Crafts or Science?
I will have to tread carefully here. I don’t want to discourage anyone’s effort to introduce science or the wonders of nature to children. But, with all due respect to many early childhood educators and blogging parents, crafts and worksheets (e.g., “printables,” or those printed pages with meager illustrations and some labels) just fill time. With some luck, these activities may result in label recognition or a general idea of the characteristics of something. Yet, there are better ways to encourage understanding; understanding the natural world and understanding the enterprise of science or engineering practices.
How many of you have invited a child to create a turkey by dipping her hand in paint, pressing that hand to paper, and eventually suggesting that the child adds a head and some feet? Alternatively, how many of you have allowed a child to explore a turkey or chicken before roasting it (or even after it is cooked)? Has your child looked into the cavity, felt the legs and wings, and determined where the head was? Did you hear a question or two? Has she held the carcass to get a sense of its weight? Did she ask how much it weighed? The neck, gizzards and heart are exceptional opportunities to learn about organs and stimulate questions about circulatory or digestive systems. Has your child handled these things? How about examining the bones leftover after the Thanksgiving feast? Poultry bones are distinct from beef, pork and fish bones, but those differences will not become evident until they have been looked at and felt.
Given the option, which of these two activities is most likely to grow knowledge of these fascinating birds? Even without its feathers, a hands-on open exploration of a turkey carcass presents many, many opportunities for learning. In contrast, for the craft project described above, the child is provided with materials, instructed what to do with them, and the goal of the project was dictated to her. She has created what kind of looks like a turkey, but in reality, the whole project may be more appealing to her because of the sensory experience of the paint on one’s hand. After completing this craft project, a turkey remains an abstract concept. Does a turkey’s body resemble the shape of a small hand? And given that the goal of the creation and materials were pre-determined, this project does not even inspire the child’s creativity. Telling children what to make and how to make it inspires neither inventiveness nor investigation. Instead, I think craft projects such as this one just encourage following directions.
If you are a fan of Pinterest, take a look at any page dedicated to science for young children. Craft projects dominate. Creating “slime” can be an experiment of sorts, but it will take considerably more tweaking of the steps than what is listed. Slime occurs naturally in nature. Perhaps look for and discuss the slime that snails leave behind, edible slime in okra, the slime or gel you can feel if you snip off the top of an aloe leaf, or even boogers. These are all real things that you can delve into and explore with your child rather than creating a random slime not found in nature. Here is information on a natural slime that glows in the dark! https://scripps.ucsd.edu/news/13880
I understand why teachers with overcrowded classrooms may want to use projects with clear-cut guidelines. Teachers are managing many children with different needs and skill levels, and they most likely are obligated to demonstrate adherence to a curriculum or specified standards. Under these conditions, craft projects and work sheets may serve some purpose, but I still might argue there are better alternatives.
But parents and grandparents, even if you have several children in your charge, why are you choosing craft projects as a stand-in for science? Do you feel a need to dictate and manage every aspect of an activity because you think the child may be easier to handle? Do you doubt your abilities and therefore opt for a step-by-step project (or purchase a kit) that you think is common and popular, therefore instructive? You may want to think about why you are choosing craft projects if your goal is to help the child learn about something in nature. If you are afraid to take a risk and respond to an idea the child initiates or devise your own plans, then what message are you sending your child? Risk taking and innovation in thinking and conceptualizing is the foundation of advancements in art and science.
I am not suggesting that you let the child do whatever or a total free for all. Remember this blog is called Guiding Curiosity, with an emphasis on Guiding. As I repeat often, you are following the child’s lead in terms of interests, but offering suggestions or demonstrating. After identifying an interest and having examined the real thing, instead of doing crafts, we often ask that you invite your child to do observational drawings of what she is interested in or observing. Hopefully, you have access to the real thing, but if not, help her to look up and inspect images.
Those observational drawings or representations may initially be of an undeveloped quality, but with time, they will improve. Along with colored pencils, markers, or paints, make tissue and construction paper available. How about Popsicle sticks, clay, yarn, beeswax, sponges, brushes of different sizes and any number of other materials you have around for projects? Ask your child what materials would be helpful to work with. The end goal, or creating a representation of something of interest, will help keep order, as will your occasional suggestion; such as I wonder how big a turkey’s leg is relative to its wing?
Whatever is produced from this activity, it is the child’s representation, the child’s work. The product is the result of having to think about what she was looking at, what aspects were of interest to her, and what details to include. She has made her own plan about how to proceed and, on her own, solved any problems that arose. Remember this is in stark contrast to: here are some pipe cleaners, now create a spider’s web that is supposed to look like the one in the picture or the one I created.
Save your money and don’t buy those expensive kits that purport to be scientific investigations. They are surprisingly expensive, and you already have most of those materials in your home, or ingredients can be easily purchased on-line for less, and you will have extras for repeating the experiment.
But I don’t have the time, you argue, and the kits keep my child occupied…..
Mmm, maybe it’s best if we quit while ahead. I didn’t want to lecture, and some children love doing crafts. My goal here is to point out what I think is an important distinction between the act of exploring nature and devising ways to make those investigations productive versus coloring images on “printables” or doing crafts. There is no equivalence among these activities in terms of building knowledge about the natural world.
 I should point out that I am a big fan of arts-infused science education, but there is little similarity between most craft projects and the fundamental goals of either arts or science education. By referring to crafts, I am not discounting the importance for scientific thinking of technical drawing and learning to build and construct things. The crafts I am talking about here most often entail gluing and painting precut shapes.