Researchers and educators are slowly awakening to the educational benefits of teaching handcrafts to children, and in particular, knitting.
In the Rudolf Steiner system of education, handcrafts are an essential part of the curriculum and finger knitting is taught to students at age 5-6, with class one (age 7) learning traditional knitting with needles. A knitting project is completed every year in primary school with increasing difficulty –learning to cast on and off, to increase and decrease stitches, and following patterns developed over subsequent years.
In observing my own children and the students of their classes learn handcrafts from a young age at the Steiner school they attend, I have reflected on the sense of capacity and achievement that these children embody through successful mastery of a physical skill, and through using raw materials to make something both beautiful and functional.
Now research is regularly emerging which describes the numerous benefits that knitting bestows in terms of brain development, the capacity to think critically and creatively, and in literacy and numeracy development.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant asserted centuries ago that the hand is the ‘outer brain’ of the human being (M. Martin, 1999). If we think of a young child whose hands seek to touch and grasp everything in her environment, or who learns to sip from a cup only through the physical action, we can see how the brain understands only what the hands experience first.
Dr Matti Bergstrom, a Swedish neurophysicist, wrote about the enormous density of nerve endings in the fingertips, and how if we do not use and develop these nerve endings in childhood then we are in danger of becoming ‘finger blind’, negatively impacting our all-round development. These nerve endings are linked to neural pathways in the brain, and brain research is suggesting that using the hands in many different ways develops new neural pathways that would otherwise atrophy, and furthermore that supporting development of these neural pathways also supports the ability to think creatively, critically and cohesively (Livingston & Mitchell, 1999).
Knitting itself involves ‘crossing the midline’ – where the hands move into the opposite spheres of the body – crucial for developing dominant hand skills in pre literacy and numeracy. Knitting trains powers of attention and perseverance and introduces rhythmic hand motions which promote a pliant and sensitive brain (Online Waldorf Journal, 2001).
The inevitable mistakes that occur when knitting engage creative thinking and problem solving, and knitting can serve as an introduction to mathematical concepts through counting of stitches and rows, and when making more three dimensional items. A completed a knitting project promotes a feeling of achievement and that ‘I can’.
I have written, in conjunction with Sydney Rudolf Steiner College, a NESA endorsed Professional Development course which introduces this research to teachers and supports them in bringing knitting to their own primary classroom.
In traditional times knitting was a communal activity, or a generational one where skills were passed down. This course includes ways that family members, especially grandparents who may still retain such skills, can be involved both within and without the classroom to support both the teacher and the students in developing this skill.
The course is practically based – meaning teachers themselves are taught to knit if they don’t already know how, and resources are provided including rhymes to help children remember how to make stitches, as well as patterns and project suggestions appropriate for all primary grades.
For more information please see www.sydneyrudolfsteinercollege.com or call 02 9261 4001.
Auer, A. (2001). Hand Movements Sculpt Intelligence. The Online Waldorf Library Journals [online].
Australian Steiner Curriculum Framework (2012), (various authors), Steiner Education Australia, NSW.
Livingston, P and Mitchell, D. (1999, revised 2016). Will-Developed Intelligence, Waldorf Publications: NY.
Martin, M (ed). (1999).Educating Through Arts and Crafts. Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications: UK, Parts I and II.
(Mar 8 2017). Girls Knit Their Way to a Math Career. Bright [online]. https://brightreads.com/girls-knit-their-way-to-a-math-career-e29b3feeb9a6