Easy and Creative Stop-Motion Animation Project for Kids

When I worked at a Montessori school in southern Ontario, each class would contribute something artistic to the school’s year-end assembly. In my first year, I asked my grade 4 and 5 students what they had contributed previously. In some years they sang a song, and other times they performed a skit. I wondered if there was something student-led (and a bit more personal) that each student could contribute. I brainstormed ideas and browsed around the internet and came across the idea of stop-motion animation.

What is stop-motion animation?

Basically, stop-motion is an animated filmmaking technique where objects are moved in tiny increments between individual photographs to give the impression that they’re moving when the set of photos are played back. The technique makes inanimate objects appear to move on their own. It’s simple – you place an object in front of a camera and take a picture. Then you move the object a little bit more, and take another picture. This process is repeated until you have all the pictures you want. Essentially, that’s it!

Why stop-motion?

Full disclosure: I worked at a not-for-profit Montessori school that didn’t adhere rigidly to the Ontario curriculum. Rather, they focused on fostering strong values, supportive relationships, the importance of community, and letting kids be kids. So the idea of devoting an entire month’s worth of STEM lessons to this stop-motion project wasn’t out of the ordinary; in fact, it was strongly encouraged because of all the soft skills it taught and reinforced.

The benefits of stop-motion animation

There was more to stop-motion for me than just giving my students creative freedom. For me, these were the main reasons why I wanted to pursue this particular project:

  • It encourages students to plan out their project into steps (just like inquiry learning) and lay the groundwork first before diving in
  • Stop-motion animation supports the concept of storytelling and reiterates important story structures to students
  • It’s a great example of a low-floor, high-ceiling activity; one where students of any level can access it, but it can be extended to high levels
  • Students develop several soft skills: problem-solving, cooperation, initiative, and teamwork, and it encourages them to think creatively
  • It teaches students the movie-making process and how stop-motion animation works by immersing them in the process rather than having students read about it
  • Stop-motion animation doesn’t require a ton of money; many props and creative elements can come from everyday recycled objects, craft supplies, and even toys and materials that students already have
  • It offers students autonomy and ownership over the movie-making process and over their finished work, which in turn makes them proud and feel accomplished

Related article: Things you will definitely notice when inquiry-based learning is working

The stop-motion animation process

When I presented the idea to my grade 4 and 5 students they were so excited. They couldn’t wait to get started. Something about creating a story and having free reign over the process really hooked them. Not only were they excited about creating a story, but they were eager to get creative with character development, background design, and prop selection. Many of them were eager to explore the iMovie app and fiddle around with filters, settings, and music.

We watched a few videos to see the video style and to get an idea of the amount of work that goes into a stop-motion animation. Here are some of the ones we watched:

LEGO Stop-Motion: Good Ol’ Hockey Game

The Robot and the Butterfly

Stand Up Tall (an 8-month art class collaboration about standing up to your fears and overcoming obstacles – also see their behind the scenes footage)

1. Brainstorming and storyboarding

The first few sessions were devoted to students brainstorming some ideas and coming up with a good story. Initially, I suggested that students centre their story around a theme or problem; for example, a social justice issue, bullying, a special mission, or an environmental issue. In the end, some students stuck with a theme, but many of them branched off and delved into their own stories; I was fine with this.

I also explained that they needed to come up with an idea that would fit into a movie with a finished length of 1-3 minutes. This worked out to approximately 100-200 individual photos.

They talked to each other in partners and shared their ideas with the class to get feedback. This was great because they could hear the opinions of their classmates, listen to suggestions, and potentially partner up with other students who had a similar idea to share the workload.

In our small class, we ended up with 3 partner groups and 3 students who worked independently. In the second year I did this, we had 2 partner groups and 2 solo students. (Yes, we were incredibly lucky to be at a school with such small class sizes!)

Planning the storyboards

Once the groups were figured out, students got to work planning out the different scenes, dialogue, and props needed for their story to come to life. They followed the typical story structure of beginning, middle, and end. 

This video was great for showing students how to storyboard properly, as well as add abbreviations for the different camera angles they wanted to use; for example, close-up, far away, etc.

I made sure to spend 1:1 time working with the partners and individual students to really flesh out their ideas and make them realistic in terms of how they would translate into a stop-motion animation. We needed to figure out:

  • What the issues or problems would be
  • How many characters the story would need
  • The sequence of events
  • How the problem would be resolved

Students got to work on their storyboards (we used this template). Once they had all of their ideas down, I met with them to review the story and make any changes if needed. Once their ideas were approved, it was time to begin the designing process.

2. Set, prop, and character design

This was a really fun stage for students (and for me). I was eager to show them some cool examples of stop-motion animations to get them excited and to see what was possible.

By far, our favourite video was a LEGO stop-motion animation of the song “This is Halloween” from the movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas”:

It’s cool because the movie itself was filmed entirely in stop-motion. None of my students knew that until I told them! I showed them the movie trailer and then we watched clips from the making of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” so they could see how much effort it took to create and film the movie. Needless to say, they were floored! 

In the days that followed, I saw so much creativity and enthusiasm for the project. Many students brought in recycled materials, such as cardboard and plastic containers, from home. Some brought in paint, craft materials, and toys to be used as characters. We watched this video that showed the sped-up process of someone using cardboard to create a painted set for his stop-motion animation.

We spent around 2 weeks designing, painting, and assembling the backgrounds, props, and characters for their stop-motion animations.

3. Script writing and practice

When the creative components were finished, students turned their attention to writing their scripts. Since they had their backgrounds, props, and characters finished, they could set up their “stage” and move things around to map out when events would occur and when characters would start and finish speaking.

I worked with groups and individuals whenever they needed help, but I was surprised that so many of them felt confident and capable of figuring things out on their own. I checked in with the groups from time to time and reworked a few bits, but overall the process was largely an independent endeavor!

Students needed to also figure out who was going to voice which character. In many instances, a story needed more than two characters, so I worked with the students to choose other members of the class to contribute their voices for the project. I was mindful of inclusivity and encouraging students to choose classmates who hadn’t already been asked to contribute. Luckily, I had a great bunch of kids who were very considerate.

Related article: Managing conflict in inquiry learning

4. Filming

This part of the process was what we had all been waiting for. We were all buzzing with excitement! Of course, some students had completed the previous steps faster than others, so we started filming their stop-motion animations first.

I asked the students if it would be easier for them to control the movement of characters and swapping out of backgrounds and props while I held the iPad and took the photos; they were happy with that arrangement. However, I did encourage students to take over the iPad during some of their scenes to get comfortable with taking pictures, holding the iPad still, and focusing the image.

The majority of our filming was done on bookshelves, and on the occasional table. We took advantage of the natural light and tried to minimize shadows (although they were inevitable). Overall, each group took about 2 class periods (over a span of 2 days) to capture their entire stop-motion animation.

During my prep time I transferred each group’s photos into a separate file in iMovie and roughly put them in order. Next, students sat with me to determine which photos they would keep and which ones they would discard. Finally, we marked down the times when they’d need to record their voices or sound effects. We were now ready for the voiceovers!

5. Voiceovers and sound effects

I couldn’t believe how excited students were to do their voiceovers. Naturally, some were a little nervous to hear the sound of their own voice, but they quickly got over that. Each group sat around my desk and, following their scripts, took turns recording their voices over their videos.

It took about 1-2 class periods for each group to record all the voices they needed for their stop-motion animations. There were times when we needed to delete and re-record parts due to background noise, a student forgetting their line, or simply re-doing it so it would sound better.

Once the voices were roughly placed over the correct parts of the video, the students and I discussed sound effects and music choices. We talked about what sound effects would make sense in different scenes, and what songs would accompany the tone of the video the best. The students were receptive to feedback and happy to explore lots of options. I recorded which sound effects and songs they wanted, as well as the timestamps for them.

6. Editing with stop-motion animation

Once the voiceovers were completed and students had chosen songs and sound effects, we began editing. In all honesty, I did a lot of the editing. This was for a few reasons; the process took a little longer than we had all anticipated (since this was our first time doing stop-motion animations), and an interruption to the school schedule meant that we had lost about 4 in-class working days.

The students were totally fine with this. They still contributed when they had some free time. For example, a student and I browsed Youtube for some crashing and banging sound effects, and she discovered how to download them as mp3 files and insert them into iMovie on her own. She did this for a few other sound effect clips.

Some students were eager to let me choose the songs that I felt would accompany their movies best. (This is probably obvious in some of the clips below considering the unlikeliness of any of them ever watching “I Dream of Jeannie” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”).

7. The grand reveal

Before unveiling the stop-motion animations at the year-end assembly, we had a watch party in the classroom. Students gave each other feedback and were given the chance to make any small changes they felt the video needed. Most students were thrilled with the final result and decided not to make any changes.

The reception we got from other teachers and parents was fantastic. The effort the students put into their work was substantial, and that was evident from the videos. Overall, it was a project that the students and I felt was a complete success.

During my second year of doing the stop-motion animation project, the quality of the videos improved in terms of the sound effects and editing. In both instances, a high level of creativity, communication, problem-solving, and adaptability were evident; that did not change!

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