Handwork Through the Years
Part of the richness of homeschooling with Waldorf is the philosophy of teaching the whole person - head, heart, and hands. One of the subjects which is taught every year from kindergarten all the way through high school is handwork. Handwork is a key subject, and not just an extra, because it is so healthy for the developing child. It’s a subject in which work with the head, heart, and hands are naturally integrated and it builds the capacity for learning in all the other subjects. What do handwork lessons look like through the years? How do you teach this subject from age two to eighteen? What do you teach and when?
Making corn husk dolls
Our corn husk doll family!
In this post we’ll explore handwork through the years in Waldorf-inspired homeschooling.
Why Teach Handwork
Why is handwork a core subject throughout the curriculum? Here are some of the far-ranging benefits of teaching handwork:
- Develops the dexterity, sensitivity, and fine motor control of the hands and fingers (which in turn has a positive impact on brain development).
- Promotes neurological readiness for reading and writing.
- Builds capacity for sustained attention and focus.
- Develops the capacities for thinking and learning.
- Encourages a living connection to math through practical use of number, patterns, and measurement.
- Teaches real skills and competence: how to make things that are both beautiful and useful.
- Teaches traditional arts and provides a hands-on connection to the past.
- Builds self-confidence, perseverance, creativity, and resourcefulness.
- Helps us slow down.
- Promotes reverence and an appreciation of beauty and craftsmanship.
What to Teach Through the Years
The Waldorf curriculum is never arbitrary, but there are many ways that each subject can play out through the years. Each school and homeschool will make different choices about what to present and when, so please understand there are many possible variations! I hope the following descriptions will give you an idea of how handwork can unfold through the years and be tied to the child’s development and teaching in other subjects. For each age/grade I’ll give you an overview of the handwork curriculum and a list of the most common skills and projects presented that year.
Sewing with yarn, blunt needle, and paper in the early years
The Early Years
Very young children learn through play and imitation. It’s wonderful for them to see you completing handwork projects and to have a little basket of things like a small yarn ball, felt scraps, and a bit of wool roving for their imitative play. Their play time should be open-ended, not directed, so craft “projects” are not required! They are learning with their hands all day long as they dig in the sand, wash rocks in a bucket of water, pick and shell fresh peas in the garden, and help fold the washcloths.
- Outdoor play
- Active sensory exploration with natural materials such as wool, wood, silk, bread dough, leaves, and mud
- Sand and water play
Around ages 5 - 6 children often enjoy seasonal crafts like rolling beeswax candles, making leaf crowns and daisy chains, making apple dolls, and cutting out paper snowflakes. This is a good age to spend time cooking and baking together. They can begin learning basic sewing and finger knitting. Handwork at this age should be an invitation to join mama, not a requirement, and children learn through imitation. It’s no problem if their project ends up looking different than expected or they take things in a different direction! Handwork can be just as open-ended as their play….your role as the adult is to give a loving environment, beautiful materials, and good things to imitate.
- Nature crafts
- Simple hand sewing, finger knitting, and wet felting
- Kneading bread dough, cutting fruit, peeling carrots
- Continued work with the hands in daily play and time outdoors
Freestyle rainbow embroidery in 6-year-old Kindy
First graders have their first experience with formal lessons in all subjects, including handwork. First grade is a gentle bridge to the school years, and handwork is taught slowly through imitation and verse. The primary goal is learning to knit, a skill which supports cognitive development, learning to read, and developing the hands for writing and drawing. You can start the year with pre-knitting skills like making knitting needles, winding wool, and finger knitting. Then move into teaching the knit stitch, followed by casting on and casting off. Nature crafts, wet felting, and simple sewing are still wonderful in first grade, as are origami and string games.
- Beginning work with yarn including winding wool, finger knitting, and braiding
- Making knitting needles
- Beginning knitting skills including knit stitch, casting on, and casting off
Second graders can continue knitting and learn some new skills. One exciting challenge for this year is the purl stitch, which is the mirror image of the knit stitch they learned in first grade. This is a great year to make knitted animals and all kinds of puppets to use in retelling animal stories and fables.
- Extending knitting skills with purl stitch, changing colors, increasing, and decreasing
- Knitting stuffed projects such as animals, gnomes, ball
- Puppet making
- Potholder loom
Knitting a lamb in second grade
Farming is one of the central themes of third grade and of course this lends itself to so many types of handwork and crafts. Reading Farmer Boy and The Oxcart Man together will give you all kinds of ideas! This is a great year to think about the origins of materials and items in our lives. You could consider all the ways we use trees and then make paper, maple syrup, pine needle tea, a fort in the woods, and a little birch bark canoe. You could visit a sheep farm and bring home a fleece to wash, card, spin, dye, and knit a scarf. It’s good to continue with knitting and also introduce crochet this year, and don’t be afraid to set aside much of your main lesson time for hands-on experience with woodworking, handwork, cooking, gardening, and crafts that tie into your lessons on farming and shelters.
- Crochet - several stitches
- Dyeing wool with natural dyes
- Hand spinning with a drop spindle
- Simple weaving projects
In fourth grade you can learn more intricate hand-sewing stitches with embroidery and cross-stitch projects. Children learn to draw Celtic knotted forms which weave and cross mid-lines in form drawing, and explore fractions in math, and this increased complexity of thought is reflected in handwork as well. This is a great year to work with cross-stitch patterns, weaving, macrame, more complex potholder loom patterns, and making friendship bracelets. Beginning quilting such as a quilted potholder or pillow cover is another great project for this grade.
- Beginning quilting
- More complex braiding and knot-tying skills such as “friendship bracelets”
Sewing a pouch (kindy) and needle book (3rd grade)
The hallmark of fifth grade handwork is knitting a pair of socks! This one project involves learning a number of more advanced knitting skills and takes quite a bit of concentration and perseverance. It also requires more hand control as socks are knitted in the round with four needles. Woodworking often begins in fifth grade and continues all the way through high school. Fifth graders might begin with hand carving and polishing a wooden bowl or spoon.
- Advanced knitting skills including knitting in the round (4 needles)
- Knitting a pair of socks
Sixth graders are moving into more complex work with geometry and mathematics and at age twelve have an expanded capacity for reasoning and logical thinking. All this is reflected in the handwork curriculum as well. Students envision, create the pattern, and sew a three-dimensional stuffed animal.
- Extending hand-sewing skills
- Working with sewing patterns
- Creating a sewn stuffed animal (making one’s own pattern)
Wet felting fun!
Seventh graders return to wet felting and the wonderful world of sculpting in three dimensions in wool. There are so many possibilities with felting, but a typical project is to make a pair of slippers. They might also continue with their sewing skills from sixth grade to make a doll by hand.
- Advanced wet felting
- Making wet felted slippers
- Continuing sewing with dollmaking
In eighth grade students study modern history including the Industrial Revolution and technology. They begin using computers for lesson work….and sewing machines in handwork! Students learn to follow patterns, measure for fit, and construct garments. They might make clothing or costumes for a theater production. They might also take up quilting again and do larger projects on the machine. At this point, children have learned an impressive range of practical and artistic life skills. They know how to make items which are both beautiful and useful with knitting, sewing, crochet, woodworking, and more.
- Sewing on the sewing machine
- Extending sewing skills including more advanced patterns and making clothes
In high school, students can continue to work with and advance in knitting, spinning, weaving, sewing, quilting, and woodworking. It’s also a time for learning traditional crafts such as blacksmithing and basketry. The arts and crafts curriculum come together in these years in subjects such as sculpture and batik printing. At home, it’s unlikely that you have a blacksmithing teacher out back! My recommendation is to start with your child’s interests and your community’s resources. You may have very talented craftspeople and artists in your area or your family who would be happy to work with your student. And your child may have particular passions that he can explore in depth in these years. The high school homeschool teacher is often a facilitator and resource-finder and that’s true for the handwork curriculum as well!
- A wide range of traditional crafts including soapstone carving, basket weaving, copperwork, block printing, bookbinding, woodworking, spinning, weaving, and ceramics.
Collecting goldenrod for dyeing playsilks
The handwork curriculum reflects the deeply artistic, holistic, and developmentally grounded progression of the Waldorf curriculum as a whole. This curriculum is both wide and deep, but luckily it builds gradually, so parents have time to learn as well! Take it one step at a time, and enjoy exploring new territory together with your children. What a blessing it is to have time to develop as a human being, both for our children and for ourselves.