Handwork is an integral part of the Waldorf educational curriculum and philosophy which is based on educating the whole child: head, heart, and hands. Every subject is carefully attuned to the developmental level and needs of the children and their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth.
Working with the hands and developing fine finger movement is in itself a valuable exercise. It’s well known now that finger dexterity builds brain synapses, and concrete thinking and problem solving in early years leads to enlivened abstract thinking in later years. Over the last fifteen to twenty years, teachers have seen a remarkable decline in children’s fine motor skills. At the same time, children have been playing more with precisely manufactured toys instead of uneven logs, stones, mud and sand, and of course, they have had far more access to online ‘games’. These activities have limited the need for very subtle and intricate hand movements – and the need for imagination and creativity in turning something into something else – in other words imagining and inventing something never seen before. Precisely manufactured toys rob the children of their potential for creativity and inventiveness, imagining and calling into being something never seen before - such as a bridge made from mud and sticks, or a boat made from a curled leaf.
Handwork - making something beautiful, useful, or playful from the simplest and most basic of materials - is a vital tool for cognitive development, as well as preparing those fingers for playing a musical instrument, managing wood, stone, and metal-working tools capably, for exact geometric drawing in 5th and 6th grade, and for so much more. This fine finger movement (and nimble thinking) will also serve to prepare future surgeons and space engineers.
Children learn to perceive the world through their senses. First through movement, and then through listening and speaking, and then they are able to make ‘inner pictures’ in their imagination, picturing what could be, but is not yet manifested. All of these stages are supported by making beautiful and practical items in handwork. Handwork also offers a true sense of tangible accomplishment and efficacy; children can contribute in a real way to their household by making potholders for the kitchen, or a knitted toy for a new cousin. This affords them a valuable sense of agency and connection to their community.
Handwork is especially important in these turbulent, anxiety-ridden times and can be an effective antidote to the isolation and powerlessness of our current times. Handwork requires rhythmical repetitive movements which promote the production of serotonin, which regulates mood, cognition, reward, learning, memory, and numerous other physiological processes. The complex bi-lateral movements engage multiple areas of the brain, which – in layman's terms – leaves less room for worry, anxiety, fear.
Handwork grounds us in our primary senses of touch, movement, balance and well-being. These four basic senses, according to Steiner, will lay a firm foundation for healthy development into a fully-realized, self-reliant, self-determining, and principled adult. Engaging in meaningful work alleviates our sense of isolation and separation. Bathing our senses in the color of the fiber or fabric is therapeutic in itself. We know – especially in these challenging times – that children need more from us than just learning how to knit, or sew, or crochet. Handwork is the vehicle we use to connect with and educate the whole child. Through handwork, we can see, both literally and with a deeper perception, how a child is coping with difficult circumstances.
This piece is an excerpt from our 3rd grade handwork curriculum guide ebook, available soon!
Are you eager to learn more and deepen your understanding of how handwork supports child development? Sign up for our 2 year Handwork Teacher Development Program! We are accepting applications for our 2023 cohort through November 1, 2022. Classes begin January 2023.