Passing it On: Teaching Children to Crochet

Many  of us who love to crochet learned as children from an older family member of friend.  The patience of that teacher, and her obvious love for her art combined with the great finished projects to inspire us, the next generation of crocheters.  Now that we’re adults, with children or grandchildren surrounding us, we want to pass on the love of crochet and the skills needed to crochet successfully.  But how?  With all the brightly colored and snappy sounding video games, television programs, and friends to text, how can we motivate a 21st century child to sit still long enough to learn to crochet?  How young is too young to start learning?  How and in what order should the skills of crochet be introduced?

To some extent, the answers to all these questions will vary depending on the individual child, and the adult doing the teaching.  However, there are some general principles that can be followed to create the atmosphere and sequence needed for successful and happy inter-generational stitching.  I have taught my own two daughters and one of my sons to crochet, along with several Girl Scout troops, my two granddaughters, and nearly a hundred girls at a residential summer camp.  Interacting with this wide variety of young people through crochet has allowed me to see quite clearly some approaches that work, and some that don’t.

Basically, teaching a child to crochet can be summed up in five  “rules of thumb” – (1) Don’t force anything, (2) Keep it short and sweet, (3) Keep it simple, (4) Allow for exploration,  and (5) Keep it playful.

1. Don’t force anything – The surest way to make sure a child does NOT love to do something, is to turn it into a chore.  Conversely, presenting it as a privilege and a game is a sure way to build interest.  Are you familiar with the story from Mark Twains’ book, Tom Sawyer, in which Tom has the chore of painting a long board fence?  The chore will take his whole Saturday, and is very hateful to him.  However, when his friends come along to gloat over his “imprisonment” and their freedom, he manages to make the job look like so much fun that all his friends end up paying him for the privilege of helping, and Tom spends the day supervising his work crew!  There is great wisdom in this story!  The first time a child asks to learn to crochet, our impulse is to leap with glee upon the opportunity, grab a hook and start the child at making chains.  Instead, interest can be built and a groundwork of familiarity laid by suggesting that the child watch for a while and ask questions, or wait for the upcoming birthday or other occasion, marking “being old enough”.  The anticipation of the pleasure, combined with the time spent together observing a beloved adult will help to ensure enough interest to carry the child through some of the “just plain hard work” of learning any new skill.

A second part of “don’t force” is to really watch the child for signs of physical and mental readiness.  Children develop at different rates, and crochet is a fairly intricate physical and mental task.  Some children will be ready to make chains at 4 or 5 years old, but many will not be ready until ages 8-10!  Interest is the first sign of readiness, but should not be confused with complete readiness?  Is the child able to use a pencil, crayon, marker and scissors with some degree of accuracy?  This indicates the necessary fine motor control that must be in place for crochet to be successful.  Is the child able to sit still, reading or carrying on conversation for 15 minutes or so at a time?  This neurological readiness is different from the ability to watch a tv program or video game for long periods, because the constantly flashing images of the electronics stimulate the brain in very different ways than focused attention to a person or book does. 

So, if the child has been expressing interest, watching and talking with you about crochet, and you see that he or she is also able to manipulate small tools accurately and pay attention to things without “bells and whistles.” then your child is probably ready to begin.  Younger children can play with large, blunt hooks and scrap yarn under close supervision – my 22 month old grandson loves to poke his hook in and out of his tangled wad of yarn while his older sisters, mother, and Nana all crochet…. but he will not be ready to actually learn the skill for some time yet.  My 7-yr. old granddaughter has more nimble fine motor skills than her 9 yr. old sister, and is avidly learning crochet much faster.  All three children fall in the range of normal development!

2. Keep it short and sweet – Having established that both interest and readiness are in place, you can begin crochet lessons.  But be careful not to push that interest and that ability to concentrate to their limits.  Fatigue is a sure interest-killer!  Early lessons should never be longer than 15 minutes, and shorter if necessary.  The trick is to always stop before the child’s interest begins to flag, never to push for “finish the row.”  Keep in mind that the thing that will stick in the child’s mind, defining crochet for him or her, is the last moment spent doing the activity.  Was that last moment a chore?  Was that last moment spent wishing she was doing something else?  Next time the hooks and yarn come out, the emotional content of that final moment will define the response to the new lesson.  Remember the adage, “Quit while you’re ahead.”  Watch the child closely, and make a reason to stop while interest is still high.  This may seem “mean” at the time, but it leaves the child hungry for more, waiting with anticipation for the next time the privilege will be offered.  A good rule of thumb is to instruct one minute for each year of the child’s age.  If you are a good observer and can gauge the child’s interest from body language queues, you may be able to continue longer, but it’s still good to stop for a break very frequently.  When I have a “crochet day” with my granddaughters, we work for 10 or 15 minutes, and then stop for a drink, work on our crochet for another 10 or 15 minutes and then go outside for a bit, or read a story together.  We can crochet for more than an hour in a morning, if that hour is spread out, but not if it’s an exercise in endurance!

The second half of this guiding principle is “sweet.”  We, as adults, have varying levels of patience!  We need to keep our own capabilities in mind, and not try to exceed our own ability to remain calm, encouraging and gentle as the child makes the same mistakes over and over.  Children are usually really accepting of their own mistakes and the process of learning, unless impatient or perfectionist adults have taught them to be uncomfortable with their own human fallibility.  If you are starting to seethe inside, or to squirm inwardly with the wish that you were doing something else, then it’s time to stop, before your discomfort is communicated to the child you are teaching.  Mistakes do need to be corrected, but if the child is to love crochet, the correcting must always stay cheerful and be treated as “just part of the process.”  It helps if the child also sees you frogging cheerfully when you discover a mistake in your own work!  At our house, we have all sorts of little songs and ditties about ripping out our mistakes, and the children will often stand by my chair as I rip out several rows, singing “ A frogging we will go, a frogging we will go, Hi, Ho the derry-oh, a frogging we will go!”  We also sing and joke about their lost or gained stitches, and rip out as much as we need, to straighten the work out again.

3. Keep it simple – One very common mistake made by those attempting to teach a skill is that motions that have become easy and natural to the teacher are demonstrated too fast for the student to follow.  Each step, each motion of each part of the stitch must be demonstrated slowly and separately, and this is more true the younger the child.  It may take an entire lesson just to learn to “insert the hook in a stitch,” or to yarn over in the correct direction.  It can be helpful, if there’s enough comfort and trust between you and the child, to stand or sit behind the child with your hands on hers, moving her hands through the slow steps of the stitch, chanting aloud the names of each motion.

Secondly, never try to teach two skills at the same time!!!  The first lesson with a very young student (4 – 8 yrs. old) might only consist of making the slip knot.  Then for several days we look for opportunities to make slip knots all over the place: tying our shoes in half bows instead of whole bows, wrapping presents, tying string around boxes, tying yarn around anything, making Nana’s slip knots for her so she can crochet.  When the slip knot is easy and natural, taking no particular effort at all, we have another “lesson” and learn to make chains.  Then we make nothing but chains for a LONG time!  Chains of short length in fun colors are wonderful friendship bracelets for all the little crocheter’s friends.  Longer chains make lovely hair ribbons; they can be braided together to make belts, book marks, etc.  Long chains can garland the Christmas tree, or decorate for a birthday party.  They make great present ribbons decorating wrapped gifts.  My granddaughters made a chain that could wrap all the way around their house, among many shorter ones, before they began to ask how to “stack the stitches on top of each other.”  The next lesson will teach only one thing: the single crochet stitch.  When that’s fully mastered we can add another stitch, or the reading of a simple pattern, but not both at the same time!  One skill at a time, and plenty of practice until that skill is easy and natural, before the next one is added.  The key here, is that we build success on top of previous success, rather than adding a new mystery to one that’s not fully solved yet.

4. Allow for exploration – Not only chains have multiple uses… each level of new knowledge needs to be fully explored, practiced, and “played with”.  The first half of the learning process is the taking in of new knowledge.  But what has been taken in will NOT be retained unless the second stage has adequate time: the stage of assimilation and application.  Having learned how to make a new stitch, your young crocheter needs to spend lots of time and practice with that specific new knowledge.  Making a few rows of the new stitch is often enough in my classes for adults, and then adult students want another new concept.  Children are generally much more comfortable with their need to explore all the ways to use the one new thing they have learned.  The list of uses for simple chains above is an example, but each skill has a similarly long list of possibilities, and your young student will come up with her own to add to what you think up!  Keep practicing and finding new ways to use what has already been learned, until you and the child can’t think of another fun thing to do with that skill.  As soon as that skill begins to be in danger of becoming boring, it’s time to add another small piece, and see how it fits with, enhances, and gives new life to the one that was becoming “old.”

Another aspect of allowing for exploration is making sure that the projects offered are of high interest to the child.  Even though your student may have watched you making thread doilies, most children don’t have a use for doilies.  However, there may be someone special in the child’s life who “needs” a lacy Valentine card, and that very small doily heart could be the way to introduce thread work.  A fancy edging for the cuffs of a sweatshirt will suit the style of some young girls, but not others.  And what if we do those same fancy stitches, but in larger yarn, making afghan squares?  If fancy stitches don’t interest your student, then offer projects that do!  My young students have had a lot of fun making simple hair scrunchies, amigurumi from basic shapes, and small felted purses.  It has been amazing to see the variety of individual interpretation that comes out of 11 girls all making and stuffing a little rectangle.  Some will add felt faces; some will crochet tails and legs; some will embroider eyes, while some will glue on “googly-eyes.”  Each student ends up with her own fantasy animal, and has explored the possibilities of what single crochet in rows can do.  The exploration itself will lead some students to their own perception of what they need to learn next:  how do we make round legs for the animal?  Can we make circles as well as squares, and how would we do that?  Curiosity is the best friend of any teacher, and those teachable moments should be seized, and used to design the next lesson for the student.

5. Keep it playful – This is a reiteration of what has already been said…. But we adults so easily become “results oriented” that we need to be reminded often!!  If the child’s interest in a particular project begins to flag, this is not the time to “teach them to persevere,” at least not if you also want to teach them to love crochet!!  Use household chores or schoolwork to teach perseverance, and keep the crochet fun!  My own first crochet project took over 6 years to complete, as I tended to put it away for months at a time!  But after 6 years, I was graduating from high school, AND had completed an afghan of 144 granny squares.  I would never have completed it, had it been a requirement, though!  When I felt like crocheting, I had a project at hand.  Currently, my house is littered with small rectangles that pass for ‘doll blankets’, although neither of the granddaughters play much with dolls.  I give the girls small projects that can be completed in a week or less, before interest dies out.  So far, the younger (and more adept) of the two has made a washcloth, a candy cane Christmas ornament, and half of another holiday ornament, this month.  Her older sister, much more a “large muscle” gal, is nearly finished with her washcloth, and really only motivated by the fact that she’s making it as a birthday present for her mom.  She may become more interested in handcrafts, including crochet, later, but for now, she would rather be climbing a tree, and that’s got to be okay.  It’s not a sign of failure on my part…..  not everyone in the world will have the same idea of fun!

In the next issue, I will present some specific projects and resources for crocheting with children, but my hope is that each of us will be able to pass along our love of crochet to at least one member of the next generation… both for the sake of our art’s continuity, and also for the joy of spending creative time with a child, building memories and self-esteem, while pursuing a useful and pleasurable hobby.