People Working at a Craft Table

Why Crafting? - A Look at What Makes a Great Craft and the Benefits of Crafting

Posted: October 23, 2020 | Updated: October 23, 2020
Created by: Ms. Sylvia

Crafting: A Joy (and Occasionally a Struggle) for All Seasons

I have a confession to make.

I’m notorious among my teacher friends for hating classroom crafts. Absolutely hating them.

Teaching academics? A joy. Teaching cooking? My favorite. Teaching painting? Love it. Teaching drawing? I love that, too. Helping with knitting? Any time. Dancing? Singing? Games? I do it joyfully and do it every day! Parent enrichment evenings? Of course! Field trips? The more the merrier. Even teaching recorder, which was a loud and squeaky challenge, became something I enjoyed.

But crafting? Oof. I did it, and occasionally did it well, but it was a struggle. Oh my, was it a struggle. I can’t quite pinpoint why, but it has something to do with the crazy things that can happen with glue in the classroom (which, experience has taught me the hard way, can be just as true with 6th graders as 1st graders) and even more to do with my own quirks and plans as a teacher. It’s definitely an area for growth.

However, despite my personal struggle with teaching crafts, I wholeheartedly believe that crafts are HUGELY beneficial to children of all ages. When crafts are done right, they are wonderful, hands-on learning experiences.

To be clear, by “done right”, I don’t mean that they turn out looking like the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen on Pinterest. (They’ll often be the opposite!).

Doing a craft “right” means that you are offering an experience that is developmentally appropriate and that either reinforces an idea, creates an inner experience for the student, or teaches a skill.

When approached this way, crafting has incredible benefits for students.

Some of that ("inner experience", "developmentally appropriate") may sound like gibberish, so let's get into the details.

What (the heck) is a “developmentally appropriate” craft?

You’ll hear teachers and education researchers throw this phrase around all the time, and for good reason. “Developmentally appropriate” means that an activity respects your child’s needs for their specific age, skill level, and development. It ensures that activities are challenging enough to extend your child’s skills, while making sure that the challenge is appropriate to a child’s cognitive, physical, and emotional needs. Children master skills in each of these areas at different rates, so developmentally appropriate practices cover a range of abilities for each age, but there are universal milestones to consider.

For toddlers and preschoolers, it’s especially important to focus on the process, rather than the product. Young children need an opportunity to explore their materials and way they work. There should be no exemplar and no “final result” you’re looking to have them create. Those kinds of crafts are cute (so cute, right?), but are always more of a reflection on the adult’s work than the child’s expression, growth, or artistry. Find beauty in the process!

This resource from the National Association for the Education of Young Children is a really wonderful starting point for building developmentally appropriate crafting and artistic opportunities.

When planning developmentally appropriate crafts for older children, there are great resources out there to help you plan. Though I don’t agree with the pacing for all of these standards, I do find that this guide from the College Board is a fine introduction to what you can expect children to do artistically at different ages. Waldorf curriculum is the best method I’ve seen to meet children’s artistic needs in a profoundly developmental, thoughtful, and meaningful approach. For more information about what that progression looks like, I recommend this summary from Eugene Waldorf School.

How do you “create an inner experience” through crafting?

Have you ever had a moment, standing in nature or in front of a painting or at a concert or in a movie or watching your children, when everything within you settled and you felt fully alert and present and amazed? Those moments can be fleeting, but they live in our memory. That’s what I mean by an inner experience. For children and adults alike, art and creativity can help us achieve those moments. They can be a vehicle for personal growth. When we see something that moves us or when we experience making something that feels unique and beautiful, it is a powerful experience. When we pair it with learning (see below for the skills built through crafting), that learning takes on a richer meaning.

Before beginning your craft, you can set the scene for an inner experience by making it a calm and reverent experience. Of course, there are times when you want to be boisterous and loud and excited while crafting, which is a memorable experience in itself, but when setting up a craft that will be a gift or that will reinforce a new skill or idea, try a reverent approach. Introduce the craft with a story that reinforces the experience you hope the child will have or that playfully teaches how to use the tools. Consider lighting a candle and saying a poem or singing a song together before you begin. As you craft, give the task your full attention by making crafting a silent (or whispering) time. This can create a peaceful atmosphere that allows each child to have their own experience. An “inner experience”, in which each child is focused on their own process, emotions, and response to the craft.

What kind of skills can you build through crafts?

Crafts can be a wonderful way to have fun while building essential skills. The skills listed below are some of the best reasons to start crafting. When I was craft-resistant in the classroom, these are what I would remind myself. The benefits of crafting are research-based, measurable, and a joy to watch. Here are my top 10 reasons why crafting is actually a wonderful, beneficial undertaking for children of all ages:

1. Integrative, interdisciplinary learning

Crafts can be a hands-on way to practice and apply new skills or knowledge. For students who are strong kinesthetically, this can make what they learned more memorable and meaningful. For students who aren’t as kinesthetically-oriented, it can help them build more skills in that area. Applying knowledge from a story, article, holiday, or lecture to a craft helps solidify understanding and expand the concept. When learning is interdisciplinary, research has shown that it has significant benefits. There’s a reason why the Arts have turned STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) classes into STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, & Mathematics) in so many schools.

2. Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are the strength and dexterity of the small muscles in the hands and their coordination with the eyes. Why are fine motor skills important? They become an essential skill for holding a pencil and writing neatly, but actually have farther-reaching implications. Strengthening the fine motor skills strengthens neurological pathways that inform other academic skills. For more information, I suggest reading neurologist Frank Wilson’s excellent book, The Hand : How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. If you’re short on time here’s a very oversimplified summary: a strong, flexible hand helps develop a strong, flexible mind and sets the stage for math and literacy skills.

3. Focus

In a world where it is so easy to get sucked into multi-tasking and distraction, crafting is an opportunity to become fully absorbed in a task. Choosing an engaging craft that is challenging (but not so challenging as to be impossible) requires even more focus and brings the even greater sense of accomplishment when it is completed. The focus that children (even older children!) apply to crafts can translate to other areas of their life and studies, as well.

4. Following Directions

Developmentally appropriate crafts for toddlers may not have step-by-step instructions to follow, but each material they use still has its own basic directions for use. As crafts become more complicated, there are more step-by-step instructions to follow, which are often necessary for the success of the whole endeavor.

5. Patience

Part of crafting is always waiting. You might be waiting for glue to dry, waiting for the next instructions, or waiting to show your creation to someone you care about. Though we live in an age of instant gratification, crafting forces us to have patience. Patience helps us when learning new skills and has a slough of other benefits for children that apply to learning and life.

6. Problem Solving

There’s nothing like completing one phase of a project, only to have it break apart or not turn out as expected. Fixing your creation then involves a great deal of problem solving skills. What is the maximum weight a playdough flower can sustain? How can the flower become more sturdy? All sorts of considerations need to be taken, and every new creative vision brings new problems to be solved.

7. Safety and Carefulness

There is a responsibility that comes with crafting. Before using scissors, needles (especially felting needles!), or other tools of crafting, we have to know how to use them safely and prove that we are trustworthy. Being safe while crafting is a wonderful responsibility for children. Small injuries can be part of the process, but as long as risks for major injuries are minimized, these can even be a great learning experience in themselves.

8. Experimentation

What happens when you mix blue with red? Red with yellow? Yellow with blue? Orange with Purple? When children have an opportunity to experience the results for themselves, to explore different materials and to play with different combinations of colors and (with planning and supervision) substances, it can help develop a scientific mindset and a deeper understanding of what they learn.

9. Creativity

The more you craft, the more flexible and creative you become with the materials. I love to visit a fabric store with my mom, because, as a skilled seamstress, she sees possibilities in the fibers that I would never dream of. Similarly, I love seeing the creativity that children develop with their materials when they have had time to experiment with them, especially when they have had practice and guidance developing their eye and their techniques. As crafty children grow older, they create astonishing things. Creativity is a muscle that grows stronger the more we use it!

10. Tidying Up!

Cleaning up is an essential part of every task and an important life skill. It can be tempting to keep on schedule and keep the peace by cleaning up after children when they do crafts (having them clean takes much more time, after all), but the cleaning is almost as important as the crafting. When children have real roles and responsibilities throughout the process, it helps them feel important, capable, and connected. Any child who can sit up and/or walk can help in some way, from wiping down surfaces to bringing materials from one place to another. Adults can help, but children should be at the center of the cleaning process.