Art vs. Crafts in Preschool – What’s the Difference?


process art

Process Art







craft not art

Teacher Created Craft Model

“It’s the process, not the product.”  This important statement is a well-known mantra of early childhood professionals.  Process art is experimenting with a variety of mediums and exploring personal artistic expression for the pure joy and satisfaction of the experience.

The purpose is not to produce a specific art work, but to learn the many ways that materials and colors blend together to make something new and unique.  When it comes to art and young children, process art is the gold standard.

Crafts, however, have an end result in mind.  Using a set of directions, a model, and a few specific materials we hope to make a cute and identifiable craft product that is similar to the original.

You can distinguish easily between the two by assessing how much preparation time the teacher has put into the activity.  Did the teacher print, trace, and cut out components for children to color or glue together while following her preassembled model? Or did the teacher simply gather and provide the objects, paper and art materials needed for the children to sit and begin?  The first is most definitely a craft, while the other is open ended process art.

There’s always a debate raging about this topic, and it exists because learning is always the goal when working with children, and there’s so much more for them to learn and discover when an art experience is open ended.  However, teachers often feel the pressure to send home cute kiddie crafts, as parents seem to really enjoy them.

One problem with prescribed crafts is that they are teacher directed and not child led.  There’s a lack of creativity and critical thinking skills being used by the child, which can result in a lack of engagement or boredom.  Children may view the work as drudgery.  The biggest problem is that children will compare their results to the teacher’s perfect example and be either extremely disappointed or frustrated by their own efforts.  Worse yet, they will feel inferior and believe they are not “good at arts and crafts.” Some children won’t even attempt the activity, believing they can’t do it.  Anyone who has suffered their own Pinterest fails can identify with this emotion.

My perspective on the arts vs. crafts debate is that there is room for both process art and crafts in preschool. I agree that process art should be the main focus (about 75%), but a few crafts sprinkled in (25%) can be beneficial too.

This being said, crafts for children should be chosen carefully and require them to practice the skills they need to learn — tracing, cutting, gluing, etc.  However, this means the craft must be VERY simple with enough open-ended choices to satisfy little artists.  For example, when we worked on paper tube owls last fall, children chose their own earthy-toned paint colors and decided which type and how many feathers to use. The model we followed had only two googly eyes glued on.  I demonstrated how to bend the top edges down to create the look of ears.



I can hear the outcry now, “what does a child possibly gain by completing a toilet tube owl?”

If we consider the theory of Multiple Intelligences, we recognize that all children (and adults for that matter) have individual gifts and challenges.  One of my personal joys in teaching young children is discovering their special talents and interests.  We all have something unique that makes us who we are.

While I’ve always admired artistic people and their creations, my own skills are very limited.  Not from lack of trying mind you, but facts are facts.  Maybe I am the product of too many teacher-led crafts in my own youth, but I rarely can come up with an original artistic idea.

However, I love when I see a cute craft project or pattern that I would like to try to duplicate.  As a visual learner, I NEED a photo or actual model to copy.  Often, I need written directions too.  The notion occurred to me one day that maybe, like me, not all children are equipped with the artistic surge to create on their own?  Maybe they needed a little inspiration to see what was possible?  This is when I realized the value of including  some craft projects in my preschool program.  Once children see and experience what can be created with just some paper, glue, and feathers; the door might open to similar ideas and creativity in the future.

What are your thoughts?