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The importance of handcrafts for brain development

Written by Jennifer McCormack and Narell McKenna, April 2019

We are sitting together at Little Birdwings Forest Kindy, perched on the rocks and logs in the dry creek bed, chatting and crafting together. We’ve had a full day of adventurous play outdoors, some food and a rest and now we settle into our afternoon, taking time to connect and create. We are working with one child at a time, lots of eye contact, quietly chatting about what we are doing. Another child sits nearby, watching our progress and listening to our conversation while they wait to have a go. The rest are sleepily waking up, or playing together in the background, or hunting for the natural materials they need until we sing out that it is their turn to make some craft. It the afternoon, but it could be any era, any time, any community – sitting and making together has always happened.We like to do this, to spend time together to make beautiful, purposeful things with our hands. Threading, tying, weaving, sewing, felting, wrapping, rolling, twisting,finger knitting, hammering, cutting, sawing, whittling – we use our hands in so many ways. It’s tricky, some of these skills, but the children try because they have an inner drive to make and learn, and its such a delight to play with something you have made yourself. The little ones watch the older ones with interest, and the older ones are confident and competent after their long time of trying and persisting, and now can be helpers and teachers too.These children are developing an inner awareness that good things often take time to create, and that the process of making is every bit enjoyable as the product once it is finished. The time spent in purposeful, often repetitive, activity is soothing. Women have known this since ancient times and still find solace, reflection and awakening in the process of crafting together. We know it too. We talk about our day’s adventures while we are making things together, recalling the highlights, the funny bits and the sad bits. We work and we chat and we reflect, deepening relationships with each other and our world, making connections. Hand crafting helps us return to the rhythm of our bodies with a natural grounding quality. It helps us tune in to ourselves, and who we are in our community. A beautiful thing to do when we arise sleepily from an afternoon snooze, after a day of adventurous nature play.Often it is tricky. We stop and discuss how to position our hands, how to sequence the movements, and we slow things down because our brains are processing so much: up, down, open, closed, left, right, over, under, though, around, back, front, inside, outside. Little songs help, so we chant them as we roll and stitch and tie and snip … 

over the log, off jumps the frog … open shut, them, open shut them … roly poly, very slowly, … around and around and around we go, where we stop, nobody knows ….

The finger rhymes we sing at morning circle, and the singing that helps us move through the day all come back to remind us how we can place our fingers and move our bodies. We focus on one new skill at a time but within that there’s so much to integrate: body awareness, directions, physical strength and dexterity, qualities of materials, language, problem-solving, emotional resilience, breathing. So much learning.

As we make these simple crafts together, we imagine these children walking confidently into their future, knowing they can use their bodies with practical purpose, being able to act on their ideas with confidence in their belief system of “I can do things”. They’ll know how to tie things, or fold things, to twist things and puzzle things out. They’ll know they can have patience for the process. They’ll know how to approach a series of steps, call on different skills or viewpoints, to fix mistakes, and work backwards to see where it went wrong. They’ll have an ability to picture things as they think about them because they’ll be makers and thinkers.

They’ll have a set of skills and strategies to use when they need to soothe their minds and bodies and to reflect. They’ll understand that mistakes can sometimes be unravelled, and sometimes can’t be fixed at all, and you just have to think about what happened and start again or let it go completely and learn from the experience.

Just as it is impossible for us to work without immersion in nature, handcrafting is one of our cornerstone practices at Birdwings. The process and the product of handcrafting and creativity are part of who we are and how we relate to our world. It is part of how we move through our seasonal shifts with the children and how we celebrate the gift of childhood. 

Birdwings Nature co-founders Narell and Jennifer are artists and educators. We offer handcraft mentoring to educators and parents. Learn with us the traditional skills of weaving, felt-making, hand stitching, and many other nature crafts. See our website for details of our nature mentor training

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