear you. I used to teach at a school where my budget was $400. Wasting materials is a real concern and that is why I addressed it in the post. The one silver lining to my extra low budget was that I was able, or perhaps forced, to get very creative with using “non art” materials. You might have inspired my next post :)

    • Clyde Gaw

      I have a construction center that is stocked with repurposed cardboard cut into a multitude of shapes and pieces and a block building center that is stocked with pver 3000 pieces of assorted finished wood and plastic odds and ends. Add a $1.00 bag of marbles and we have an architecture/engineering center where ephemeral works of art are all the rage…

  • Barbara

    I also have a choice-based 1st – 6th grade art classroom. My students independently choose their materials from a variety of media centers (drawing, painting, collage, sculpture, fiber, architecture, printmaking and technology). Is there a lot going on in our classroom? You bet! Is it chaos….not at all.The key to less chaos is good organization and teaching the children how an artist goes about choosing materials to best express their idea, setting up their workspace and also cleaning up. I have high expectations for my students and they do a wonderful job of maintaining our studio workspace. We start slow in first grade and by the third quarter the 1st graders have all centers available to them. New techniques and materials are introduced as they progress through the grade levels. I love teaching this way and more importantly my students thrive in this environment. They are not just learning how to make something…they are learning how to think creatively. When I was first introduced to choice teaching, I was a bit skeptical. I thought for sure it would be chaos. My curiosity got the best of me and I just had to try it. I have been teaching this way for 7 years now and will never go back to the traditional way of teaching art.

    • I loved reading your description of how you make choices run smoothly. It sounds like any good teaching- start slow and build student skills as they get older. You made me realize it’s do-able!

  • Mrs. McM

    Similar to Carolyn, I too let my middle-schoolers choose when the lesson/technique allows (which is the majority of the time). I have a poster of “media choices” in icon format on our white board. The choices that are not available to them are marked out with a Velcro-ed “X” over the icon. That way I don’t have to constantly repeat what options are available for the current lesson.
    Also, the first time I dispense paint so they see what I feel is an appropriate amount to begin with. After that I let them dispense their own. WITH the reminders at clean up time that if they are washing paint down the sink, they chose too much and to start with less next time. It works pretty well and pretty quickly with my kids.

  • Krngriffith

    I have several projects that allows student choice of art materials. Other lessons when I want them to learn a certain objective so they need to use a certain art material. I teach k-8 and the first class is exploration with this years art materials. So for example kindergarten gets to explore basic art materials, where my middle school may explore tubed watercolor to watercolor pencils. On their portfolio they use what ever they want to try. It is my pre-assessment, especially for my younger grades or new students. It gives me an idea of what the student is interested in, abilities, and kind of a head count on favorite art materials.

  • Ms. B’s Art Room

    I do choice based in my more advanced classes in grades 9-12. We have been conducting research on students’ attitudes towards this approach to teaching. A doctoral student has been working with us for the past two years. We hope to be able to provide more insight into student’s attitudes and performance based on this approach

  • arlyart

    I have had the unique perspective of spending the last 10 years as a professional artist along with teaching adults art, after a 10 year period of teaching elementary ed. Believe it or not, going back into the classroom this year I am psyched because I have the knowledge of not only how the younger ones learn, but when I experienced the learning process of the adult compared with the practicing arts of a professional artist, the perspective was invaluable. Even adults who wish to be artists thrive in a learning environment where they learn and explore with different mediums, then give them selves the freedom to choose their medium of choice after they feel confident enough to understand the basic function of the medium. I call it “intuitive painting within a framework”. When I first started, I gave the adults free reign and the options where overwhelming and their results were poor. When I took the time to model how to use a particular medium, they were then knowledgeable enough to choose their art of choice which made all the difference. I see the younger students having the same issues, if not more so in the area of needing the framework, but not a dictated one. My plan for them this year is to have a balance of direct instruction with periods of choice based learning intertwined, all tied to the concept of “how would an artist do it?” and “think of many, varied, and unusual ways your art can be different.” I am in a building year, but plan to move to a choice based curriculum for the majority of my classes as they evolve into that.

  • Susan

    I have been teaching k-5 choice for the last 6 years. It works for me because I teach and reteach routines (getting supplies out, cleaning up, sharing, collaborating… Anything that I want kids to do, I set up a routine for and set clear expectations.)

    I teach and reteach idea gathering. We look at a lot of art (from masters to the not so skilled…). I encourage exploration and play to help move students from the scribble stage to thoughtful intentional art making. Students share their progress and talk to each other about the work they do, even it if it isn’t successful. It works because I plan for and predict the chaos. I believe in my heart that most students have the best intentions in the art room.

  • Clyde Gaw

    Great article Ian. From my perspective, and there are many art educators who observe this phenomenon also, choice is an essential component in providing pathways to experience the fullness of power that art making can be.

  • Leanne

    I just read this post and thought it would be interesting to read what others had to say. My classes are mixed grades 9 through 12 (introductory through advanced) and it is quite the challenge. In order to acknowledge the diversity of skills I made the choice to approach teaching fine arts as I do with my own personal art practice (whereby the concept dictates the materials!) I too have a small budget for supplies and went forward with this new approach with trepidation that I might be faced with zero supplies for the end of the year. I’ve found that the classroom budget and supply management is actually better than when I “hyper controlled” all of the mediums that students could use. I am now moving into my 3rd year of this approach and all seems to be well!

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