Teaching History and Art with toy soldiers

I love teaching multiple subjects together and turning them into a project which can be built on over time. This lesson involves history (in our case the world wars, different time periods can be done depending on models available), and art through model painting. This type of painting is really good for fine motor skills and really gets the children to focus on brush control. It also involves researching the period either through books and / or internet.


  • Acrylic Paints (ours are from the works, and also some Citadel paints)
  • Paint brushes (these need to be small and ideally suitable for acrylic paints)
  • Jam jar for water
  • (optional) Craft knife – we used this to tidy up any edges on the models
  • Good lighting (shadows make it really hard to do close up work)
  • Tub of toy soldiers for the appropriate period (Smyths sell tubs of 200 for about £8.50)
  • Books about the appropriate time period / access to internet for research



The first step is to examine the models and discuss what they’re wearing, and the weapons they are using. The toy soldiers may not be highly accurate, this is a good opportunity for the children to spot any differences. In particular it is a good time to highlight differences between the weapons used by various sides.

Painting the models:

First step is to paint a base coat. This should cover the whole model, and is just a flat colour for the other paint to stick onto. A light grey often works well as dark and light colours will go over it easily. It is useful to use a colour that’s different to the model so it’s easy to spot any missed areas.

As these aren’t models which are designed to be painted it can feel like it’s difficult to get the paint to stick. The first layer will go on quite erratically. To counter this, allow the first layer to touch dry, then paint a second coat.

Acrylic paints in thin coats dry quite quickly, however to avoid having children sat waiting for paint to dry each child can paint multiple models at the same time, so one can be drying while they’re painting another model.

Base colours:

Once the two base coats are dry, the base colours can be painted. The is the first layer of actual colours that the model is going to be. For example, the jackets may be painted a dark green. Depending on the age / patience of the children, either let the children paint the models simply, or they can use some of the advanced techniques below to create more realistic looking models.

Apply a wash:

Once the base colours are dried the next step is a wash. A wash is a watery paint which is darker than the base colour, with acrylics these can just be watered down and a little black added. When the wash is painted on it will naturally flow into the crevices and dents to create a shadowed look. Painting the wash can sometimes feel counter intuitive, instead of painting along the dents and cracks, the paint brush should go across them as if trying to scrape the paint off. It’s also best to lie the models down to do this as otherwise the wash will run to the bottom of the model, for example if stood upright it would make the wash collect at the bottom of the soldiers socks, rather than evenly up them.


Drybrushing is about highlighting the raised areas of the model to make the lighting look correct. To create the colour, take the base colour and then add a little white. Just enough to slightly lighten the colour as if the sun were shining on that bit of the model. Then with a small amount of paint on the brush, hold the brush flat to the model and  brush over the raised areas. This will prevent the brush from going into the areas where the wash has settled. 

Painting the base:

The flat base which the model stands on can also be painted. Sand can be added to the paint to make it look more ground like. Or even small stones can be glued on to give the impression of stony ground.

Additional Notes:

Throughout the painting process, while the children are looking closely at the models it can be a great time to raise questions around how soldiers may have felt being in the trenches, what age they were, how did they get there. This is also a perfect time for children to be thinking about back stories to their models based on the research they did prior to painting.

Follow up lessons:

  • Create a diorama showing a small battle (Art)
  • Write a story describing the life of a soldier (English, History)
  • Use each model to represent an army and show movement of troops on a map (Geography, History)
  • Create some stop motion video’s (Computing, Art)
  • Create parachutes for the models using a variety of materials (Physics)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *