The Art Teacher’s Guide to Setting Up an Effective Early Finisher Station

early finisher menu

“I’m finished. What do I do now?” As an elementary art teacher, one of my greatest classroom challenges is managing the diversity of time students take to create their artwork. My k-6 artists work on a continuum of “pokey puppy” to “speed demon” and everything in between. Every way of working has its merits, but those early finishers offer a special challenge. If you teach in a choice-based classroom, your students just naturally flow into the next activity. But, I teach in a traditional setting, and some kids finish their artwork a full class period before others.

One simple and effective solution is to set up an early finisher station in your classroom.

Many art teachers have experience developing stations for their art rooms. An early finisher station is similar to others you may have previously implemented, but with four additional aspects to carefully consider and integrate.

student looking in early finisher station

1. It promotes self-sufficiency.

Typically, students who finish early are wrapping things up as others are approaching those last hurdles to success. This means you are busy conferencing, helping problem solve, and providing essential feedback for a project related to the core art curriculum. At this point, you probably don’t have the time to dive into a new demonstration. Thus, an effective early finisher station gives kids everything they need (suggestions, supplies, and inspiration) to get started independently, without your initial guidance. Therefore, your early finisher station should operate with a familiar system, so students can successfully access it without you!

2. It is meaningful to kids.

While coloring pages can keep kids busy and quiet, is this really reflective of what we hope to accomplish in our art classes? Sure, coloring can be meditative and help develop much needed fine motor skills, but an excellent early finisher station should contain more meaningful and relevant tasks.

Consider scaling each task in terms of cognitive load. Go ahead and provide a great coloring sheet, as an entry point activity. Then, challenge students to identify the aspects of coloring pages they love and prompt them to create their own original coloring pages for the class. Whatever you select, the station should offer significant opportunities for students to make work that matters to them.

student pulling out early finisher drawer

3. It offers choice.

How do you develop the above-mentioned meaning and relevance? Through choice, of course! Instead of having a single “early finisher task,” plan to offer several. If you offer a variety of open-ended, lightly-structured choices, your students are likely to find something to capture their imagination. Personally, I find I make my most creative work when I have been given some loose parameters rather than carte blanch to create anything. I have noticed this same tendency with my students as well. So, in my classroom, structured choice seems to be the most effective strategy for an early finisher station.

4. It self-differentiates.

I teach in a K-6 classroom, and I strive to use the same early finisher station for all my students, regardless of age. This makes it essential that the tasks are differentiated. Students can become disengaged and uninterested if a task is too simple. Conversely, if something is too difficult, they can become frustrated and give up. What seems simplistic to one student can be a legitimate challenge to others. So, when selecting a variety of tasks for your station, it is important to consciously think about their difficulty and provide a wide range.

Once you’ve identified the characteristics of a successful early finisher station for your classroom, develop a strategy that works for you and your students.

In my classroom, I have developed a two-part system to fulfill my students’ needs for self-sufficiency, meaning, choice, and differentiation. Our early finisher station consists of a menu used in conjunction with a system of drawers. At the beginning of the school year, I introduce the station near the end of our first project and give a brief tour. As student finish early, I allow them to explore the possibilities of the station.

The Nitty-Gritty: The Early Finisher Menu

early finisher menu

For me, a menu is the best solution to the demands of choice and differentiation. My early finisher menu offers at least six different options at a time, giving kids a variety of options. I keep a file on my desktop with a copy of the “Early Finisher Menu.” This menu outlines a basic categorical description of what is in each drawer. I assign each drawer a number, then edit the menu to reflect the drawer’s contents. If I make a change to the menu, I simply print a new copy and hang it on my clipboard. As the year progresses, even my youngest students become accustomed to the types of task each category refers to.

Here are some possible categories:

  • Grid Drawing
  • Dice Roll Drawing
  • Finish the Picture
  • Design Challenge
  • Synectics (Creativity) Activities
  • Art Websites
  • Art History
  • Featured Art Books
  • Art Games
  • Cleaning Jobs

For a list of 34 specific ideas, check out the AOE Article “20 ‘Finish the Picture’ Prompts Plus 33 MORE Early Finisher Activities That You Can Feel Good About.”

The Nitty-Gritty: The Early Finisher Drawers

early finisher station drawers

To organize the system and promote self-sufficiency, my menu is paired with a set of drawers. I originally saved my drawers from the school dumpster, but they are very similar to this product found on Amazon. I recommend this set because of the number of drawers, their size, and the fact that you can’t accidentally pull them all the way out. Each drawer contains the paper, supplies, and (if necessary) basic directions for a task. Your goal should be to include/provide everything the student might need in the drawer, so they can self-start. Essentially, the drawers are a “one stop shop” for all the materials that a student might need for their early finisher activity.

If you are thinking this is a fairly simple system, you are absolutely right! In my experience, the best early finisher station is one that you can realistically maintain without too much time commitment. If you’re looking for specific activities for early finishers, you can find a list of 34 right here! You can also check out this article from our archives.

Plus, join me for my presentation at the upcoming Summer 2017 Art Ed Now Conference for even more ideas and resources for your early finishers. You’ll walk away with the ability to create a streamlined system that you can implement immediately!

How do you deal with “early finishers” in your classroom?

What system do you use for organizing early finisher activities?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Lindsey Moss

Lindsey Moss, an elementary school art educator, is AOEU’s Content Specialist and a former AOEU Writer. She enjoys art history and finding creative and fun solutions to educational challenges.

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