We’ve all seen clever photos of children’s craft projects online and I’m sure been amazed by how impressive they look. For sure, let’s give the creators credit because I’d never think to turn a handprint into a lion or use lollipop sticks to make an Easter chick! It takes a seriously creative person to see a paper plate and turn it into a Christmas tree. Even more so, to turn it into something that looks easy enough for me to think I could do with my little one!
Having said that, some educational professionals would argue that cutesy craft activities such as these are pointless. In fact, they are nicknamed ‘craptivities’ by some. They say that the educational value is very limited when they are involved in producing a piece that has been designed and so heavily controlled by an adult. And I would agree - in part.
Yes, activities like these are adult-led and usually involve skills that are not age-appropriate. Yes, the child has little ownership of the process and is often not able to make their own choices about colours, materials or techniques. Yes, the end product is often the focus rather than the process itself.
BUT, I would also argue, that projects like these nurture the bond between parent and child. They’re good fun (usually). The infant is probably thriving from the time and attention that their adult is giving to them. While working together they’re learning to listen, focus and follow instructions. And I’m sure many children are pleased to show off their version of the finished piece at the end (even if they aren’t in the least bit bothered about what it looks like).
Having said that, have you ever embarked on a project like this and ended up getting frustrated because your child is either not interested in helping (and so you find yourself replicating the picture with zero involvement from your child) or they don’t want or aren’t able, to follow your instructions? Have you ever found yourself feeling annoyed because you know the best way to cut, stick or draw but your child is insisting on doing it their way while you’re aware that their way is going to mean the end result will look well, a bit rubbish? Because I have.
I agree with the words of Loris Malaguzzi, an Italian Educator who founded the educational philosophy known as Reggio Emilia when he said that,
‘Creativity becomes more visible when adults try to be more attentive to the cognitive processes of children than to the results they achieve.’
Yesterday, I watched my three-year-old son try to cut an oval shape from a piece of paper. He was cutting minuscule pieces off the edges, littering my carpet in triangular confetti, every ounce of me was crying out to stop him and show him how to do the task more efficiently (and with less mess!) but I stopped myself and watched as he inched his way closer and closer to the outline and then cut around it in one continuous motion. It wouldn’t have been my way of completing the task, but it was his creative way of solving the problem, and it worked.
The problem with many of these craft projects is that the adult gets hung up on the result when in fact, most children are between three and five before they even start attempting to draw anything in particular. Before that, and even after they begin to develop the concept of symbolic thinking, they are much more bothered about what they are doing rather than what they end up with. Through using different materials, tools and colours a child is exploring, experimenting and solving problems. They’re discovering, planning and trying new things – all of which are allowing them to learn about what is and isn’t possible. They have zero desire to recreate the cute image you’ve found on Pinterest.
When a child starts to develop the understanding that lines and shapes can represent something else, like a house or a person, you’ll likely notice them freely explore the materials as before but, when you ask them what they’ve made, they’ll hesitate while they try to think of an appropriate label to give their artwork. “It’s a tree mummy” or “It’s you and me,” even though what they are showing you looks nothing like either and they had no predetermined idea to draw it before they started.
As they grow, you’ll notice your child start to develop the ability to pre-plan, they might tell you what they are going to draw before they start, or narrate as they go. You’ll see more control in the way they choose and use tools and colours. Their images still may not seem realistic or, in the case of a person, may be missing the odd body part or two, but no matter. By feeding them a diet purely of cute crafty activities some would argue that you are depriving them of the opportunity to explore and move through these stages.
As they mature, children gain the ability to imagine and store an image in their mind and will make deliberate choices about how they will recreate it. It’s not until they are 7 or 8 years old that most children will have any sense of their picture needing to have a realistic likeness of their subject. Therefore, the idea of expecting a toddler to have any understanding or inclination to copy the paper plate craft idea you found online is somewhat unlikely.
Having said that, I am not against these types of collaborative craft projects completely. I believe they have their place. Indeed, completing adult-led activities with preschoolers or school-age children can sometimes teach children skills that they will then later choose to use themselves independently.
Vygotsky, a highly respected psychologist who studied child development, said
‘What a child can do today with assistance, she will be able to by herself tomorrow’.
In the photo here, I was teaching my daughter (5) how to weave paper. We were making an Easter card together and I was showing her how to slice, stick and thread the paper over and under to achieve the woven effect. This was a little over three weeks ago - it was very adult-led and she needed a lot of support to do it. It wasn’t an activity that sparked any creativity on her part but she did enjoy it and, in doing so, she acquired a new skill.
Yesterday, she chose to make another Easter card. She remembered the technique we’d done together a few weeks ago and asked for help in repeating it to make an Easter basket. This card, unlike the first, was her idea and, although she still needed help to physically weave the paper in and out, she was able to lead the activity and make her own choices and decisions.
So, do these cutesy craft activities have their place? I think they do, in moderation and if your child is willing. They should definitely not be the only type of art time they experience. Young children undoubtedly learn more from exploring and experimenting.
While you may prefer to control the mess and the outcome, they’ll learn far more if you provide them with regular opportunities to explore. If you feel uncomfortable to let them have free reign over the craft box, then provide a small selection each time and let them explore in their own way.
You don’t need to provide a picture to copy or an idea of what to ‘make’, the resources you set out are the only starting point they’ll need. Each time you set up an invitation to play you could change one of the following:
The papers or canvas available
The tools (think both traditional paintbrushes and more abstract things like toothbrushes, twigs etc)
The material (poster paint, watercolours, pencils, chalk etc),
The location (think indoors at a table, outdoors, at an easel etc)
The accessories (pom poms, pipe cleaners, googly eyes etc).
This will allow them to explore in lots of different ways and stop them from feeling bored.
It’s very difficult as an adult, not to get hung up on the end result. I find myself asking things like ‘what are you painting?’ or ‘is it a…?’ all the time, but actually, it’s far more helpful to sit, observe and show an interest in your child’s work by commenting on the lines, colours, textures or shapes that they’ve made. In doing so, you are valuing your child’s imagination and creativity.
If you can, display your child’s work, even if it is only temporarily, as this will show your child that you value their efforts and will make them more likely to want to continue to explore in the future.
Research has shown that the experiences they have in early childhood can significantly enhance the development of their creativity. So, by all means, enjoy the Pinterest style activities together, but leave plenty of time for free exploration too.
Busy Brains Activity Packs are full of fun, educational things to do with babies, toddlers and children under five. Each set is packed full of a range of activities to support all aspects of their development using things you'll likely have in the home. Every pack contains information about how children learn, giving examples from relevant research findings. Our aim is to inspire parents to help their children become inquisitive, confident, happy learners by making it easy to find ways to spend quality time together.