My son just turned 4 and I'm trying to figure out how much direction I should give while doing crafts. He really enjoys to doing crafts but if I give him a specific 'project' to do (e.g. something out of a book) I end up doing most of the work b/c he gets frustrated. If I let him do something on his own he enjoys it but it usually just Popsicle sticks taped to paper ... so I feel he might never get to the point where he will follow the direction of a project.

Any advice?


  • 3
    Not an answer to your question, but if he likes to make things and you don't want to impose limits, perhaps a big box of mixed Lego is helpful? There's no end to what kids can build with that, and it's easily disassembled for the next project. No mess! :-) Sep 13, 2011 at 6:13

5 Answers 5


If he's getting frustrated, following directions in itself probably isn't the problem. More likely, either you haven't provided a developmentally-appropriate level/type of direction, or you've chosen a project that is too much for him. Even a toddler can follow directions if they are simple enough and if he is being directed to do something he can reasonably do.

Kids learn from success more than failure, so here are some tips to create successful direction-following experiences, which will help increase his capacity for following directions:

  • For preschoolers, the working attention span is usually 15-20 minutes at a go. Your kid may vary, but whatever his attention span is, choosing a project longer than that will only set him up for failure.

  • Preschool children generally can't "think forward" a step yet. If they need to know what step 3 will be in order to do step 2 correctly, the project is too hard. Make sure your child only has to think about or know one step at a time.

  • Actually give directions one step at a time. Do not say "do foo, then do bar". Do say "do foo", check that foo is correct and help with any needed fix, then say "do bar" and provide any needed help.

  • Chose activities with developmentally appropriate levels of complexity. If you are having trouble with that, consult a book like Kids Create that offers projects on a wide variety of skill levels. Start at the bottom with the three-year-old projects and work your way up as your child progresses.

  • Do provide opportunities for unstructured experimentation. Your child will learn a lot more about color by goofing around with a set of paints than by filling out color charts or doing a paint-by-number. Both direction-following and free experimentation are essential to proper development.

  • 2
    I love this answer. I'd add to comment on his process using nonevaluative statements (not praise!) so that he can learn to reflect on process, not just outcomes. "I notice you are concentrating very hard!", "You must really love challenges!", "Wow, you are really focusing on the details!" I don't think the 'product' is really the point, but this is an opportunity to practice the process so help him reflect on that. Nov 2, 2012 at 3:13

Lead by example. Do your craft with him your way and let him do it his way. As his motor skills and patience develop, his crafts will get more elaborate and he might even mimic you.

You can teach him a technique here and there, e.g. folding/cutting/gluing/etc., but otherwise I'd leave it fairly unstructured for now. You'll be surprised.

A personal tale:

I thought I'd be the best dad ever by dumping a pile of toothpicks and marshmallows on the table. The first try went poorly because I insisted on building crazy structures with my 2 and 3 yo. The next time though, I let them do whatever they wanted and did my own thing. Now, several times later, they're building stick figures, shapes, etc. (all on their own).


It depends on what you want to achieve- do you want them to be good at simply following directions & producing a 'product' that looks only like what you want? Or would you rather encourage creativity, imagination, inventiveness, design skills & independent problem solving?

There is so much time for limited adult-directed work when he is older, a young child's creativity should be protected at all costs, because it is very hard to regain it once the notion that "cats shouldn't look like that" or "this is the correct way to draw a face" has set in- this attitude stifles creativity.

For the 3-4 year olds I work with, I prefer to provide a range of resources & techniques, perhaps demonstrate different ways of using them, then provide appropriate scaffolding during the project with open ended questions or prompts so they don't get frustrated when something doesn't work. e.g When making a door for a cardboard play house- we went to go look at hinges on a real door, then talked about what similar materials we had & the most secure methods we knew of attaching them.

In my experience this 'support' approach facilitates a wider range of deeper level learning, rather than just 'the child can follow steps 1-5' & produce something exactly as it says on the box. I would rather encourage entrepreneurs & inventors!


Directions are for cattle. :-) Providing a 4yo with a set of directions to follow isn't likely to work. I'd let him just stick popsicle sticks to paper for a couple of more years, and instead show how to do simple things that doesn't require a long chain of directions. Then he can copy what you do.

  • This simply isn't true. I work with four-year-olds all the time and as long as it's the right level of direction, they follow directions just fine.
    – HedgeMage
    Aug 15, 2011 at 13:45
  • 3
    We have cattle farms. Cattle do NOT follow directions. Children do if they are developmentally appropriate and the children are motivated. Aug 16, 2011 at 0:31
  • @Marie: It's obviously not meant literally. Geez. But yeah, what I mean with direction and what HedgeMage means are obviously different things, so I'll modify the answer to adjust. (My grandmas neighbors cattle followed directions in the form of a stick just fine, so I think we disagree on that, but whatever). Aug 16, 2011 at 15:00

I worked in Arts & Crafts at a day camp one summer and 4 year olds require some, but not a ton of direction to do a craft. We always prepared all the materials needed beforehand (that part is boring) and completed the craft once to show the kids what they were making. Maybe this isn't practical in a home setting, but it did work in providing direction so it wasn't just kids gluing random pieces of paper to a bigger piece of paper. We also did have to keep them on task. Quite often they wanted to abandon the craft when it was only partially done, so we encouraged them to finish.

The 4 year olds loved using glue and scissors! And of course paint and clay. So try and include those things.

I wouldn't worry he'll have trouble following directions in the future- he's only 4!

It's great that you're doing crafts with him. I can't wait till my daughter is old enough for crafty stuff!

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