5 Simple Ways to Use Sketchbooks in the Elementary Art Room

Many years ago, I started thinking about using sketchbooks with my upper elementary students. I knew other elementary art teachers who had successfully added sketchbooks to their programs, but I was still a bit intimidated.

Weren’t they expensive? How would I use them with so many students? How would I be able to fit them into my 40-minute classes that meet only once a week? It seemed unmanageable.

Once I started using sketchbooks with my students, however, I couldn’t imagine teaching without them. In my opinion, they are an essential tool for every upper elementary art room.

I use my sketchbooks in much the same way across grade levels. Sketchbooks streamline a lot of different art room processes.

Here are a few ways you can use sketchbooks with your elementary students:

1. Note Taking

Students in my classes often use their sketchbooks to take notes. For example, when teaching art history I’ll ask students to write down some basic information about artists and their work. Students also take notes about technical processes like one-point perspective or concepts like color theory.

sketchbook notes

2. Planning and Growth

Before I started using sketchbooks, my students would plan their artworks on loose pieces of paper. These papers often got lost, crumpled, or damaged. I would rarely be able to see the plan alongside the final work to observe student growth. When students plan in their sketchbooks, it is easy to keep everything together.

3. Experimentation

My students use their sketchbooks to experiment with different media. If we are using a new medium, I ask students to take 10 minutes to experiment with it in their sketchbooks before starting on their final work. This provides students a safe place to play and learn. It also keeps these experiments for easy reference later on.

4. Reflection

My students have a section of their sketchbooks devoted to artist statements. At the end of each lesson, they reflect on their work and the process by which it was made.

5. Early Finishers

When students complete their work early, I allow them to sketch in their sketchbooks. I have noticed they take their time and put more effort into these drawings than the drawings they do on “free draw” paper. Students take the sketchbooks seriously.

Everything previously mentioned was part of my program before I started using sketchbooks. The benefit to sketchbooks is that everything is all together, in one neat space. I can easily look through the books to observe student growth. Students can also look back to their notes to reinforce knowledge.

Here are 2 tips to get started with sketchbooks in your own classroom.

1. Start using sketchbooks slowly, with only one grade level.

In the beginning, I used the sketchbooks with only my 5th graders. I did this because they were my oldest students, and I felt they would get the most use out of them. I also did not have the space to store sketchbooks for all 600 of my students. Storing one for each of my 5th graders was much more manageable. I eventually expanded to 4th grade, but in the beginning, I recommend starting with only one grade level.

2. Sketchbooks do not have to be expensive.

blank sketchbooks

Because I was worried about the cost of sketchbooks, I did my research. I found a company called Sketch for Schools which sells inexpensive elementary sketchbooks. They are durable and are offered with a variety of different options. I buy these for my 5th graders. The 8.5 by 11 books are easy to store in milk crates.

To save money, I had my younger students create their own sketchbooks using binder clips and copy paper. These are less durable, but still functional. My 4th-grade students use these, and I store them in a filing cabinet for easy access. One of the benefits of this system is that you can add paper as needed.

binder clip sketchbooks

I cannot imagine teaching art without sketchbooks. They have become an essential tool in my art room, and my students love them. There are many ways to use sketchbooks with young students. Why not add this practice to your program this school year?

Do you use sketchbooks with your elementary students?

What are some different ways you use sketchbooks in your art room?

Anne-Marie Slinkman


Anne-Marie teaches elementary art in Virginia. She is a life-long learner who is passionate about providing relevant and meaningful art experiences for all students.


  • I require sketchbook in high school, Art 1. Some students never bring them in: some may not be able to afford them or get to town, and some may just be lazy, forgetting to tell Mom and Dad. I keep sketchbooks at the end of the year if anyone plans to throw them away, tear out used pages, and recycle for these students. For my middle school kids, who I have for only a quarter, I buy small sketchbooks and let them take them home. Some kids proudly show me, later, how they have continued to sketch in them.

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      Thanks for sharing, Kathleen! I love seeing how students use their sketchbooks after they have finished my class as well. It’s great to see them continue to use them. I often see great growth and the development of a personal style when I look through them.

  • Kelly Betz

    Ive been using sketchbooks for 4 years now with grades 1st thru 5th. I just use simple prong pocket folders and computer paper (I know not best but it something). So helpful. Ive also started using small white boards for demo practices too. Students can practice along with me while I show them without the worry if erasing.

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      I have used pocket folders in the past as well, Kelly. They can work well, and are inexpensive. It’s great that you are doing what works for you and your students!

  • Shelly Hettwer

    I create my own sketchbooks with printer paper and plastic binder combs. These are a bit of work in the beginning but well worth the time spent since I can also add in worksheets and artist statement templates for each grade level.

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      Thanks for sharing, Shelly. I love the idea of using plastic binder combs!

  • Julie Read

    Great stuff, really it should be embedded in any art education from early years. Then there would be more natural progression. Well done, thanks for sharing too. :-)

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      Thanks, Julie! I am glad that you found the information helpful. I agree, it is important to start using sketchbooks with students at the elementary level. I believe it helps students develop the skills to be artistic problem solvers.

  • Linda Babb

    I am retiring this year.. i am thinking that the new teacher would like to have a bit of insight to at least one class… I teach 5-8… Probably 5th? Any thoughts?

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      Hi, Linda! I am not sure that I understand your question. Are you asking what grade level I think would get the most from using sketchbooks? Can you clarify for me? Thank you!

      • Linda Babb

        Hi Anne-Marie, Sometimes I have to ask a question so I can figure out the answer. The article inspired me to use up the sketch books in the supply closet. Since I have 7th graders more times a week, I think I will use them with that class. That way the new teacher can have some insight to those kids when they get to 8th grade. That class will be the most challenging for a new teacher. I would love it if my 5th graders came with sketchbooks from the elementary school.

        • Anne-Marie Slinkman

          Thanks for sharing, Linda. I am glad that the article inspired you to use the sketchbooks you have in your classroom!

  • Stephanie Hulan

    These are great ideas and I would add that any handouts you use with the students can be glued in. I am even thinking of further developing my students’ sketchbooks into partial interactive notebooks. I have used a folded and cut note for their Elements of Art page.

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      Great ideas, Stephanie! Thanks for sharing!

  • Karin Pacetti

    I found a two hole punch at goodwill and use large brass brads to hold books together. Also have used self-portraits as covers and also include handouts, especially with upper elementary.

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      Those are great ideas, Karin! Brads are so inexpensive and easy to use. Thanks for sharing!

  • Emily Shane

    Incorporating sketchbooks for the first time this year. I am transitioning to traveling art and sketchbooks will begin class as a quiet transition with music while materials for daily lesson are being set up. Also a great earlier finisher go to.

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      I love the idea of using sketchbooks to aid in transition time, Emily. Having taught from a cart for many years, I know how hard it is to come into a classroom full of kids and have no time to set up. This is a great solution!

  • Teresa Bohannon

    I have used sketchbooks for K-5 for many years, but we do it a bit differently. The first day, we decorate a sketchbook cover of folded 9″x12″ construction paper. We add drawings, hand-outs, notes, and planning sketches to the sketchbook as we do them. I prefer not to fasten drawings into the sketchook so the drawings aren’t damaged and can be selected for display or art shows. I keep the sketchbooks in the classroom and hand them out when needed. This system has worked well at the elementary level.

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      It looks like you’ve found a great system that works well for your students, Teresa. Thanks for sharing!

    • esse Art teacher

      What activities do use the sketchbook with the Kindergartens? I am curious learn how you approach with the younger students.

  • Eliz Townsend

    I never thought of having students put their “plan sheets” for projects in their sketchbooks or for things like experimentation. Good idea for a way to keep all these extras together. Thanks for the suggestions.

    • Anne-Marie Slinkman

      I love that sketchbooks can be used to hold all of the parts of the art-making process together in one place. It is a great way to show growth over time as well. I hope that you found something that you can use with your students, Eliz!