Teaching children to knit can be a very rewarding experience, but it can also be one filled with frustration if the child isn't ready or you aren't prepared for their reaction.
Understanding how kids work and how they are most easily taught, as well as understanding your own kids' needs, will help make the process more successful.
When's the Right Time to Teach?
There are many people who say they learned to knit when they were 5 or 6 years old; I know of some people who say they learned even earlier than that.
But that doesn’t mean that every child is going to have the hand-eye coordination or the attention span necessary to knit at that young age. (And even though my daughter has both of those things, she wasn't ready at 6, though she would finger knit at that age.)
This is where knowing the child you are working with plays a big part. If they are acting interested when they see you knitting and express interest in learning, it's definitely time, no matter what age they are (though they may still have trouble with coordination).
If on the other hand, the main interest in having them learn how to knit comes from you, you may find your student unwilling or easily frustrated and bored. Be willing to let go of the lessons for now if they don't see to be working out.
When starting out with very young children, some knitting teachers suggest having them learn finger knitting first. This method can be worked on just a couple of fingers or on all four fingers of one hand at once for more coordinated kids.
Next, you can try them on a knitting knobby (a tool used for making I-cord that has a few hooks or pegs and is worked with a pick or crochet hook, also sometimes called a knitting Nancy or a spool knitter). The idea behind starting with these methods is to get the child practice working with yarn and a bit of dexterity that will be useful in handling the needles.
You can even make your own knitting spool, which is fun for kids, too.
Supplies for Kids
There's almost universal agreement among knitters who work with wool that it's the fiber of choice for teaching anyone to learn how to knit. Wool is forgiving, easy to work with and feels nice on the hands (provided you choose a good-quality wool).
Medium or worsted weight yarn is the best choice because it's not too big and not too small.
Good quality acrylic yarn works fine for learning as well, and choosing a light-colored yarn can be helpful to make it easier to see the stitches. Or, if you're using a light-colored pair of needles, you can be more flexible in your choice of color for the yarn (or let the child pick).
Some people suggest using larger needles than the yarn might call for (up to a size 10 US) for kids because it may be easier for them to hang onto big needles. Other people say smaller tools are better. I usually shoot for a size 7 or 8 US needle no matter who I'm teaching. I also prefer wooden or bamboo needles because they're warm and a little easier for both the yarn and little hands to hold.
Like anyone else learning to knit, a good first project for a child is a simple Garter Stitch swatch. You may want to cast on for the child so he or she can focus on just forming the knit stitches.
A Garter Stitch scarf is a great first project, and once the knit stitch is well established you can add purling, ribbing, casting on and binding off (or teach the bind off at the end of the first project).
You'll probably want to teach the child whichever knitting method is most comfortable to you, and remind them that it's normal to feel awkward and make mistakes at first, but in no time it gets a lot easier.
The key for both teacher and student is to be patient, but kids tend to pick up things a lot more quickly than adults do, so don't be surprised if your favorite kid is comfortable with knitting in no time.