Physical development in arts and crafts: Hands on

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Children's physical development is intrinsically linked to their creativity, writes Anne O'Connor

Children's physical development is intrinsically linked to their creativity, writes Anne O'Connor

It is impossible to separate physical development from other aspects of children's growth, because children learn through being active, and through multi-sensory, physical interaction with the world around them. Children using their senses to engage in art and creativity are constantly developing, practising and refining their skills.

Learning opportunities

In a well-equipped arts and crafts area, and with appropriate adult support, children can:

  • use their senses to learn about the their environment and connect with what they already know
  • respond to physical challenge
  • improve fine and gross motor skills of co-ordination, control, manipulation, and movement
  • develop concentration and learn from mistakes
  • become confident in their physical skills
  • explore language associated with materials and their use, for example, words to describe texture or actions
  • develop and consolidate preference for using their left or right hand
  • become confident users of tools and equipment
  • design, evaluate and refine their models and artwork
  • manipulate tools and materials
  • explore 'joining' and 'assembling'.

Children exploring their physical dexterity through creative work are often acquiring skills that are useful in other areas of their life. Children who pour and mix paint or water, for example, will become more confident pouring drinks. Manipulating small items helps children develop the dexterity to hold and control a pencil. Clearing up after a messy activity raises children's awareness of taking responsibility for themselves (by, for example, washing their hands) and their environment.

Close observation of children engaging in self-chosen art, design and craft activities will often provide valuable information about their schemas. A schema is 'a pattern of repeatable behaviour into which experiences are assimilated and that are gradually co-ordinated' (Chris Athey, Extending Thought in Young Children, 1990, see also 'All about... schemas', Nursery World, 6 June 2002, pp16-22). When a child is observed over a period of time showing a deep and consistent interest in a particular concern, such as covering artwork with layers of paint or making and filling boxes, they are providing evidence of their intrinsic motivations, which astute practitioners can support and develop, enabling children to learn at a deeper level.

Resources and activities
Provide a range of large- and small-scale activities, including:

  • using implements and tools such as staplers, clips and punches
  • manipulating small items such as sequins, beads, and stickers
  • cutting, tearing and sticking
  • threading and weaving, covering and wrapping
  • painting with brushes and sponges of various sizes
  • drawing with pencils, pens, crayons, pastels, chalks and charcoal
  • constructing models from junk
  • printing and collage, using paper and fabric, etc
  • moulding and sculpting using clay, papier-mache and dough
  • paper design and craft.

Provide opportunities for children to work both collaboratively and independently.

  • Explore techniques and styles of painting and drawing (see All about... art, Nursery World, 7 March 2002, pp16-22).

  • Find out about different cultural perspectives on art and design, such as different weaving styles.

  • Provide a range of stimuli, such as story, music and prints.

  • Create and solve problems, for example, how to make a bed for teddy or create a mask for role play.

  • Provide art and creative resources for indoor and outside activities.


It is important to balance adult-led tasks with opportunities for children to initiate and develop activities for themselves. Practitioners need to demonstrate and teach physical skills and techniques, but children must have opportunities to revisit and practise their physical skills in ways meaningful to them to build confidence and independence.

  • Make resources readily accessible in a workshop-style environment, so children can make choices about their creative work. Encourage children to sort recycled materials into labelled baskets or boxes, and to select materials appropriate to their chosen task.

  • Provide a range of 'joining' equipment, such as masking tape, staplers, glue and clips appropriate to the children's different stages of physical development.

  • Ensure tools work well and are stored safely and labelled clearly. Ensure children know which tools must be used with supervision.

  • Provide appropriately-sized brushes, crayons, pencils, etc.

  • Ideally, provide ample space for creative activities, indoors and out, where children can be messy and have opportunities to use the floor rather than having an overemphasis on sitting at tables.

Adult role

Observation and sensitive intervention is essential to promote effective physical development through art and creative activities.

  • When children ask for help, provide technical assistance to ensure they do not become frustrated or demotivated, but allow every opportunity to experiment and persevere, judging when to encourage independence.

  • Ensure children have sufficient time to experiment and learn from their mistakes.

  • Make available enough resources to allow children to practise and repeat new skills and to revisit them over time. This also makes it easier for children to share and work together. Explore cheap ways of resourcing, such as recycling.

  • Be aware of the needs of left-handed children when buying tools and equipment, and demonstrate how to use them.

  • Engage in activities alongside children, using the language of movement, for example, scraping, dabbing, squeezing and pouring.

  • Provide stimuli that offer children opportunities to use all their senses. Play music in the creative area and be aware of the needs of children with impaired senses. Adapt or develop activities accordingly.

  • Involve parents in activities, encouraging them to use their skills and develop new ones.

  • Do a risk assessment and demonstrate how to use tools safely.

  • Plan activities appropriate to the children's level and ensure those with special needs are able to participate fully.

  • Remember some children may need to avoid some materials and substances because of sensitive skin.

  • Observe and record evidence of children's developing physical skills Collaborate with parents to ensure continuing development.
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