Arts and crafts activities are often an integral part of the very young learner classroom, and they are often great tools to consolidate the English you’re teaching. BUT…we’ve all been there. It doesn’t always go smoothly and a great, fun activity can quickly turn into a source of frustration for both you and your students. This article will outline some of the things that have gone wrong in my classes and give you our tips for how to avoid craft chaos in the very young learner classroom.
What can go wrong with craft activities?
While I love doing interactive crafts and art worksheets with my groups of kids, I have definitely had my share of days where I have spent a lot of time running around putting out fires, then finding myself pretty frazzled by the end of it! These are some of the common issues I’ve experienced:
- Arguments over colours and crayons
- Cutting takes too long or the child can’t use the scissors well enough yet
- The activity takes much longer than expected and the children can’t finish it in time.
- The children are disappointed because they can’t make it look as good as they’d like to.
- One colour or worksheet is more popular than the others and not a lot of kids get what they want.
- One or more children are tired and don’t want to do the activity.
- Some things are too difficult for them and they need lots of help from you to complete the task.
Do any of those things sound familiar? Read on to find the best techniques and strategies that have worked for me, to make craft activities with kids go smoothly.
1. Estimate the time it will need in stages
Sometimes it can be tricky to estimate how much time an activity will take, especially if teaching very young learners is new to you. I generally like to have quite a flexible lesson plan, so I can react to what the kids are enthusiastic about that day. Sometimes they are getting so much out of another activity that I don’t want to rush on to the craft. That’s why I think it is helpful to have different potential endpoints for that day’s craft. That might mean giving them a limit for how many items they are colouring/cutting/sticking that day. It might mean, they do all the finding and sticking but they do the colouring at home. Perhaps it’s folding today and colouring and gluing the next day. Either way, make sure you tell the kids, so they aren’t upset that they’re not completing the whole thing that day. On that note, don’t forget to give them a countdown of how many minutes they have left! You need to make sure you leave enough time for them to clean up too. There’s nothing worse than finishing the lesson by chasing the kids to clean up and rushing them out the door….then doing most of the cleaning up yourself!
2. Decide how you are going to manage resources for colouring activities.
There are several different ways you can do this, depending on how many kids are in your group, the resources you have, and what your teaching purposes are. These are a few ways I’ve avoided arguments over crayons, pens and pencils.
- Each child has their own set of crayons – I’ve been lucky enough to work in contexts where this was a possibility. For a while, I prepared pencil cases for each child, although now I prefer the children to use shared resources (not during the Covid 19 pandemic, unfortunately!) In this scenario, each child asks for the crayons and another child has the responsibility to hand them out. I teach them, “Can I have the crayons, please?”; “Here you are”; “Thank you”. This means they should have all the colours they need, and there isn’t anyone waiting for their turn. It also encourages a sense of responsibility, especially if they have brought their own set of crayons. BUT, if you are providing the crayons yourself, I have found in some groups that the crayons can get mixed up between pencil cases so I had to periodically go through them and sort them out.
- Have a designated spot for a shared crayons box and create a ‘one at a time’ routine – The kids should feel confident about what is expected of them. Teach them to ask you each time they want a different colour. They should return the one they have been using before they take another. It is worth demonstrating to them what you want them to do and then demonstrating with a couple of the learners. Once they get the hang of this, you can designate colour monitors who take on the teacher role in later lessons.
- Make sure you have enough of each colour if you are doing a colour dictation activity – Colour dictations will flop if there are a couple of kids who have to wait for their turn to get the correct colour. It’s worth having a couple of spare sets put aside. That way if there is a shortage of a certain colour, you’ll have a couple of spare ones to hand. The other way to do this, is to dictate the object rather than the colour (you won’t be practising the colour vocabulary during the dictation but you can still practise this vocabulary in a post-craft activity).
- Demonstrate enthusiasm for shorter crayons and unpopular colours – It might sound silly but a lot of the arguments that have happened in my classes, have come about because everyone wants to use the longer, newer looking crayons. Sometimes all it takes is for you to show preference for the shorter ones! If the teacher likes them, the kids will want them too : )
3. Think carefully about how complex the cutting part will be and do any necessary preparation for them.
The groups I teach don’t have a lot of ‘English’ time each week, so I generally try to keep cutting down to a minimum. I find this is the part of a craft class that is less language rich. Of course, if you have a small group, this can actually be quite a nice opportunity to talk to them about other things. These are some strategies I use to make cutting activities simple, easy and manageable:
- Cut multiple image sheets into smaller segments – It’s very difficult for small hands to move a piece of A4 around to cut out smaller images. Chop the segments into smaller pieces so the paper is easier for them to manipulate.
- Prepare craft models that are cut roughly AROUND the image rather than following the image lines exactly – I used to give kids the image to cut out then curse myself for not drawing a simple line around them first. Very young learners will probably not have the fine motorskills to be able to cut the image out precisely and there will be tears when parts are snipped off by mistake. Don’t show them a model of something you have done, that they won’t be able to do themselves.
- Cut 1st, colour 2nd – If your craft involves a lot of cutting and assembling, make sure they do this complex part, before they colour it in. The faster cutters can start on the colouring, while the slower ones can finish off their colouring at home. There’s nothing worse than rushing around, trying to help the slower ones catch up before the end of class. You can even plan to split the craft over a couple of classes: one cutting day, one colouring day.
- Pre-cut images for them – Think about what language practice you want them to get out of the activity. Quite often I’ll skip the cutting stage altogether because I want them to listen to an instruction in English and then collect that particular piece for their craft / worksheet.
4. Make a good model - BUT NOT TOO GOOD!
It’s important to prepare a model to show the learners for reasons such as motivation, but it is also to prepare them for what they are going to do themselves. They’ll expect to be able to do it, so don’t set those expectations too high!
I’ll often choose to colour in crayon, rather than pen, and I leave little white spaces so they know they don’t have to colour it perfectly. I’ll also make sure to include a variety of colours, to encourage them to use a variety too. A monkey doesn’t have to be brown, it can be blue!
5. Make it random choice
If you are making stick puppets to complement a story/song, there are probably a variety of different characters to choose from. Do you really want to print out enough of each character for every child in your group? This might be possible and you might be willing to do any pre-cutting prep necessary, but you could be left with a lot of wasted paper that you can’t re-use. To avoid any arguments about who gets what, why not create an element of suspense and luck about it? You can do this by putting the different bits in a ‘mystery bag’, getting the kids to close their eyes and take turns seeing what they get. Of course, there might still be someone who’s not happy with their selection, but they will be much more willing to accept their luck this way, than if their friend got to pick their favourite character before them.
6. Be prepared for kids that don't want to do the craft
There are a variety of reasons for why a child might not want to join in with the activity. They might be tired that day, or feel like they’re not good at these type of activities. They might simply not enjoy arts and craft that much and would prefer to be doing something different. These are some things that work for me in these situations:
- Ask them why. It might be that they don’t want to colour, but would like to do the cutting or folding part. Let them get started on the part they enjoy, and they might feel like completing the other tasks later.
- Help them get started. Sometimes a little encouragement is all they need. Be careful you don’t fall into the trap of doing it all for them though!
- Let them help you. Maybe they could call out the instructions with your help, or be the colour or scissors monitor that day.
- Let them be the teacher. I had one girl who wanted to walk around the class and ask the other about things in their pictures, because she had seen me doing it. Encourage them to ask questions in English. If there are pictures of animals, they could ask about pets or favourite animals and do some independent research!
- Other options are to give them a completely different activity. They might want to look at the story book again, or they could play a memory game with mini-cards. I usually have a couple of jigsaw puzzles or mini-cards in my bag that I can give them to play too. Use this strategy with caution though! Make sure if you give them something else to do, that it’s not so engaging that all the other kids will want to join in.