Why Handwork is an Essential Element of Cosmic Education.
I love Montessori. I hold an AMI Montessori diploma, I teach in a Montessori School, I have two Montessori children of my own and I write a Montessori blog – I am sold.
I also love handcrafts and find it hard to understand how something that fits so beautifully with the principles of Montessori Education is not a part of the curriculum. I could write volumes on why handwork should be considered an essential element of Cosmic Education, but, with difficulty, I am going to limit myself to two posts.
In this first part, I will discuss why Handwork is important on a psychological and societal level and in Part 2, I will discuss the artistic and physical benefits of Handwork.
Handwork builds connections
One of the key aims of Cosmic Education is to connect children to nature and give them an understanding of their environment. When they have this, wherever they find themselves in the world, they will know something of their surroundings.
For example, Montessori educated children can look at a plants foliage and know the shape and size of its root system; they can look at the mountains around them and know whether they were formed by tectonic plate movement or volcanic activity – these understandings help them feel grounded in the Earth.
But what about their connection to the human aspect of the Earth - the culture of people, what Dr. Montessori called ‘supranatura’? What if children could understand something about their surroundings, just by looking at their textiles? They would know that the clothes they wear, and all of the textiles around them were made from the fibres of a plant or animal that had been gathered or shorn, and spun into a thread that was then woven or knit, and then cut and sewn.
Not only does this knowledge give them a connection to their textiles but also a natural sense of gratitude. When children realise how many people have had a hand in the work of creating their clothing, their clothes are no longer something that just appear in the shops – they have a history.
Handwork leads to gratitude
When children explore the processes of textile making for themselves, and realise how much work it is, not only do they develop a natural gratitude to the people who have made it, they form an appreciation for the textile itself.
When the children in my class snag their jacket, or break the zip on their pencil case, they don’t go home and say “Mum, I need a new pencil case”, they come to school and say “Carol, I need a needle and thread,” – their textiles are treasured.
As most of our textiles are now created by unseen machines, most people do not have to spin, weave, knit or crochet out of necessity and the connection with our ancestors that these crafts once fostered is becoming lost.
When a child spins their own yarn or weaves their own scarf, they are meeting their own fundamental human needs in the way human beings have for generations before them. They are forming a connection to every human being who has ever worked with their hands to create clothing for their bodies, blankets for their beds, sacks for their grain, or even sails for their ships.
We, as teachers and guides, must allow our students to follow in the footsteps of those tenacious Scots women who spun, dyed and wove the coarse wool for their menfolk’s tartan kilts, and the shepherds who followed their flocks through the harsh steppes, spindle in hand. Let them be one with the children of New Zealand who took up their knitting needles during the 1930s depression to ensure every child in the country had a wool blanket. We must preserve the heritage of our species.
Handwork is the thread that connects all human beings on every part of the planet and at every point of history – it our duty to pass this connection on to the next generation.
Handwork Brings Inner Peace
Whilst these crafts continue in many cultures as a matter of necessity, they are being kept alive in others for the sheer joy that they bring. The satisfaction of creating something that is both useful and beautiful is as important now at it has always been, and should be offered to children as a matter of priority.
The rhythm and flow of knitting or spinning are naturally cathartic and can be a gentle source of comfort to child or adult. If you are a knitter yourself, notice how tight your stitches are when you are feeling stressed, and how they loosen as the craft works its magic and your Zen is restored.
In a culture where children are becoming increasingly stressed and anxious it is more important than ever that we offer them and outlet for their tension. Handwork is therapeutic, it creates a space in time when the hands are engaged but the mind is free to process and unwind – it naturally slows down to meet the rhythm of the craft, and its natural balance is restored.
Handwork builds resilience.
Handwork takes commitment, both to master and to complete a project. Children in modern society can become so used to quick-fixes and instant gratification that they lose the ability or motivation to strive for anything longer term. Knitting a scarf can take months, particularly if the child goes through all the steps of washing and spinning the wool, and knitting it on knitting needles that they have made themselves. It takes commitment, perseverance and resilience. It teaches them that we can achieve great things, if we take them one step at a time.
It builds resilience and offers a sense of achievement that simply cannot be found on a screen.
And the sense of pride the child feels each time they wear their homespun, hand knitted scarf, set the table with their hand-sewn place-mats cannot be offered by any screen. The product of their labour a constant reminder of their achievement and an incentive to make more.
Handwork for Artistry
When I was working as a substitute teacher in traditional schools, I was taken aback by how little time children spent on Art. Beautiful packets of coloured paper, pastels and paints would still be in cupboards, unopened at the end os the year.
Teachers told me they simply could not afford the time to include Art in their program. They also recognised that as guardians of the next generation, they had a responsibility to introduce children to art and offer them a means of creative expression. They knew they could not afford not to teach it, but could not find a way to fit it in. Our compromise was that I would teach Art on the days that the regular teacher was not there.
The children loved it. I mean, really loved it – they soaked it up like water in a desert. And I loved teaching it - there are so many reasons why we must teach art to children. But. But if I had to choose between making time for art and making time for handwork, I would choose handwork in a heartbeat.
Handwork gives children an opportunity for self-expression that is more approachable, authentic and sustainable that simple art.
Every young child believes they can draw – they put a pencil to paper and they produce a picture that is satisfying to them. However, as they get older they notice that the picture on their paper does not match the one in their head, or that is it not as perfect as the one in the book. When this realisation occurs, many children come to believe that they are no good at art and simple stop practicing it.
Handwork allows the child to create, without the risk of dissatisfaction; they can be sure that when they follow a knitting pattern – knitting and purling, increasing and decreasing as they are instructed – they will create a product that is exactly like the picture. There is no need to take creative risks.
And the piece that they create is so much more meaningful and satisfying than a two dimensional drawing. Rather than adding their beautiful painting to the collection on the fridge, which will later be recycled, they can wear their slippers, place their drink on their coaster or carry books in their bag. Their art has purpose.
Handwork also caters to the needs of the child who prefers freeform creation – they may crochet in any direction they like, explore, create, unravel and try again. Felting is a naturally unpredictable art, children need not fixate on the finished product as it is rarely completely within their control but the process is sensorial, artistic, cathartic and a little bit magical!
Handwork for dexterity
In a world where children are increasingly used to working with electronic devises – connecting with plastic, metal and glass and using finger tips and thumbs to tap and swipe – there is, more than ever, a need to develop the hand.
When we spin wool on a drop spindle the hand must alternate between the firm flicking motion of finger and thumb, which sets the spindle in motion, and the gentle teasing out of the fibres to draft the wool. Pull too hard and the fibres will break, too gently and they will bunch up and be impossible to spin. What better way for the child who presses too hard with his pencil to learn to moderate pressure?
When we knit, we use both hands to hold needles, create tension on the yarn, and create stitches, crossing the midline each time we make a stitch. This builds the fine motor skills of both hands.
When we sew, we must hold our fabric in place and manipulate out needle to come out in the precise spot needed to make small, neat stitches. Then we must pull the tread hard enough to draw it tight, but not so hard that the fabric bunches up, or the needle becomes unthreaded.
There are few other activities offered to children, which build their fine motor skills in such detailed and comprehensive way.