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How Does Handwork Support Healthy Sensory Development?

Rudolf Steiner mentioned that handwork is gymnastics in miniature. He also spoke of the hands as the eyes of the rhythmic system. What did he mean by this? And how is handwork connected to the healthy development of the 12 senses?

Have you ever noticed a child whose knitting stitches are so tight they can barely get the needle under the stitch? Or perhaps another child whose stitches are so loose they look like great big open loops? Upon further observation, you may have noticed that the same child whose stitches are tightly bound also sits with tight shoulders and neck, or walks heavy and hard on the earth. Or you may have noticed that the child who knits so loosely has trouble balancing on the playground or coming to stillness in their seat.

The practice and development of fine motor skills in handwork can have a direct impact on the large motor skills of the whole body and vice versa. And further than that, the rhythm and balance of the body and the hands all play a part in the development of neural pathways in the brain that lead to learning, reading, problem solving, emotional well being, and more.

Of course with handwork we think of the sense of touch and the sense of sight. But handwork includes all of the 12 senses that Steiner outlined.

The four lower senses: the sense of touch; the sense of life or well-being; the sense of self-movement: and the sense of balance are often referred to as the bodily or physical senses, and they can be clearly observed in healthy movement. They connect us with our own selves and help us orient ourselves in space. A child running along a log, arms out for balance, placing their feet carefully and securely, jumping off the end and grinning with delight can give us an idea how these four lower senses can look.

This may be mirrored in miniature in handwork through the over and under of our running stitches, the rhythmic looping round and round of our knitting and crochet, or the delicate balance between left and right, up and down, forward and backward, as we strive to have both hands working together in a synchronous flow.

The four middle senses: most like our well-known “five senses” are smell, taste, sight and warmth (more exactly this should be called the sense of temperature). Note that warmth is not the sense of being warm, but the ability to tell if something is warmer or colder than something else. They are portals to the outer world, and give us the basis to relate to our environment. These senses are often called the soul senses.

In handwork we develop these four middle senses through the use of natural materials. Children learn to distinguish subtle differences in texture, temperature, scent, and more by experiencing a wide variety of fibers including cotton, wool, flax, and silk, in many different forms such as raw fibers, yarn, thread, fabric, and felt.

The four higher senses: the sense of hearing; the sense of speech/ language (when we recognize, even when hearing an unfamiliar language, that these sounds are intended to communicate something); the sense of thought (when we recognize that there is some meaning, a plan, and purpose behind the words we hear); and the sense of the personhood of another allow us to recognize the humanity in other people, and to relate as equals to others.

In teaching handwork to children, we work primarily with the bodily or physical senses, but of course, these cannot be separated from the others. Human beings always perceive and connect with the world through a combination of senses; teachers support the children in refining and developing all their senses so that the children can better interpret and understand their environment. Steiner also indicates that healthy bodily or physical senses which connect us with our own selves, our boundaries, our sense of self in space, can develop into important social awareness later in life. For example, the sense of touch (which is so obviously nurtured in handwork) will later develop into an ability to recognize the boundary and the relationship between “I” and “you”.

Handwork, and the other subjects taught in the Waldorf curriculum, address multiple senses at the same time. With careful planning, conscious observation, and with increased awareness we can learn to recognize children who may be off balance with one or more of their senses and we can create activities to help bring them back to center.

Thinking again of handwork as miniature gymnastics we can bring large movement activities that mirror the small movements we do in our fine motor handwork skills. In this way we can connect the macro to the micro. We can go from the whole to the parts and back to the whole again.

Join us this summer at one of our two handwork conferences as we explore more deeply the healthy development of the 12 senses through handwork. Learn new ways to bring rhythm, balance, movement, and well-being into your handwork lessons, while at the same time providing a firm foundation for your students to grow into thriving and fulfilled adults.

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