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How to Fit Handwork in to the Montessori Environment

Sometimes simple questions spark a great deal of thought and not so simple answers. My dear friend Jess, a wonderful Montessori guide from the US Virgin Islands, messaged me recently to say that she is excited about my Handwork Album, but worries that the Montessori curriculum is so full, she will not be able to fit in another area.

It is an understandable concern as there is always a lot to teach and learn, and Montessori learning environments are always busy. So here are six steps to help you fit Handwork into your Montessori Environment:

Decide you are going to do it.

As with all things in life – you need to make a firm decision that this is going to happen, and not allow obstacles to be barriers. Read my posts on why Handwork Is an Essential Element of Cosmic Education here. Once you understand the value of Handwork, you realise that you have a duty to teach it to the next generation and the decision is pretty much made for you. Keep this in mind, along with your determination to make it happen.

Create a culture of Handwork in your community.

This is a biggie and I will cover it in more depth in another post. I really don’t teach many Handwork lessons in my class as it is so much a part of our culture, and I have cultivated so many ‘experts’ that the children pretty much take care of it themselves.

The older children teach the younger children what they know, and when they want to challenge themselves further, they learn from a book.

Handwork is so visual, that children see each other’s work and ask if they can do it too. Once Handwork is in the children’s minds as a normal and expected work choice, they will naturally choose it as a means of expression and exploration in all areas of the curriculum.

Link Handwork to the curriculum.

Handwork is not a standalone subject. it is not something extra to teach, it is extra help in teaching.

I tell a lot of historical or cultural stories when I give Handwork lessons and we use it to depict or explore concepts from all areas of the curriculum.

When we extract natural dyes we learn about the parts of the plant.

When we study the history of the written language, we make clay cartouches.

When we look at the difference in spindle designs around the world, we think about the weather conditions, physical geography, flora and fauna that might affect the types of fibres available to spin.

We use our knowledge of squaring and percentages to calculate the shrinkage rates of different types of wool when we make felt.

We study the life cycle of the silk worm and the cotton plant. I could go on, but the point I am trying to make is:

If you think of Handwork as a teaching tool, rather than a separate subject, you will find it does not take up any extra teaching time; it just enhances the learning that is already happening.

Prepare the Environment

When children come into my class, they cannot wait to get their hands on all the colourful, textured, beautifully curated materials on my Handwork shelf. You can find more information on preparing the environment here, but drawing the children in is just the beginning.

Before you introduce too many new materials/ activities to your class, you need to think through your management strategies. Nothing will lead you to giving up on Handwork faster than a classroom full of loose fluff, half completed projects, partner-less knitting needles and tangled yarn.

I will go deeper into management strategies in another post. The key things to focus on today are considering what parameters you want to set around using the materials and how you will store projects in progress.

Budget for it

Materials for Handwork need not break the bank but they are going to cost something. If you are on a tight budget, ask for donations. I never buy yarn or fabric as these are given to me by the bagful – just put the word out in your community.

I do need to replace a few damaged knitting needles and embroidery hoops each year and resupply roving, sewing threads etc. as well buy items for specific projects, but this costs less than you might expect.

If you are just beginning, you don’t need a full loom, spinning wheel, or sewing machine but it would be good to plan to buy them eventually. Start small, see how much material you are using and then add more options. Please make sure you have enough materials to support a craze if one takes hold - there is nothing more frustrating than breaking the last felting needle and not being able to finish a picture or running out of fabric to complete a patchwork.

If all else fails - Outsource

If you really feel you can’t do Handwork – outsource it. As teachers we are expected to be masters of all trades. Some of us manage this admirably but others find there are areas that they just cannot get a handle on.

I cannot teach music. I have a very fixed mindset on this. One of the other teachers in my school is a very talented musician but does not teach Handwork. The children in both our classes know that they can go to him anytime they would like a music lesson and come to me anytime they would like a Handwork lesson. Win-win.

How you outsource will depend on your school, maybe you have the budget for a specialist teacher, maybe you have a parent, or grandparent who would volunteer their time. Maybe you can make arrangements with another teacher. If you have decided you are going to do it – you will find a way!

I hope this helps. Please feel free to email me with questions, or comment below with ways you have integrated handwork into your environment.

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