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Developing a Child’s Sense of Touch - the Value of Natural Materials

Our sense of touch connects our bodies to the outside world. Humans use this sense to gather information about our surroundings and as a means to develop bonds between each other. When we touch something, we instantly gather all sorts of information about it. Is it hot or cold? Is it smooth or rough? Is it firm or soft? As our sense of touch develops, we begin to recognize subtle differences. An item is not simply smooth or rough. We are able to discern every slight detail of the feeling of that item. Tactile learning and touch are essential for a child’s growth in physical abilities, cognitive and language skills, and even social and emotional development. Touch is not only important for infants and early childhood sensory experiences, but for long-term individual development of each child.

Our sense of touch is not fully developed at birth. It continues to develop in obvious and less perceptible ways all through childhood and into our adult lives. By stimulating these capacities, we are strengthening the brain’s ability to receive, process, and understand all sensory input. Therefore, we are strengthening our ability to understand the world around us.

Our sense of touch also helps us to establish and understand physical boundaries. It helps us to understand where “I” am in my space, in the room, and in the world. Neurologically, the sense of touch is deeply connected to our emotional and cognitive development. The sense of touch establishes the vital bond between a mother and her child. It develops our understanding of deep emotional bonds and physical boundaries.

Natural fibers respond in an authentic way to our sense of touch. It’s important not to fool our senses if we want to develop a feeling for authenticity and genuineness. If something looks like wool, it should be wool. Consider how different your experience is when you pick up a plastic egg compared to when you pick up a real egg, or the feel of a plastic rain poncho on your shoulders compared to the feel of a wool shawl wrapping around you. There is a certain TRUTH in natural materials that cannot be found in synthetic materials. We experience natural materials through our sense of touch in a way that we cannot do with artificial or imitation sensory experiences.

This sense of touch, of truth, and understanding is why Waldorf education recommends using natural materials wherever possible. We recommend using wool yarns (or wool / mohair blends) for knitting and pure wool batting for stuffing in handwork. Wool is more responsive and more elastic than synthetic yarns. Texturally it is warm and dynamic. The elasticity of wool makes it very forgiving for beginner knitting stitches. If you are not able to use wool, we recommend cotton as another wonderful natural fiber. However, cotton will not stretch in the same way as wool. Cotton is also usually found in 3 or 4 ply yarns. We prefer single ply yarn for beginners as a multi-ply yarn can easily be split by our knitting needles. Stuffing a knitted animal with wool stuffing brings a warmth that makes the animal feel almost alive in our hands in a way that synthetic polyester batting cannot match. The use of natural materials wherever possible will enliven your child’s experience in countless ways.

Managing resources:

Beyond the often-quoted benefits of handwork, such as eye-hand coordination, fine finger dexterity (which builds brain synapses and agile and flexible thinking), and more, handwork educates the sense of touch – leading to a ‘feel’ for authenticity and truthfulness in a literal and figurative way. Handwork will also educate the sense of order, beauty, and care for the environment when we steward our materials carefully.

We recommend:

  • using natural materials whenever possible – they are usually easier to work with, and promote a direct connection with nature

  • limiting the color palette at first to reduce overwhelm, and gradually extending the available colors as projects warrant. If you pre-select colors that ‘sing well together’, this will facilitate and support a sense of beauty (especially important at this age)

  • keeping your supplies orderly, beautifully arranged, and protected from marauding pets and younger siblings. This will promote a sense of order, care, and reverence for nature which has provided these resources for us. Many teachers and families use an attractive basket, covered with a lovely cloth when the supplies are not in use.

Model care for the materials you use. Children learn more than they are taught!

This article is an excerpt from the Waldorf Handwork Educators 2nd Grade Handwork Curriculum Guide. To learn more about our curriculum guides click here:

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