Blogger and author Kathryn Vercillo is an expert in the area of using crafting to heal, having researched the topic extensively for her book Crochet Saved My Life. In this post she shares how the Waldorf schools incorporate knitting and crochet into their curriculum, benefiting children in a variety of ways. Read Kathryn’s previous blog posts on the Lion Brand Notebook here.
I have to confess that I was a little intimidated when I first walked into the 3rd Grade Handwork Class at Sebastopol Charter School in California. The children seemed so magical and creative as they prepared to work on their crochet projects. Before they began, they sang a song, led by teacher Kristen McLaughlin, about the cotton plant that grows to become the yarn they work with.
Today, in fact, the kids were working with wool. Kristen, who's been teaching at the school since 1997, used to have the kids work with double-worsted cotton yarn but has recently switched to wool. The kids don’t seem to mind as their hands wield the hooks to create the shapes that will become water bottle cozies, hats and granny squares. With half of the school year behind them, these kids are well-versed in the basics of crochet.
By third grade, the students have a couple of years of handwork under their belts -- a critical component of the Waldorf curriculum. They begin with knitting in first and second grades, starting with finger knitting, and then knitting with two needles. In third grade, the handwork is crochet. In fourth grade they return to knitting, learning to knit on four needles. In later grades, they add cross-stitch and sewing to their handwork skills set.
The beautiful thing about teaching handwork, as part of the Waldorf program, is that it’s integrated into the curriculum. Unlike many other public schools, where “arts and crafts” are treated as a separate component (largely disconnected from the rest of the curriculum), Waldorf schools tie crafting in with everything else the kids are learning. For example, Kristen’s eighth graders are learning about the Industrial Revolution at the same time as they're learning how to use a sewing machine.
When children are younger, learning to knit helps them master a fine motor skill known as "crossing the midline". This is an important developmental skill that connects the right and left brains and it's required for overall coordination and everyday tasks such as writing, putting on socks or hitting a ball with a bat. Knitting, a craft done with both hands, helps children develop this ability. By third grade the children switch to crochet, a craft that complements what they’re learning in math and reading. In Kristen’s class, the children read from printed crochet patterns, which she has re-written to include the full, long-form instructions instead of abbreviations (for example, “single crochet” instead of “sc”).
Something else happens to children in the third grade that lends itself well to the craft of crochet. Around the age of nine, children begin to experience themselves as separate from the world in a new way, a stage often referred to as “The Nine Year Change”. A child at this age may question authority, withdraw from sharing his or her own inner world, or may react with a more intense interest in the world around him. Crochet helps at this age because it gives the child a safe, structured craft with rules and guidelines, but it also gives the child a lot of choice for self-expression of their new emerging identity.
I saw these choices being made in the third grade classroom that I visited. One child was adapting his water bottle cozy design to fit his smaller-than-average stout water bottle, another was carefully selecting yarn colors from the basket at the front of the room, and yet another was asking how to add ear flaps to a hat in progress.
There are additional benefits to practicing crochet and knitting that are not age-specific. For example, a child who may not be succeeding in other areas of the curriculum may experience a boost to their self-esteem through mastering knitting. Crafting can also be a positive distraction for a child who's going through tough times; it's something that they can do both in and outside of the classroom to stay positive through rough patches. An observant teacher may even understand what’s going on with the child through their handwork.
Kristen, who studied child psychology at Sarah Lawrence, shared the following: “I have had several children through the years who are having to deal with difficult life situations like divorce that come to me and tell me they are so grateful for handwork. Both male and female children have felt it was an escape from what they were dealing with at home. It gave them something else to focus on instead of the pain they were going through. I can often tell by the way a child is knitting or crocheting if they are going through a difficult time. A child who normally has an average gauge might suddenly start knitting or crocheting more tightly. This is a clue to me to spend a little extra time talking with that child and try to figure out what might be happening in their life to cause them stress. This sometimes means I can alert a parent, have a talk with the child myself depending on the issue or just know that they are dealing with something and pay extra attention to them. Over time I usually will see their knitting revert back to its usual gauge once the issue is resolved or they are feeling more comfortable in a new situation.”
Have you seen a child benefit from Waldorf’s handwork curriculum? We’d love for you to share your story in the comments below!