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What are the hidden skills of handwork?



Last month in our online international handwork teacher development program we had an interesting discussion sparked by the reflection of one of our students. She shared that she had recently taught a one day lesson on making paper Celtic knots to her 4th grade class. She was surprised to see how many children were struggling with basic scissor skills. She had assumed that by 4th grade the children would be proficient with this basic skill.


Another student shared that she had a similar experience with her 8th grade class. They were using yardsticks to measure fabric for a sewing pattern. She was surprised to see how many of her students had not yet mastered using a ruler to measure. She observed them still counting the little lines rather than understanding the quarter-inch marks.


This developed into a much deeper discussion. What are the hidden skills of handwork? Where are these foundational skills being learned? Are we assuming they are being taught elsewhere, perhaps in kindergarten or in morning lesson? How do we know? And how do we sharpen our observation and raise our awareness of these hidden skills so we can spot the children who are struggling and support them?


Measurement is a great example. It is usually formally taught in 3rd grade. Children may have a whole math block on measurement and learn to use rulers, among other tools. But how often are children practicing these measurement skills after that math block? What about the children who join the class after 3rd grade? There are so many opportunities to practice measurement in handwork. Before 3rd grade, we can introduce non-standard measurement – the width of 3 fingers, the length of a hand or an arm. And after 3rd grade, handwork is the perfect opportunity to not only practice measurement, but to directly teach and review the skills needed.


Are there projects where these opportunities for learning and practice are missed by pre-measuring and pre-cutting handwork materials for the children?


Scissor skills are another great example. In handwork class children in the early grades may do some cutting of yarn or thread but this is minimal exposure to scissors. And then they arrive in 4th grade or 6th grade and are expected to be able to measure and cut fabric, which is much more challenging than cutting paper. Most of us probably assume that children have learned to use scissors in kindergarten. However, we often have classes of children with very diverse early childhood experiences. And how often are they provided with the opportunity to practice cutting with scissors – not just in handwork, but throughout the day in morning lesson or other subject classes?


We are always either laying a foundation or building upon a foundation.


Regardless of what subject we teach, one of our highest goals is to know the children, recognize their unique strengths and challenges, and meet their individual needs. While many of our students may already be proficient with these skills, all will benefit by reviewing and practicing. Teaching a project in 8th grade where students need to measure and cut out a sewing pattern without first laying the foundation of healthy scissor skills and measurement would be akin to teaching long division to a child who has not yet learned their multiplication tables.


To learn more about directly supporting these hidden skills, check out our latest Free Tip Friday video on teaching healthy scissor skills.


Teaching Healthy Scissor Skills:



Start by observing your students. Give them scraps of card stock or watercolor paper and have them cut in whatever way they choose. Practice the skills in the video and then once they’re feeling comfortable, try this paper weaving project with your students to reinforce cutting skills with a practical project. This project can be brought in any grade 1-8. Children in 3rd grade and up can practice measurement with a ruler by drawing their own lines on the paper. Weaving is also reinforcing concepts of over and under which will support your students with their hand sewing too. And it is a pretty forgiving project. If a student’s lines are not cut perfectly straight, the weaving will still be beautiful. It’s a great opportunity for repetition and practice.


Paper Weaving Handwork Project:



To advance scissor skills to the next level in grades 4-8, circle back later in the year and try these paper woven forms that look like beautiful Celtic knots. This project practices folding (another hidden skill) and cutting straight and curved lines.


Woven Paper Forms / Celtic Knots:




What other hidden skills of handwork have you observed? How are you supporting your students with these foundational skills?












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