How to plan age-appropriate craft projects that are both fun and challenging
Children grow at different rates, both physically and mentally. Those of the same age often have varying degrees of development in fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, critical thinking and problem solving. Each of these variables can factor into a child's educational fulfillment with, and enjoyment of, a craft project.
So how do you create a project that challenges kids to learn, but doesn't overshoot their capabilities? While that may be a moving target, here are some guidelines to develop age-appropriate craft ideas for your group.
Making room for creativity
Each child processes information differently, imagines differently and learns differently. That means craft projects are as much about the process as they are about the finished result, and even more so with younger children.
"One of the biggest ways crafting benefits children is that it encourages them to use their imagination, especially when they are given random craft supplies and allowed to simply create with them," says Sherri Osborn, a craft designer who runs the craft inspiration website www.aboutfamilycrafts.com. "You want the child to enjoy the process, and even stretch their skills, without getting frustrated."
Amy Oestreicher, a teaching artist and educator based in Connecticut, often starts her classes with an exploration exercise.
"I like to get kids interested in art as a way of seeing things differently," she says. "Fabric is a wonderful thing to use for exploration. It doesn't make a mess, and you can create different shapes with it very easily. I usually let the kids play with felt – just let them use their imagination and leave it open ended."
Structuring projects by steps
Exploratory exercises are a great way to give kids the freedom to explore the world of crafting. Once they have grasped the basics, they might be ready for a more structured activity with an end goal in mind. Terina Nicole, a designer and design instructor based in New Jersey, says younger kids need to have fewer steps to follow, which means more prep work for the instructor.
"Older kids and teenagers will be able to complete projects that take several days or a week," she says. "But with younger kids, you're going to want to design a project that can be completed in one sitting. I like to have everything cut out, laid out and categorized, so all they have to do is grab the materials and start gluing. If younger kids have to sit through a lot of instructions and prep work, you're going to lose them. Limit their instructions to three steps."
Assessing the difficulty level of a craft project is often a matter of trial and error.
"I used to work with kids in an after-school program," Nicole says. "The kids were ages 5 to 12, and I figured I could design projects that would appeal to the whole program. But that wasn't the case. I had to break the class up by age, because the comprehension levels were different. You simply can't explain the same process to a 5-year-old that you can to a 12-year-old."
Projects suited for older children can typically be modified for younger age groups by reducing the number of steps involved.
"When I ran my own day care, I would often do the same project with a variety of different age levels," Osborn says. "If I had a project that worked well for older kids, I could usually modify it for the younger kids by doing some of the cutting or assembly ahead of time."
Making it count
By tailoring craft projects by age group, educators and nonprofits can help spark children's interest in art projects as a lifelong pursuit while helping them develop essential life skills that will serve them well in any future career.
"You learn so many life lessons through art, and that's why it's so important to give a child the opportunity to grasp it," Oestreicher says. "Learning isn't about finding information and spitting it back out on a test. It's about discovering and problem solving. It's about learning how to use the tools around you. Art education teaches you all of that, and it's all hands-on – not in a textbook, but in their hands. And that's one of the best ways to learn."
Key tips and takeaways
While children of all ages appreciate a structured project with clear steps to completion, you'll need to allow flexibility within the process for creativity to unfold. It's a balance, though – too much structure can lead to frustration, while too much creativity can lead to a disappointing final product. This will vary from child to child and age group to age group, so gauge your students' abilities and interest and be ready to modify as you go.