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Too Much Handwork?

People often ask me how I manage the amount of time children spend doing handwork in my classroom. They worry that if they make all these beautiful materials and activities available all the time, the children will do nothing else. I can honestly say, this is not an issue in my classroom. That is not to say that I don’t have the occasional child who needs coaching on balancing their time, but generally the handwork shelf receives just as much attention as the geometry shelf.

If too much time spent on handwork is a concern, I think we need to ask ourselves some questions before we introduce measures to control things:

Why are children choosing handwork all the time? What is the need they are trying to fulfil? Why are they choosing handwork over, say maths?

Is it because these activities are new and exciting?

Then let the novelty wear off. Let the children explore the materials, learn to understand how they look, feel, smell and move. Let them see that these materials are always going to be there so that they don’t feel the need to binge on them before they are taken away.

Is it because they have not really done much creative work before?

If this is the case – they have a need that has not been fulfilled. They are hungry for creativity, artistry and self-expression. Let them focus on that need until they are satiated and they will restore their natural balance.

Is the handwork they are choosing challenging them?

If the children are choosing to knit rows and rows of the same scarf day after day so that they can look busy but actually sit and chat with their friends then this is not ‘work’ and should be reserved for break times, read aloud and community meetings. If, however, they are working on a project that requires them to draw out designs, learn new techniques, test and adjust their ideas or find the limits of a new medium – this is work! It doesn’t matter whether they are doing this with a needle and thread, a pair of compasses or CAD software – it’s all using their critical thinking and ability to make new discoveries.

It is our job as guides to notice the difference between ‘busy work’ and ‘challenging work’ so we can give new lessons as necessary to maintain the balance between the two (because nobody can sustain challenging work for six solid hours per day.)

Also – why is handwork more exciting than other subjects?

If the guide is introducing every new lesson with an interesting story and an air of fascination and wonder, the children should be just as excited by exploring the arrangement of leaves on the plant as they are by sewing.

Is there other work going on that we can’t see?

In Montessori education we sow a lot of seeds and we don’t always know which ones will grow and which will lie dormant. It could be that the child who is spending a lots of time sewing is actually retelling themselves the story they have just heard, perhaps adding themselves as a character or trying to understand the decisions made. It could also be that the child who heads straight for a quiet corner with their knitting each morning needs to process a difficult home situation before they are ready to learn.

Possibly the most important question is:

Why are we thinking of handwork as a separate subject?

Handwork can be integrated and used to explore pretty much everything, it is the means of exploration and the vehicle for myriad follow up activities after key lessons. My students make felt models of the solar system and the layers of the earth, they make geometric patchwork, quilted timelines and clay cartouches. They explore ratios through mixing dye, practise maths through writing knitting or cross-stich patterns and connect with different cultures by engaging in traditional crafts. If handwork is used as a tool for learning, then we can never do ‘too much’ of it. Exploration is such an important part of education – it is how the greatest discoveries are made.

As Montessorians it is our duty to observe and adjust. If we have strong relationships with our learners and we give plenty of interesting lessons, they will find their balance and they will use all of the amazing resources available to them to fulfil their tendencies to work and discover.

You can read more about why handwork is an essential element of Cosmic Education here. I assure you, if we do it right, there can never be too much of this good thing!

I'd love to know how you integrate handwork in your environments and what challenges you face with this. Please let me know in the comments section below, on the Montessori Handwork Facebook page or in the Montessori Handwork Threads Facebook group.

Stay safe friends!

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