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LearningTip #53: Activities Help Children Learn to Follow Directions
By Joyce Melton Pages, Ed.D.
Educator and KidBibs President

"Assembly required." Those two words often determine whether you buy a specific product or it remains on the store shelf. While you may have tried to use your knowledge and experience to build projects, you've probably caught yourself saying, "When all else fails, read the directions."

Children often become frustrated by following directions too. Their ability to follow directions often affects their learning and performance in school. In addition, this "real world" skill will support children's learning throughout their lives. Activities involving crafts, cooking, and building things are just a few of the meaningful ways that children can learn to follow directions successfully. In addition, tasks which involve following directions typically require children to:

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attend to specific steps and the order in which they are to be performed

integrate the information in diagrams with textual information

distinguish between significant and insignificant information


organize tasks

When children are provided with real, authentic opportunities to follow directions, they understand the purpose of directions, the importance of following directions, the process of following directions, and the consequences of not following directions correctly. This article will include the following sections:

Authentic Opportunities to Follow Directions

Writing Directions Helps Children Follow Directions

Online Resources for Following Directions

Authentic Opportunities to Follow Directions

Authentic tasks provide children with opportunities to follow directions to create something real or complete a real task. Failing to follow the directions correctly on authentic tasks often yields a product that doesn't look, work, or taste right. This helps them understand the importance of following directions correctly.

Children can use directions when they build things, create things, and learn how to do new things; providing books and materials related to juggling, performing magic tricks, playing card games, creating web pages, etc. can give them enjoyable, interesting ways to follow directions. In addition, following directions is easy to include in home learning activities through cooking, craft, and other "real world" tasks. Finally, these tasks can also be integrated into any school subject to support the learning of content. Here are a few ideas:

Language and Literature

make puppets, masks, and/or costumes to act out stories that the child has read or written

make books for the child's stories


measurement activities


Social Studies

make crafts, musical instruments, food, etc. from other countries

create a newspaper for a particular time period, location, historical event, etc.


conduct science experiments

build models of the space shuttle, human body, airplanes, plants, insects, etc.


make watercolor paints, fingerpaints, flour doughs, paste, etc. to use in creative art experiences

use diagrams to learn how to draw animals, people, scenery, etc.

Health and Physical Education

play games

perform health and safety procedures (i.e., "stop, drop, and roll")

When choosing projects and activities for children to build:

choose activities that the child(ren) would be interested in building

choose activities that are appropriate for the child(ren) (considering their level of development and the materials/equipment needed to complete the task)

provide the child(ren) with easy directions initially--few steps, familiar words, clear statements, numbered steps--and work toward more challenging directions

introduce the process of following directions by modeling the reading of each step and demonstrating how to do it

show the child(ren) how to read directions

identify the sections that are clearly defined in the directions/recipe and discuss their functions: materials or ingredients, procedure, yield

circle the "to do" words like cut, glue, fold, stir, add, etc.

underline the words that follow the "to do" word (and attach to the circled "to do" word) to help the child(ren) understand the task

number the steps (if they are not already numbered); show the child(ren) how to identify signal words and recognize the order of the steps so they may learn how to independently sequence the steps when numbers are not provided

show the child(ren) how to integrate the information in diagrams with the information in the text

help the child(ren) understand the relationship between following the directions and ending up with the desired product

Writing Directions Helps Children Follow Directions

Having children write directions for tasks that they know how to do helps them understand how directions are written. This makes them aware of how steps are explained and sequenced for the person who will be expected to follow the directions. Analyzing tasks in this way also promotes higher level thinking.


Provide the child(ren) with an opportunity to write directions for something that they know how to do: make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pour a glass of milk, open a bottle of ketchup, make Kool-Aid, tie a shoe, etc. Explain that they will be expected to follow those directions exactly as they are written to complete the task. Have them inform you of the ingredients, materials, and/or equipment that they will need. Provide them with the necessary items and tell them to follow their directions to complete the task. When they identify missing steps in the written procedure, have them insert those steps with a colored pencil or marker (so that they will be able to identify the added steps in the discussion that follows). After the task has been completed, discuss:

  • how difficult it is to write directions
  • the strategies they used to explain the steps
  • how they explained the order in which the steps are to be completed
  • that writers of directions consider what the readers of their directions already know when they write directions; they don't include everything like "take the lid off the jar," "pick up the knife," etc. They assume that the reader of the directions will know to do that. Tie this to other writing experiences that the student has had so that they understand how considering the audience while writing is essential to good communication.
  • how writing directions will help them learn how to read directions


1. Have children write directions and exchange with a classmate.

2. Have children work together as a class or in small groups to write and follow the directions.


Online Resources for Following Directions

Arts and Crafts

Paper Folding (airplanes, origami, etc.)



Models and Kits




Arts and Crafts

About.com Family Crafts (make gifts, jewelry, wearables, crafts, science crafts, Bible crafts, holiday and seasonal crafts, scrapbooks, multicultural crafts, nature crafts, sports crafts, and more!)

Art for Kids

Kinderart (includes activities related to drawing, folk art, painting, sculpture, and more!)

Enchanted Learning Crafts (make cards, hats, paper crafts, family tree crafts, nature crafts, edible crafts, picture frames, holiday crafts, and more)

Paper Folding

My World: Origami and Paper Airplanes


Clem's Homemade Newspaper Kite Plans

20 Kites for 20 Kids in 20 Minutes: Uncle Jonathan's Easiest Classroom Kites Ever


The Idea Box

About.com Kids' Exchange

Models and Kits

Build an Astronomy Model

Spacecraft Models to Build


Games Kids Play (circle games, card games, chasing games, etc.)


Gilchrist Studios Online

Draw Cowboy Calhoun with Ed Emberley

The Courtyard


Kids Collecting

Kids Exchange

Conjurer: Free Magic Tricks

No one enjoys following directions. Few of us feel that we are good at following directions. They are often difficult to understand. Sometimes we are left with extra parts when we're finished. Sometimes the project doesn't quite look like the one on the package. And.....sometimes the food flops!

But, giving children experiences with following directions from an early age supports their growth and independence in completing tasks at school and in the "real world." Giving them opportunities to follow directions to complete authentic, meaningful tasks builds relevance that supports their learning for a lifetime.

©KidBibs International