Kids have been finger-painting and scribbling for eons, but only recently did researchers realize all its ripple effects. Dr. Wesson has found that visual art engages many areas of a child's brain, including the parts that control decision making, action planning, physical movement, and memory. Attention to detail is a critical component in reading skills too.
Toddlers: Pudding Painting
Separate a batch of vanilla pudding into a few small bowls and add a drop of different food coloring to each. Dress (or undress!) your child for a mess, and let him "paint" on a surface covered with a plastic sheet. At this age, art should involve many senses, says Susanna Carrillo, founder of Paper Scissors Oranges, an art studio for children in Darien, Connecticut. It's also a lesson on color mixing -- red + blue=purple!
Preschoolers: Macaroni Mosaics
Mix raw pasta with food coloring or liquid watercolor in a bowl. Spread on a tray to dry, then let kids glue it onto cardboard to make picture frames. Besides emphasizing fine motor skills and the fact that you can make art out of anything, these types of projects provide a fun way for getting kids to stay focused and on task to complete a project -- skills they'll need later in math, reading, and complex problem-solving.
School-Age Kids: Life-Size Self-Portraits
Have your child lie down on a large piece of craft paper so you can trace the outline of her whole figure. Then have her sketch in the details of her hair, face, clothes, skeleton, internal organs, whatever else she chooses. As she draws, she may need to examine herself in a mirror, which develops her ability to observe and discriminate details -- a key skill in reading comprehension. Hang the image on her bedroom door.