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Why is Handwork So Important?


The process of using these materials, the sensory pleasure of bathing in texture and color to create practical and beautiful items, is inspiring, and nourishes the heart and soul. Handwork gives students (and teachers!) a well-deserved sense of accomplishment and provides a valuable balance within the framework of education, whether in a conventional classroom or at home. Handwork is a valuable complement to academics. During the rhythm of the day, a period of attentive focus on individual handwork can contribute to a ‘breathing’ rhythm – part of the pendulum swing between academics and practical work, receptive and active learning. At every stage of life, working with your hands provides significant stress relief.

Practical arts provide us with a unique experience: in making something from the simplest of natural raw materials, we develop a powerful sense of agency; we and the children implicitly transcend the mundane and step into a deeper relationship with the world around us.

Creative activity mediates between seen and unseen realms: something from individual imagination or inspiration is brought from immaterial realms into physical reality, and something from the material world is transformed through being “worked” in order to approach the craftsperson’s intended goal. In a corresponding and reciprocal way, transforming the material also transforms and schools the craftsperson. Most obviously, hands are at work, but students consider and plan their project, learning to think in 3 dimensions (then 4 dimensions in High School craftwork). Through striving for beauty in form and color, students develop a heart-felt relationship with what they are making, especially if the fruits of their labors are beautiful, truly functional, and perhaps given as a gift.

Handwork supports the foundations for academic skills: two hands working together teams together the two sides of the body and the two hemispheres of the brain. This establishes and strengthens all–important new perceptive and cognitive connections; smooth eye-tracking and visual pattern recognition are fostered; eye-hand co-ordination and fine finger movement are developed. Focus and concentration are required, as are perseverance, planning, and attention to detail.

It has been well documented since at least the mid to late 20th century that fine finger dexterity builds brain synapses and fosters cognitive development. Working with your hands also means the world is literally no longer held at arm’s length; handwork requires a close engagement with natural materials, differentiating between wool and cotton, for example. Sharpening observational skills and perception, the sense of immediate and intimate belonging is cultivated and fostered. Handwork imparts a powerful, implicit message of interconnectedness and interdependence with the environment.

In addition, contributing to others’ well-being by producing a beautiful or functional item by hand connects the craftsperson to other craftspeople engaged in the same work throughout history and through many other cultures. Seeing a sheep being shorn, learning about wool, and observing a spinner at work are valuable experiences, but deeper and more meaningful learning is achieved if a student has the opportunity to handle the wool, to spin their own yarn, and to make something useful from it, just as so many spinners for thousands of years have done.

Each craftsperson weaves themselves intimately into the fabric of history and society. Children who engage in practical arts learn unequivocally that their actions have meaning and consequences, and feel empowered and invigorated/ enlivened as they begin to take their place working alongside trusted and admired adults.

Research at the Hiram Trust in England has documented the value of training high-risk youth in traditional crafts, even dangerous crafts such as glass-blowing. They found that the sustained focus and obvious and immediate consequences led to more sound decision-making and improved life choices, extending beyond the immediacy of the craft itself into seemingly unrelated areas. The self-correcting nature of physical craftwork gives immediate and tangible feedback. Sustained attention and deferred gratification are closely linked to impulse control, which is learned through the inherent lawfulness imparted through learning crafts. Impulse control and delayed gratification are closely linked to later academic success.

The innate lawfulness of choosing the right material for a task leads to an experience of security in the physical world, and a sense of belonging and efficacy. Steiner maintained that this experience of understanding what is fitting and appropriate in a practical way in childhood translates in later life into a sense for what is true and moral, and supports the ability to make principled and ethical decisions.

There is much more to handwork, though, than the physical and practical reasons, and my years of teaching experience, as well as modern research, continuously peel back more layers of wonder and wisdom. There is yet another dimension beyond brain development, environmental integration, pragmatism, and self-esteem. Engaging in focused creative activity such as knitting, sewing or spinning, children and adults come to a quiet focused place within themselves. They can find inner quiet and calm. This is a great stress-reliever and can be a precursor or a placeholder for future contemplative practices.

Handwork combines practicality and artistry, nourishing the soul with the beauty of texture, color, and form, and preparing students not only for academics, but more importantly to take up meaningful work and find their own unique place in society. In thinking through and making a plan, in selecting the right materials, and in carrying the one-of-a-kind project to completion, the craftsperson steps into a co-creative space.

Through handwork, an individual craftsperson’s thinking and active work become the meeting place between the inspiration of unseen spirit and tangible matter.

And it’s fun!

This blog post was written by Elizabeth Seward and originally published on Waldorf-ish

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