Everything around us is made up of shapes. As children progress from recognising simple shapes and patterns, to noticing those shapes in the environment – wheels are circles, buses are rectangles – and then finding their own uses for shapes, creative play is a great, practical way to explore and give the concept of shape real meaning to young children.

When starting to explore shapes in art, I like to simply provide square, circle or triangle paper on which to make marks with familiar resources. The aim being, to let the children recognise the differences between simple shapes for themselves. Discussions about their work include naming the shapes that they are working on and any that they draw, even inadvertently: “You made a triangle!” as well as describing how they did it: “You drew that circle by moving the pen round and round.” Counting the pointy corners and straight sides with children can help them to see the differences between shapes.

Follow up activities focussed on individual shapes help to cement their learning, building familiarity with shapes and their uses in picture making and construction. Simple shapes are the building blocks of patterns and pictures but difficulty drawing or using scissors to make them can be a barrier to learning, so pre-cut shapes may be used for a variety of collage activities:


Triangles feature heavily in the intricate patterns of Islamic design. Provide cut-out card triangles (all the same size) for children to arrange in patterns. Use PVA glue mixed with a little glitter to stick down the triangles and make the pictures shine.


Fiona Rae’s abstract paintings often feature colourful perfect circles popping out from layers of smeary monochrome paint. Experiment with different tools for scraping gluey paint across and around a piece of paper. Cut out circles contrast well with the messy paint here too, and children with enveloping schemas enjoy hiding them under the layers of paint in their pictures. Explore the effect of drawing circles in the wet paint with crayons too.


Josef Albers made many paintings of big and small squares in similar colours. Children love positioning layers of different sized, coloured cellophane squares on an overhead projector and watching the colours change as the squares overlap, both on the projector and in the image it casts on the wall opposite. Alternatively layer cellophane squares onto a sunny window with sticky-back-plastic or blue tack – notice the colours and shapes this projects onto the floor.

All the shapes together

Matisse composed vibrant collages of paper shapes that he cut out; a process that he called “drawing with scissors.” Looking at Matisse’s pictures for inspiration, use PVA glue, glue sticks and/or sticky tape to combine simple shapes, cut from brightly coloured paper or card, to create pictures of things that make you happy. As well as cutting the shapes out in advance, leave some card for the children to try cutting their own shapes, perhaps beginning to follow drawn outlines.

Once children start to draw the simple shapes they’ve learnt about through collage, their learning can be further scaffolded by talking about the shapes they can see – when drawing a person, discuss the shape of a body or head – and helping them to draw those shapes for themselves; laying the foundation for observational drawing and most importantly building confidence in their own abilities.

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