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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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Getting enough nature play?

We want our children to have a care-free childhood filled with special memories of family moments and playing with friends, just like our own was. We know it is a priority to make sure our children have free play time outside, but our lives as parents are so busy and childhood is increasingly scheduled, so that it is now difficult to ensure our children are getting enough nature play. Finding the balance between the pressures of modern living and our own values for freedom, creativity and play can be a real challenge families.

Children can experience the natural childhood you had – the joy and freedom of unstructured play with friends outside. We can help you! Come and play with us at Birdwings – relive your childhood with your own children at WildPlay Adventurers and Bush Kindy. Adults and children alike: we slide down hills, climb trees, splash in the creek, race billy carts, light fires and build cubbies. A couple of hours each week to be a kid again and enjoy playful moments with your little ones.

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If you can’t afford the time to play during the week, then let us support you. We can make sure your child has plenty of time and space to play, explore, dream and have adventures. Little Birdwings Forest Kindy will provide up to 7.5 hours in one day of wild nature connection for your children. There’s nothing else like it around – as the first Forest School on the Gold Coast providing 100% outdoor programs, we have families who drive from over an hour away to join us every week!

Attending once a week at Little Birdwings means your little one may have up to 90 hours of outdoor play time with us before Easter. Attending every week for the year means they will will very possibly have spent over 300 hours outside – through all seasons – playing, exploring, crafting, singing, snoozing, eating, discovering, sharing, communicating, imagining, creating, wondering and enjoying nature. Amazing growth and learning occurs when children have regular play outside, developing lifelong meaningful connections to wild nature.

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All this outdoor play builds up to being the BEST “school readiness” learning around. Through play with friends in nature, children become connected to their physical bodies, learn to embrace considered risks, become self confident and articulate. They are so caring and find ways to show it, both to each other and to nature. They can play without toys and tell the most marvelous stories. They can tell you about bush safety. They can sew, weave, paint and draw. They can tell you botanical names for things, and offer suggestions for how to overcome challenges. They can walk great distances over logs, rocks, through creeks and up hills.

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If you find it a challenge to offer enough outdoor play to your children, let us do it for you. We have options for every child.

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