Why do we do craft with children? How should we approach creative activities? Are there practical things that can help? Mina munns is on hand to help
If you’ve ever abseiled down a tall building, you’ll know that the hardest part is letting yourself over the edge when you first begin. Part of your brain is terrified because you are about to jump from a great height, but the other part of your brain knows that you are held by safety ropes and are not going to fall into disaster. When you finally overcome your fear and let the ropes take you, you are able to experience something amazing (if still a little risky!).
While you may be puzzled at the use of an abseiling analogy in an article about children’s ministry crafts, the two pursuits are not as unrelated as you might think. Both involve an element of risk-taking and both have the potential to inspire and amaze.
Let me explain some more. If you’ve been using the craft ideas in Premier Youth and Children’s Work over the last year or so, you will know that we take a rather laid-back approach to precision and presentation. For example, we are more likely to give details of how to make exploding bags of paint than how to make an intricate coat of many colours when exploring the story of Joseph. There is an element of risk in a lot of what we offer. Things might not go exactly according to plan. The crafts we suggest are more likely to produce an intriguing jumble than a beautiful and orderly end product and there is an important reason behind that. If we believe that each child is on a journey of faith in which they should be encouraged to explore, question and experiment in their relationship with God, then it follows that the way in which we help them respond creatively to what they hear should reflect that.
It would be true to say that what we hope to offer is more ‘process’ than traditional ‘craft’. ‘Process art’ has been around for a while (think Jackson Pollock splatters), but there is currently a growing movement towards it in the education world. Process art refers to creative projects in which the focus is not the end product but the journey taken on the way there. When undertaking a process art project, children are encouraged to try things out, improvise, imagine, question and be independent. They are given a set of tools and resources and then let loose to see what happens. What does happen is usually more profound and inspiring than any craft or artwork we, as adults, could have conceived and meticulously prepared.
For the most part, traditional Sunday school crafts are preparation-heavy and often impose a restrictive box around what we want the children to take from a session. Making identical lion masks when we tell the story of Daniel in the lions’ den might remind the children that there are lions in the story, but it does very little else. Giving children some paint and string, or some random pieces of wool and sandpaper and asking them to create something that reminds them of the story, allows them to explore for themselves what the story meant and what they took from it.
" We need to stand on the edge of what seems like potential chaos and allow ourselves and the children to jump off into the unknown of creative exploration"
As children take the time to create on their own terms, there is time (which might more ‘traditionally’ be spent on demonstrating the steps of a craft) to chat to children about what they are doing and what their thinking is. It is during these times that children, in amongst telling you about their guinea pig and their friends, will also reveal deep understanding, leaving you with thoughts and wonderings that will astound you, giving a spin to the story that you never considered. Putting emphasis on the process of creating something and the thought that goes into it, rather than on the prettiness of the finished product, allows children to amaze us with the depth of connections they are making and the questions they are asking. It also challenges us, as adult leaders, to expand our own thinking and theology. When we can no longer tightly control the outcome and when we are likely to be asked any question under the sun, we are prompted to be ready for anything!
This is where risk-taking comes in. Allowing children free rein to cut, stick, paint, make some degree of mess and experiment without precise instructions can seem a risky procedure. But who, exactly, is it risky for? If we’re honest, loosening control over planned craft activities in a children’s ministry setting is probably more scary for leaders than it is for the children. We are the ones who need to stand on the edge of what seems like potential chaos and allow ourselves and the children to jump off into the unknown of creative exploration.
If ‘process’ creations are about exploration, experimentation and journey then they are a perfect tool to use with children and young people who are on a journey towards God. If we want our young people to have ownership of their faith and their relationship with Jesus we cannot be satisfied with closed questions about Bible stories and closed crafts that allow no potential for debate and reflection. We need to give our young people the freedom to engage in the process of faith; the freedom to question and form opinions about what they hear. We need to be alongside them but step out of the way when they want to run past our expectations. Instead of being instructors, the adult role becomes that of facilitator, observer, provider of tools and occasionally sticky-tape cutter! We become fellow travellers on the faith journey who can learn just as much from the children as they can from us.
So, to return to the abseiling analogy with which we began, here are some things you can do if you want to travel with your children on the creative process journey towards God:
- Take a risk. Put behind you those questions about what might go wrong, how much control you will have over the situation and about the level of mess that might be created.
- Trust that children are more capable of deep connection with God and his story than you could ever imagine.
- Jump off the edge and try something outside your comfort zone. Present the children with a box of junk, some paint and lolly sticks, some Lego and playdough, or some wooden blocks and pipe cleaners and see what happens.
- Know that you are not going to fall into disaster. This is about the experimental journey rather than the perfectly achieved destination.
- Let the ropes hold you and experience the amazing freedom of accompanying your children on their exploration and discovery of who God is.
"We need to be alongside children but step out of the way when they want to run past our expectations"
Here are a few examples of crafts that we tried with children. Why not use them to inspire you or come up with your own ideas?
My first foray into ‘process’ came about when my team of leaders and I were experimenting with using different learning styles in our 5-11s children’s group. For a few months we had been trying out different ways of praying, and we had also been talking to children about how we all relate to and communicate with God in different ways. It occurred to us that, although we were experimenting with and exploring prayer, we weren’t really extending that sense of exploration and questioning to other aspects of what we did in our Sunday sessions. We decided to try and change that with a bit of an experiment.
I collected together a box of various collage and construction items: card, paper, straws, lolly sticks, foil, buttons, pipe cleaners, paper plates and yoghurt pots, and put them in a big box along with some sticky-tape, glue and scissors. The idea was that children would be able to use whatever they wanted from the box to make a model or picture that reminded them of what we had been learning about.
To be completely honest, several of our leaders quailed at the thought of using the junk box. It was pretty much outside of everyone’s comfort zone. What if the children didn’t know what to do? What if they just spent their time making swords and ignoring what we were learning? What about the mess? Let’s just say that expectations weren’t high as we went into the session.
After reading and talking about Psalm 139, we opened up the junk box and let the children go. While there was one child who needed a little encouragement, the others, without exception, got stuck straight in and astounded us with the depth and variety of what they created. The standout piece was from an 8-year-old girl who had taped two foil dishes together on a hinge and filled them with buttons. When asked to share her thinking, she told us that what had stood out to her in the psalm was the idea of God’s protection. She explained that the buttons were people and that the dishes were like God’s hands protecting us.
By not dictating the outcome of their creativity, our first ‘process’ experiment had shown us the amazing depth of understanding and connection the children were making. We learned some important lessons that day. Never again would we underestimate what we thought the children might understand and never again would we feel obliged to spend two hours cutting out shapes for a ‘colour by numbers’ craft!
Wool and sandpaper
As a response to the story of Moses and the Israelites wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, children were asked to make pictures by arranging strands of coloured wool on sandpaper. The idea was that the rough texture of the sandpaper and the soft, colourful wool would help to establish themes of God bringing life and provision for his people even in hard desert places. Children had complete freedom to make whatever kind of picture they wanted and the creative time was used as an opportunity to discuss what the children thought of the story themes and about God. This was definitely not about producing a perfect picture, but about providing a space for children to experiment, be creative and explore their thoughts about the story.
Speaking to the children as they created revealed some incredible responses. Children talked of people they knew who were going through tough times and thought about how we sometimes take for granted the good things we have that others don’t. They were also quite intrigued by the comparison of the rough and soft textures, and one child in particular linked the contrasting textures with the power of God to bring transformation.
Sometimes it’s after the ‘creation’ has been made that the process of connecting with God happens.
After hearing the story of Jesus calming the storm, we made some reflection bottles and then spent some time using them. Reflection bottles are a simple mixture of glitter and water in a sealed bottle. As the bottle is shaken, the glitter swirls around and eventually settles. The idea is that children watch the swirling and settling, and this helps them to have a visual focus if they want to talk to or think about God.
Comments from children who used the bottles show just how deeply their reflections went. One child was moved to reflect on war-torn areas of the world as he watched the glitter swirling violently. Another child was drawn to compare the beautiful shine of the glitter with what she felt was God’s glory, while another was moved to think about people who were ‘going in circles’, praying that God would help them in their lives. Interestingly, one child took the craft further at home and added a ball of screwed-up foil. To him, the foil represented God who was always with us, even when our lives felt mixed up and unsettled.