As children print shapes, connect them and add to them, structures in the built environment are sure to emerge. Intentionally constructing a building or structure becomes an exciting adventure.

Henry's attic
“It’s my attic and those are boxes of stuff.” Henry (age 5)

Learning Objectives

When building with shapes and lines, children develop and practice:

  • analytical thinking skills
  • hand orientation and spatial awareness
  • proper hand pressure and grip
  • lacement and printing skills
  • constructing a variety of geometric shapes
  • awareness of shapes in the built environment
  • Recognizing and recreating structures in the built environment
  • integrating a variety of line, shape and design elements

Analyze a Building

Looking closely at a building by picking out and identifying the shapes is an exercise in analytical thinking and a helpful  provocation for constructing one’s own structure.

Bass building

Find a nearby building or a picture of a building in which the shapes are very clear and easy to see. Study the building quietly for a few minutes and then ask, What shapes do you notice?

reference blocks
Blocks can serve as a visual reference.

Get Started: Practice Building with Shapes

Invite children to share ideas about how to begin creating a building using the line stamp as a construction tool. Demonstrate strategies as the children suggest them.

Alex's outline and window
This child begins by starting with an outline or contour.

Beginning with a foundation, then building up, is another way to begin.
Try different shapes and sizes.

demonstrating shape building

Building up with “Lines”

Smith Student Center

Nearby construction projects can be exciting provocations!

Noah's factory

This “factory” grew from a kindergartner’s initial line exploration.

Watch a Teacher

Watch a teacher provoke ideas, and demonstrate strategies  for printing a building to preschoolers who have been practicing line printing for a few days.

Print on a New Color

Working on practice paper before moving to a new color gives children time to try out several ideas. Offering a new color of paper, such as this Fadeless paper, renews a child’s interest.

Anthony's building

Anthony (age 4)

more of Anthony's design

Anthony at work

There are many subtle ways to encourage a child to continue an exploration. Simply changing the orientation of the paper from horizontal to vertical can open up a different way of looking at, thinking about, and working with space.


Adding Color with Oil Pastels

Once prints have dried, children enjoy revisiting their work by adding color with  oil pastels. Some children will spend a great deal of time coloring, whereas others are happy with a few bright spots of color.

Pad the work area with a section of newspaper to make coloring easier.

Anthony’s completed rocket ship
Anthony’s completed rocket ship.

A Child Explains Her Work

This is (an) electric fence. There’s a house there, and I painted the house and lots of circles and triangles. This is a big mountain and I painted on the sun. ~ Alex (age 4)

Sequence Tools

Encourage children to stand up so that they can really see and get a feel for the entire space of the paper. Offer only the large line tool for thinking out their main structure (no paint), before they begin to print.

After structures take shape, offering the small line tool invites the addition of details.

Thomas prints an elevator
Thomas (age 6) prints an elevator.


Interviews: Listening to Children

Talking to children seriously about their work helps teachers, parents, and friends understand and appreciate each child in a deeper way. Interviews also reveal a variety of solutions to the problem of how to construct a building or structure. Questions to pose:

“Tell me about your line print ... How did you do it? ... Where did you begin? What gave you the idea? ... Did you run into any problems?”

Jack makes a house
I made a house. There’s a chimney where Santa comes down, and he turns the TV on, and then he leaves the toys, and he turns the TV off. I painted the outside of the house. I took a dip of paint which was gooey. Then I had to leave because I was done. ~ Jack (age 4)


Caitlin’s Plan

Lines, Shapes, Letters

Caitlin's house
I had a cardboard piece in my hand. I was making a house that was being decorated by Mommy and Daddy. I started at the end  (bottom right corner) and made the bottom, the side, the top and then there ( the right side). And then I put stuff inside it: an H, an A; I made a little swing (bottom left). Those are windows (right side). You can see out the windows. ~ Caitlin (age 4)

Lena’s Hotel

Main Large Shapes

Lena - age 5Lena's hotel
I was making a hotel that people live in if they don’t have a home. First I started at the bottom, then I went straight on the sides; that was the thing so it doesn’t rain. That black thing that’s really black (dark blotch on the bottom) is where the smoke came out. It’s like a chimney. Then I made the door like that. I made lots of windows because lots of people lived there. I made a square; then I made a straight line across the middle…then I put one across so that you could have square windows. ~ Lena (age 5)



Filling by Printing

Emma Rose

First I made the small doghouse, and then I made a medium one, and then I made that one which is a little bigger than the medium one. Next I made another one. I did that line by accident ... I filled in the doghouses*; I kept printing a lot of lines, over and over. I got more paint every now and then. This is the back of the doghouses. ~ Emma Rose (age 5)

*Note that Emma developed a strategy for making a solid wall – the back of the doghouses — using printed lines.


A Factory

Ben - age 5

I was making a factory. I made the bottom, and then I went up and made a chimney and then I made a door. The curvy is stairs, and they take you upstairs to the office. I am making a window with squares and X’s. ~ Ben (age 5)


A Magical Thing

Starting with a Square

The first thing I started with is the square; the big square around the star with a box. I used a cardboard piece with paint. I did the sides first, then the top and the bottom. Well, the other lines are holding in the sky, and the middle line is holding the whole thing down, and that (the bottom star) is a magical thing.
Gabriel (age 5)

Murals: Preparation

Working from drawings and photos
Working in pairs

Students at Fullerton College in CA
Students at Fullerton College in California  set out to create a mural of on-campus buildings. Having come to class with drawings and photos of favorite buildings, they now work in pairs, practicing and printing on practice paper before moving onto mural paper.

Photos courtesy of Patti Green Pappas

Murals: Placement

Teams were placed side by side. They worked from the bottom up, one building touching or slightly overlapping another. Because there were so many students,  some teams also worked from the top down. They had to figure out how to work upside down!

Murals: Adding Color

Exploring color mixing and creating unity
At first, oil pastels were used to add color to smaller details. Larger areas were painted with tempera paint. Each student began with a primary color, painted at least 3 areas, then changed the color by adding either white, or another primary and mixing until no streaks were showing*. They moved around the entire mural adding their colors in several spaces to create a sense of movement and unity.

practice print
Many students also painted their practice prints.

mixing color
*In order to see what color you have made, it is important to mix until no streaks are showing.
Photos courtesy of Patti Green Pappas


Adding Color with Oil Pastels
Smith College craypas mural

Adding color using only oil pastels takes time. Padding the surface with newspaper helps the color to soften and spread. Here students add color to both the building they created, as well as to the background. The turquoise blue background paper helps the colors glow.

Smith College students in The Teaching of Visual Arts class work on a mural of Northampton, MA.


Oil Pastels on a Vertical Surface

In this photo, Smith College students  in The Teaching of Visual Arts class work on a mural of the college.

Related Projects: Drawing  Block Constructions

Noticing that children were invested in the complex structures that they had created in the block area, the teachers of these 4-5 year-olds invited the children to save a memory of their construction by making a print or a drawing.

Conor and Salem made a rocket Conor and Salem draw
Getting Started:
1. Practice drawing with a capped marker to plan the sizes and placement of your shapes.
2. Start your drawing from the foundation and work up – just like you built it!

Conor's drawing Gabriel's drawing

Cut Paper Cityscapes

Creating a street or cityscape gives students a chance to practice cutting skills while focusing on basic shapes and their variations.

Zijai (age 7) demonstrates cutting a large shape into two smaller shapes.

Day one: larger shapes are cut and arranged.

Day two: Paper strips are available for cutting and adding details.

Observational Drawing

Draw a building or a house from observation

Will you begin with a detail like the door?

Will you begin with the main large shape?
Will you begin with the outline?

Sketch the building parts with your finger first to figure out the size, shapes and placement.
Cathy's housePhillip's sketch
Phillip (age 5) drew his house and then drew my house as an end of the year gift!