How old should a child be before they can learn to knit with knitting needles? Is six too young? What do you do when your four-year-old asks to learn to knit? How do you successfully teach a young child to knit? That was the dilemma facing me 20+ years ago.
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Past experience trying to teach a seven-year-old niece made me wary of introducing knitting too soon. I was trying to figure out how to say, “Sorry, you’re too young to learn” without squashing her dreams when her dad chimed in with, “When you learn to tie your shoes, Mommy will teach you to knit.”
A perfect answer! Tying shoes requires manual dexterity and is a great pre-requisite for knitting. Whew! This was going to buy me some time, or so I thought.
For kids, success in learning to knit has more to do with the student than the teacher. Knitting or crocheting takes a combination of (1) interest, (2) manual dexterity and (3) concentration—the ability to sit still and pay attention. Those things are going to happen at entirely different times for different children. There’s no point in trying to teach a child who doesn’t want to learn; it will just frustrate the teacher and the student.
An Historical Perspective
In days of yore, children learned to knit at a much younger age then they do today. In some cultures children as young as four knit socks, both to sell and to keep the family warm. During the World Wars, children knit for the troops. Take a look at the work of Swiss artist Albert Anker for adorable paintings of young people knitting.
Of course, modern children don’t have to knit socks out of necessity, but does that mean they can’t, if they want to?
The First Lesson
At home, said pre-schooler went off to school and returned three hours later with the news that she had learned to tie her shoes. Prove it, I said. She did. She had prevailed on a classmate—the youngest of eight—to teach her. Apparently when you have seven older siblings you learn life skills early.
A promise is a promise; now I had to deliver a knitting lesson. Armed with a couple of size 10 Brittany double-pointed needles with rubber bands wrapped around the ends, a partial ball of Lopi—the only bulky wool I had at the time—and six stitches cast on, we got started. Using the “In through the front door” mantra, I demonstrated, then gave her the needles and guided her hands. After a couple of rows, she took over, and I was amazed at how quickly she got it. Having her say the mantra every time really helped.
What I didn’t remember until recently was that I made a videotape that afternoon! It’s not high quality, but here’s little Margaret knitting her first project—a doll scarf. Some of it is captioned. Note that with barely-3-year-old Little Brother chiming in at 1:04 with “Out of the…” (in response to “In through the front door”) and at 1:56 with “Once around the…”, he was on his way to learning the basics, as well.
Does It Last?
You might wonder if learning to knit at a young age means the child will continue knitting. My best advice here is not to worry about that. If the child is interested, they may keep going, but chances are the interest will be fleeting, and they’ll move on to learning other skills. After all, it’s a child’s job to gather experiences and explore as much as they can. They may even take a long hiatus and come back to the fiber arts in one way or another years later. Your job as a teacher is to encourage the exploration.
Did little Margaret stick with knitting? The answer is no and yes. She finished the first project to her satisfaction, and then knitted one or two things over the next few years, but nothing that you’d call a Real Project.
Fast forward to college life. Knitting and crocheting was popular and knowing how to do both meant an immediate way to bond with a new group of people. Fiber skills eventually got her a job at Red Heart*. so that early knitting lesson did pay off in the long run!
*She’s no longer with the company, but she’s still knitting and crocheting.
Tips for Teaching Kids
- Stay positive!
- Keep the lessons short, relaxed, and focused on what they want to make.
- Plan for immediate success. 5-6 stitches per row allows the work to grow quickly. You’ll have a belt, a headband, a doll scarf, a coin purse or a friendship bracelet without worrying about gauge.
- Kids aren’t interested in perfection; they just want to explore new skills. Unlike adults, they are used to being in a learning mode all the time, and they will be happy to be making something even if it has holes and wobbly edges.
- If the child loses interest, don’t push it. They’ll learn when they are ready.
- If handling needles is too intimidating, try finger knitting until dexterity matures.