Teaching English or any foreign language to preschool or kindergarten age children can be a challenge, as young children generally have short attention spans and require a lot of different activities within a lesson. This means that as a teacher you need to have an arsenal of games and resources to hand in order to keep your class engaged. If you work at a language school you probably use one of the many fantastic course books on the market specially designed for young children. But I know there are many teachers out there who run classes independently or who don't have access to course books and need ideas and inspiration for their young learner classes.
Songs and games are both key for teaching small children and I love using them in all my classes. However, if you have a group of mixed ages you are often limited as to which games you can play as older children usually have the advantage, unless it's a game of chance. You also need A LOT of games if you are to fill an hour long lesson for preschoolers!
Why use arts & crafts?
Arts and crafts are a great way to support language learning, as well as many other skills that are important for young learners. They make a class engaging and fun and are extremely helpful in forming a positive association with a new language. I have never yet taught a young child who didn't enjoy making crafts - quite the opposite!
Having said that, it's important to remember that you are teaching a language class, not an art class, so make sure you maximize the opportunities for language teaching while doing the craft!
Maximizing language learning
The ability to follow instructions is an important skill for young children to learn, and it's also a great opportunity to recycle and repeat language.
Give the instructions in English (or whatever language you are teaching) while visually modelling step by step how to make the craft. Keep instructions clear and simple with lots of repetition, hand gestures and signalling. For very simple crafts with only one or two steps you can show what to do at the beginning and let them work at their own pace. For crafts with more steps, or for preschoolers, I find it's better to explain in stages. You can ask students who work more quickly to help another child or to help clear rubbish from the table while they are waiting for the others to catch up. This has the added advantage of keeping things tidier and more organised. Believe me, crafts can get messy!
If you do crafts frequently your students will become very familiar with a variety of action verbs: cut, stick (or paste), draw, paint, fold, turn over, hold, press, tape, put, etc.
I require all my students to ask me for the materials they need at each stage before I hand them out. I may hold up the scissors box and point to it to elicit the language in varying degrees of complexity (depending on their level); from a simple "Scissors, please" to "Can I have the scissors, please?". Or I might ask each student "What colour scissors would you like?" in order to reinforce colours vocabulary. Children will often want or need help, and this is another opportunity to encourage them to ask for it in English; "Help, please", "Please help me", or "Can you help me, please?"
Saying please and thank you are mandatory in my class!
If you do arts and crafts regularly with your students you'll be constantly recycling vocabulary for materials; scissors, glue, pen, pencil, crayons, eraser/rubber, paint, paintbrush, water, stickers, glitter, bin, paper, card, sticky tape/sellotape, string, wool, etc!
I always link my craft activities to the theme or unit I am teaching at that moment and choose a craft to either specifically practise that vocabulary or extend it. So, for example, if I am teaching parts of the face I might make a smiley clown's face on a stick to specifically use the words "eyes", "nose", "mouth" "hair", etc. Alternatively, if I am teaching farm animals we might make a cow and I'll use the opportunity to teach other related vocabulary; "head", "tail", "moo", "milk", "grass", "black and white" etc.
Using the finished craft as a prop for another activity
You can also take advantage of using crafts as props to play and act out scenes. Crafts such as simple finger puppets, masks, or cardboard tube animals are great for play acting together afterwards. Children can "feed" their animals, pretend to be the farmer, or make their puppets talk to each other. You can also make mini-books, or lift the flap games that children can read or play with afterwards.
Sharing and cooperation
Crafts are also a good opportunity to teach sharing, patience and consideration within a group, as well as cooperation when working on a group project, or tidying up at the end of class. Practise language such as "Can you pass the _____, please?" or "Wait a minute, please".
Mixed age groups
Arts and crafts are great to do with mixed age groups, as each child works on their own project at their own pace and in their own style. Older children have more autonomy to complete the craft on their own, leaving you free to help younger ones. You can also work on a group project and assign tasks to younger and older children according to their age and ability.
Things to consider when using crafts in your language class
This is fundamental when deciding which craft to do, or even if it's feasible to do a craft in the first place! If you have a large class and no assistant you should consider whether you will realistically be able to supervise a craft activity, especially with preschoolers or kindergartners. My maximum class size is eight students, and I have found that to be my limit for a successful craft class.
There are a number of caveats for successfully incorporating arts and crafts into your language classes, but the most important is to be prepared! It's essential that you actually do the craft beforehand at home so you know how to put it together and how much time it will take - assume it will take longer than you think in the actual class! Make sure you have all the supplies the kids will need plus some spares and pre-prepare any templates beforehand.
Another important piece of advice for crafts with small children is the simpler the better! Remember that many young children are still grappling with how to hold scissors, and don't have much hand strength yet. Even a lot of first graders still have some difficulty cutting, so if you give them complicated shapes with a lot of detail to cut out be prepared to either help them A LOT, or to be sticking together the remains of their efforts! There are many simple crafts to choose from on the internet, and I'm constantly adding more ideas here.
As regards helping, you will almost always need to help at some stage of any craft, but try to encourage children to do most of it themselves. If you have chosen an activity appropriate to their level they should be able to do most of it without help. Some children will automatically ask you to do it for them without really trying, but motivate them to make an effort. Swooping in to complete the craft for them only robs them of the sense of achievement they gain at creating something with their own hands, not to mention the other skills they need to practise at that age, such as fine motor skills and concentration. If a child is really struggling then by all means help, but let them at least try first.
I definitely recommend having extra materials on hand. Cut out pieces may get lost or end up in the bin by mistake, or a child may accidentally ruin their craft beyond repair, so it's important to have spare materials just in case!
Praise and encouragement
It's important to praise children's efforts ("That's great!" "Well done!" "It's beautiful!"), but also to encourage them to make an effort. If a child is rushing through cutting or colouring you can model doing it slower and saying "Slowly!", or "Carefully!". Focusing and staying on task is another important skill for young children to learn!
Allow sufficient time to finish the craft. This is especially important with 3 - 6 year olds as they usually want to take their craft home and they can get quite upset if they don't finish it. This is why it's so important to do the craft yourself before the class and always allow more time than you think you will need! Fast finishers can always help other children, help tidy up, or just make sure you have some worksheets or activities that they can do on their own while the others finish. It's especially important to allow time for tidying up if you have another class straight afterwards!
If all the students work together clearing up can be done remarkably quickly. Assign roles to different children; "Scissor collector" "Glue collector" "Bin monitor", etc. You can find many tidying up songs for children on the internet, or sing or chant your own tidying up song to make the task more fun!
Ideas and resources
There are thousands of great craft ideas on the internet, and Pinterest is a great place to look. We also have a lot of crafts and printable activities here at Tea Time Monkeys that you can use with little learners! They've all been tried and tested with children from 3 to 7 years old in my classes and I've included tips and tricks where appropriate to help you adapt them to your needs.
We hope you and your little ones enjoy your craft classes!