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Parent groups everywhere are planning Cookies and Canvas and other paint nights for kids. Learn how the event works, and read tips for organizing one at your school.

by Abigail Forget and Elizabeth S. Leaver


Across the country, lots of schools are making the most of a popular paint night trend and bringing students and their families together for evenings filled with art, treats, and fun. The Partin Settlement Elementary PTO in Kissimmee, Fla., has hosted four popular Cookies and Canvas events and plans to do more.

“I was looking for something new to do,” says PTO president Stephanie Adams, who had recently gone to some fun paint nights with friends when she thought of planning a kids’ version. Another mom suggested asking Partin’s art teacher, Colleen Schmidt, to join in on the event.

“This event has become a school favorite and an event that both students and their families look forward to,” Schmidt says. Paint nights have drawn more than 70 students. (There are 950 students total at the preK-5 school.)

Before the event, Schmidt creates a sample painting that’s easy for children of all ages to replicate. The PTO buys paint through the school and goes to a discount art store for inexpensive canvases; Adams says the bigger the canvas, the easier it is for kids to paint—especially the younger children—and recommends buying canvases that are at least 9 inches by 12 inches or 16 inches. Schmidt supplies the brushes.

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At the event, Schmidt paints the picture at the front of the cafeteria, with her canvas projected onto a big screen from the stage for everyone to view easily. She also walks around to help the younger children, and she quizzes students about art terminology and gives them bracelets or other small prizes provided by the PTO for guessing the correct answers.

Three or four parent volunteers who aren’t painting help by handing out paper towels and paint. Halfway through the night, they serve popcorn, milk, and juice while the background layer of the canvas dries.

The PTO charges $15 per person for entry to the event and donates 20 percent of the total to the art department.

“My favorite part of teaching this event is observing the excitement of students and their parents interacting together while creating art,” Schmidt says. “In this current digital age when many adults and children interact more with their phones, it is amazing to see that art is still a very powerful tool in bringing people together and creating a positive experience.”

A number of other schools have posted on our PTO and PTA Leaders & Volunteers Facebook group about their family paint nights. Here’s what two of them had to say.

Owls for Valentine’s Day

Coolidge Elementary in Neenah, Wis., held a Valentine’s Day-theme event, which PTO president Nikki Winiecki said was a “huge success.” About 90 children participated in painting an owl with a heart (or circle) in the center. To help the kids prepare, all flyers and other notifications that were sent home included a rendering of the owl.

Providing stencils of the owl and eyes helped make it easier for kids to sketch out their project, as did having a sample painting projected on an overhead screen. Winiecki stressed that the low-key, unrushed feel of the event was a big part of its appeal.

“We got many compliments that [parents] loved the calm and peaceful time where they could create with their child and work at their own pace,” she said. “Many took an hour to finish, some a bit more. Not many finished before the hour was up.”

A Happy Snowman

A simple winter snowman was the project at Beechview Elementary in Farmington Hills, Mich. PTA treasurer Lisa Holmes says that a mom who’s a painter facilitated the event, which drew some 80 student participants (parents supervised but didn’t do their own paintings).

Organizers prepared by having everything set up at the table; kids got their canvases when they checked in shortly before the painting started. When they were done painting, they left their canvases and dropped their brushes into plastic coffee cans. Everyone enjoyed cookies while the paintings dried.

Tips for Organizing a Paint Night

Don’t have an art teacher, or she can’t participate? Ask around—chances are there’s an artsy mom or dad who’d be happy to run a paint night or would do it for a fee. The Beechview Elementary PTA hired a painter mom for $250. At Coolidge Elementary, the PTO secretary facilitated the event by cutting the stencils and having her own children create paintings as examples.

Kid paint nights seem to fill up quickly, so set a sign-up deadline. Have some extra supplies available so you’ll be prepared to welcome anyone who shows up without an RSVP.

Leaders have had good luck buying supplies through their school art departments or at retail chains that offer store coupons, like Michaels. While the Partin PTO uses larger canvases, 8 inches by 12 inches is also a popular size. The Beechview PTA’s Holmes bought canvases in bulk during a major sale and paid $11 for 10 canvases.

Keep the variety of paint colors to a minimum—five or fewer. Students will need less paint than you think, and it’s good to encourage them to be creative and mix colors together. (But it also doesn’t hurt to buy extra paint and return any that don’t get opened.)

Additional supplies to consider: brushes, palettes (commonly paper or foam plates), and easels—you might be able to borrow them from the art teacher or make your own from pizza boxes.

Make a plan for cleanup—have non-painting parent volunteers on hand to help mop up messes, refresh paint, clean brushes, and wipe down everything.

Make it easier for young artists by projecting the instructor’s painting onto a big screen.

Charge admission based on your goals. The Partin Settlement PTO charged $15 to be able to make a donation to the art department; the Coolidge PTO charged $7 to cover just the cost of supplies. Other schools charge more if they hold the event as a fundraiser.

Take photos! A paint night is a perfect event to show your group doing something fun and engaging.

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“Cookies and Canvas” is a popular event name, but you can still serve more than cookies if you wish. Or make up your own variation—popcorn and painting, for example.

Set up enough tables so students can sit comfortably with their supplies (and a parent, if needed). At the Beechview event, kids occupied every other seat so parents would have room to join them.

After the event, consider displaying the paintings in the art room or an approved part of the school hallway. Students will be thrilled to show their masterpieces to their friends!

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