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Sketchbook Ideas for the Art Classroom


Sketchbook Ideas for Elementary Art

I want to share why I started using sketchbooks in my elementary art classroom, seven ways I used sketchbooks, and the benefits students got from using them. I’ll also give you a few tips for getting started, making sketchbooks, and keeping sketchbooks organized.


Why Use Sketchbooks?

I first started using sketchbooks because I wanted students to experiment and try out ideas before jumping into their art. When I gave them a single piece of paper, they often threw it away or lost it when they finished using it. When they put those experiments in a sketchbook, I found that they valued them much more and wanted to add to them a create a collection of ideas. I like how they record students’ thoughts and ideas and the different challenges they had in art throughout the year. In particular, I felt like there was so much more information in the sketchbooks than the final work of art at times. Equally, I like that students coan write down ideas about the meaning of the work of art.


1) Using Sketchbooks with Essential Questions

I liked giving students “essential questions” that they could draw and write out the answer to. Writing comes more naturally for some students, and others want to draw first and then write about it. So often, I would give them a strip of paper with the essential question written on it and have students glue the question at the top of the page and do their sketching below. If I wanted students to draw more than one thumbnail, sometimes I’d have them trace around tagboard rectangles to create 2-3 boxes on one page.


2) Using Sketchbooks with Big Ideas

As I started using “big ideas,” I created little tabs that students could glue into their sketchbooks for each big idea. We would cover three big ideas each year and do several sketches and projects for each big idea. The tabs gave the sketchbook a framework and made it easy for parents and others to see how we used each big idea.

How to Use the Tabs

Each student gets a strip of paper. They glue it in their sketchbook with the word “Identity” hanging off the edge of a page and fold the extra paper over to the backside to add strength to the tab. While they are sketching, I’d come around with packaging tape and tape over the tab to keep it from ripping (optional step).


3) Sketchbooks for Reflection and Assessment

Sketchbooks can also be a place for students to reflect on their work and how they might revise or improve their work. Sketchbooks can also be a place for me to access students’ understanding of a concept. I like to write them little notes or give them a stamp of approval (using a cute rubber stamp). Then they can jump right into their art at the beginning of the next class without waiting for me to talk to them.


4) Free Choice Drawing

Early Finishers

Another way that students used their sketchbooks is for “free draw” time. If they have any extra time at the end of an art class, they can draw in their sketchbooks and continue to add to their ideas or draw something of their own choice. Students liked this opportunity, and it provided an excellent activity for an early finisher that was engaging but not distracting to the students still working. (Anything “too fun” or too noisy tended to cause the other students to start rushing through their work just to be able to join their friends in doing the activity.)

Be On the Lookout

Every once in a while, I had to curtail a 1st grader from “waisting pages” by just making a quick scribble and then turning the page. Other than that, students seemed to want to produce quality work. Furthermore, it didn’t use up all the pages of their sketchbooks during their free choice drawing time.


5) Sharing with Sketchbooks

Art Shows

Students can also use sketchbooks to display the thinking behind a lesson. For example, you can set up a table under an art show display and have a few sketchbooks open to the page where students did some thumbnails and writing about the final project. 

Open House

If you have an open house or curriculum night early in the school year, the sketchbooks can be a great way to let parents know what you are working on, even when you don’t have finished art to display yet. For instance, you can leave sample sketchbooks out on tables. Then, leave a different grade level on each table to show all the lessons in progress.


When a principal or board member does a “walk-through” and asks students what they are making and why they are making it, students are much more likely to explain this if the information is in their sketchbook. Indeed, sketchbooks reinforce the information in the students’ minds and make it easier to share with others.


6) Elements of Art and Sketchbooks

All Elements at Once

If you want to cover the elements of art quickly, you might consider using sketchbooks. There are two different approaches that I’ve tried. One is to go through the elements at the beginning of the year all at once. I did this by using my Elements of Art Sketchbook Activities. Then, after teaching about the elements of art, students did an Op Art lesson that used the elements as a focus. Doing the Op Art lesson showed students how to use the elements of art to create illusions.


One Element Per Project

Likewise, another idea is to cover one or two elements for each lesson and do a quick activity before introducing the art lesson. It might take the entire year to cover all 7 elements of art, but if you plan ahead, this would be a great way to give each element a little more focus. Of course, each art project would be about much more than the element of art. The element of art would just give students a formal quality to think about in addition to the meaning or big idea of the art project.


7) Art Critiques Using Sketchbooks

Sketchbooks can quickly become a tool for critiquing art. One way of doing this is by creating an interactive page. Interactive pages are not only fun for students, but they engage them in a way that makes them want to go back over information and share their work with others. In addition, these activities help students retain information. 

An interactive page is a flip-flap that students open to reveal the answer to a question or some information. For example, the front of the flap could say, “Describe what is happening in this work of art.” Next, students glue flaps into their sketchbooks and write the answer under the flap. If you’d like to do this type of activity focusing on the Principles of Design or Elements of Art, I’ve created some pages for that. Finally, students can write about how the artist used the element of art or design principle under the flap.


Sketchbooks and Mental Health Benefits

One attribute of sketchbooks is the physical property of being able to shut the book. Keeping work semi-private helps students let their guard down a little and try things that they might not try on a piece of paper that gets displayed.  

I think some students find it necessary to “get out” some of their thoughts that might not be the most appropriate for public consumption.  After drawing in sketchbooks, students can edit out ideas. As a result, students can reveal something in their final work of art that they feel more comfortable sharing. Sketchbook drawings can also be an excellent tool for initiating a private conversation with students about their thoughts and feelings. Or if needed,  referring students to a counselor.


To Buy or Not to Buy

Student Provided Sketchbooks

So if you haven’t tried using sketchbooks in your classroom, I suggest giving it a try! I was fortunate to teach in a district where I was able to ask students to bring in a sketchbook, and most students did! For example, I ordered 10-20 sketchbooks as part of my supply order and handed them out to students who could not afford a sketchbook. If this is not possible, try making them.

Making Sketchbooks

You could use a traditional bookbinding technique such as sewing or keep it simple by folding paper and using a long-arm stapler to staple them. Most students can make their own. Have older (5th grade) students make some at the end of the year for next year’s 1st graders. It’s also great to have a few extra made for new students. One advantage of making your sketchbooks is that students can decorate the cover. A simple way to do this is to give them the letters “A-R-T” to trace and color in with bright colors and patterns (or zentangle).


Keeping Sketchbooks Organized

To keep sketchbooks organized, I had the office print out labels (or give me a database to print them).

Color Coding

Before passing the label out, I color-coded the edge of the label with markers and glitter glue. (First-grade blue, 2nd red, third orange, 4th green, and 5th purple) Then after they got their assigned seats, they got a sticker that indicated which table they sat at that also went on the label. Color coding made passing them out easy. Even if the students were not at their seats, someone could pass sketchbooks to the correct table.

The stickers also had their teacher’s name on them, so if I found a sketchbook lying somewhere in the room, I could put it with the rest of that class’s sketchbooks.

 Storing Sketchbooks

Depending on the size of your sketchbooks, you could store them in a crate or on a shelf labeled with the teacher’s name. If you are on a cart, ask teachers to give you a little spot for sketchbooks and work in progress in the classroom.



Before You Go

I’d love to hear how you’ve used sketchbooks in your classroom. 

If you have questions about how I’ve used sketchbooks in my art room you can ask them in my Facebook group.


The Benefits of Drawing

Click on the image to get your free infographic!

Use this infographic to display in your room or share with parents, administrators, or other teachers as a way to point out some of the academic benefits of learning to draw. While they are not the only reason for using drawing as part of a balanced curriculum, they are certainly worthy of celebrating and may help you advocate for including drawing as part of your art or classroom learning experiences.

You can read more about The Benefits of Drawing in this blog post.

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A drawing of a sketchbook flipped open to a white page with the words, "7 Ways to Use Sketchbooks in the Elementary Art Room". There is a purple pencil laying beside the sketchbook and a light blue background.
Picture of Stacey Peters

Stacey Peters

I create engaging drawing resources that help students build confidence and express themselves through art. I'm a former elementary art teacher of 25 years turned business owner. Giving you the tools you need to bring more drawing into your classroom brings me joy.

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