Using Process Art to Encourage Children’s Spiritual Development

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Using Process Art in Children's Ministry

Understanding the value of process over product is important when teaching for spiritual growth.  After all, spiritual growth is in itself a process and not something that can be completed or packaged or even recreated in a set way.  Process art activities can help children express their connection to God.

Read More about the principles of Reflective Children’s Ministry

Open ended activities help children experience their spirituality in a different way than when teachers have a fixed outcome they want the children to produce.  Most children’s ministry curriculum now offers creative and active learning activities for children to participate in, but creative activities are not the same as open ended activities.

Open ended activities allow children to bring something of themselves to the experience.   The child is given an element of freedom and choose their response. The focus shifts from the end product to the process the child goes through as they create and explore.

Learning how to facilitate process art activities has changed how I serve children….

Here’s a story that helps illustrate my point.

When I first started teaching children at church on Wednesday night I was super enamored with all the super cute Bible crafts that can be found via Pinterest.   I don’t come from an early childhood background and spent much of my career working with college students and young adults so this was one of my first real experiences with teaching really young kids.

At the time I had a good knowledge base of child development theory, but until you really interact with kids week after week, you really don’t know what works and what doesn’t.

And so I tried some crafts that were probably too advanced for these four and five year olds.  And here is what happened.  The teachers in the classroom spent a great deal of time helping each child with each and every step of the craft.

Some of the children were very concerned about getting things right, some were very impatient about waiting for it to be their turn to get help, and some just wanted to get the craft done quickly so they could run around all crazy like while the teachers helped the rest of the children finish their craft.

Often there was chaos….and stress….and boy was I tired when I got home!

The finished products looked cute, but I was more impressed by them than any of the kids.  After all, the projects were my idea.

I honestly thought I was just a bad teacher who had a hard time with classroom management.  Maybe teaching little kids just wasn’t for me.

But here’s the deal….I was planning activities all wrong.  I was focusing on product over process.

At first glace, this picture may seem like a maze of scribbles, but in fact this child was drawing a prayer and explained that prayer is like a maze with many temptations and distractions that can keep us from connecting with God.

When I switched my focus to creating opportunities for open-ended response through process art activities instead of a fixed outcome…everything about our classroom environment changed!

  • The children became more interested in the activities being offered
  • They were more engaged in the activities for longer periods of time (which translates into less behavioral issues)
  • Relationships happened more easily because the conversations during the activities became much more meaningful
  • The children were more proud of their work–even when it didn’t look like something you would see on Pinterest.
  • There was less stress, less hurry, less chaos and I went home energized instead of drained!
  • I came away impressed by the children’s learning and the things they were able to express as they created.

And here’s the kicker.  Even though older children are better able to follow directions and complete activities with a fixed outcome such as crafts with step-by-step instructions, they have the same response as younger children when given the opportunity to participate in open-ended activities.

When we consider what is necessary to help children personalize and own their faith as they mature spiritually, it seems like we should be offering as many activities as we can that facilitate open ended creative thought.  Let’s provide older children with more process art activities!

Work samples from Godly Play response time. Children freely choose how they will respond.

What is the difference between an open-ended activity and one with a fixed outcome?

One of the easiest areas to see the difference is in comparing crafts to process art activities.  However these same principles apply to discussion and other classroom learning.  For now, let’s compare a crafts to process art.  Please note, I am not condemning all crafts—they have definite value, but do not produce the type of critical thinking and personal expression that process art activities can provide.


  • The teacher came up with the idea (or found it on Pinterest)
  • There is usually a pattern to follow.  The teacher probably made a sample
  • There are step-by-step instructions
  • Everyone does the activity together, which can cause frustration as everyone has to wait.
  • Teacher helps each child “get it right”
  • End products all look alike
  • Learning is focused on following the steps and finishing the craft.

Process Art

  • The teacher creates an invitation by setting out materials and giving minimal guidance.
  • Children choose how they will participate (if at all).  There is no set pattern.
  • Participation becomes more like play
  • The children (given enough time) are focused and relaxed asking for help from a teacher only as needed
  • Learning comes out in conversation as the children talk about what they are creating.
  • End products are unique, sometimes abstract (especially with young children).
Response time work samples from preschool children in a Godly Play environment. Their work is mostly abstract, but builds a foundation for creative faith expression.

There are times when “product” is important and has particular value.  When there is a particular learning focus, we offer a set activity with many available options for how the child can respond.

In the picture below, the children were taught about God’s promise to Abraham and then created star pictures to represent God’s promise to Abraham.  They all made a star picture, but as you can see in the samples below, they look very different from one another.

Open ended activities allow children to create unique art that reflects their learning
The children created starry scenes to go with the story of Abraham. I put the children’s work together for display to document our learning.

Simple Tweaks to move focus from product to process….

Sometimes a simple tweak in how you present the activity is all that is needed to shift the focus from product to process.

Here is an example from our lesson on the the Temple.  Instead of just providing a coloring sheet and crayons with a picture of the temple for the children, I offered the coloring sheet with a variety of materials—glue glitter, regular glitter, paint, sparkly decorations, and more.

The children chose how they would participate and other activities were offered simultaneously so if they didn’t want to do the art project they had other choices (that were also open-ended).

With this example, there is still a recognizable product, but the focus during the creating was on the process which changed how the children participated.

How to make Bible crafts more open ended
This child chose to create a pool outside the temple for washing and added gems and glitter to the temple so it would “sparkle”

Challenges in moving from a Product to Process focus

Moving from a product to process focus does have challenges.

  • Parents and leaders need to understand the value of the process–especially when the end products aren’t what they expect from children participating in your children’s ministry.
  • Children need to feel like they are in a safe and protected environment before they will really be able to express themselves freely.  This type of environment takes a long time to develop, but can be destroyed in a moment.  Erratic church attendance can keep this from happening.
  • Children need to know they are valued for who they are, not just for what they do.  They need freedom to respond as they feel led.
  • Preparing open ended activities requires different “prepping skills.”  It’s not harder…just different.
  • Leaders need to train themselves to observe and value children differently…or they may miss the important moments!
  • Open ended activities require a lot of trust in the Holy Spirit to guide learning and outcomes.  Leaders have to give up an element of control.

Even with these challenges, I would say that the leaders in our ministry have easily adapted to a process focus and enjoy that less pressure is placed on them to create awesome experiences for the kids.  The children are more engaged and that makes teaching So. Much. Easier.

Additional Applications to ponder…

How can you create opportunities for discussion that aren’t based on your agenda as the teacher?

One way to do this is to learn to wonder together.  Encourage questions relating to the story presented that inspire the imagination rather than focus on the facts of the story.  Open ended questions are great, but if children know you are leading them toward a “right” answer they will try to find the right answer and thwart your attempts to create an open ended discussion.  Godly Play is a curriculum that does this wonderfully, but these same principles can be applied with other types of lessons.

How can you involve students in learning activities that require their imagination and creativity?

Once you start valuing process, all kinds of activities become more valuable.

How can you incorporate blocks and building or other open ended toys into your Bible lessons?  How about small world play or sensory play?

open ended activities for spiritual formation.
I set out these gold blocks for our lesson on the temple. The children built many structures, but this one was meant to be the temple.

What kinds of projects would the children be interested in doing?

Again, I don’t think this has to be limited to early childhood.  Project-Based learning is growing in popularity.  What if we could find a way to apply these principles when teaching for spiritual growth?

Play is still an important part of learning throughout elementary and their ability to produce their own work is amplified as they get older. How can you make learning about God and the Bible a little more playful?

Your turn…

Do you think there is a connection between open-ended activities like process art and later development of critical thinking skills?  The kind required to develop a mature and thriving faith?

In what ways do you honor process over product in your ministry?  In what ways could you improve?