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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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Fun with friends in forest school

We love our Birdwings Bush Club, Little Birdwings Forest Kindy and School Holiday Forest School programs for so many reasons:

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Children are developing a deep connection to wild nature,

plenty of nature play and adventure,

engaging physically with our bodies with challenging and risky play,

trying new skills,

all the learning about safety, self-awareness and well-being,

but mostly we love to have fun with friends in the forest,

and that’s one of the best reasons of all.

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Birdwings Bush Club for children 5-10 years and Little Birdwings for children 18 months – 6 years. Multi-age, child-led learning in nature on the Gold Coast.

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What does risk-taking really look like in early childhood?

One of the biggest hurdles to outdoor play is understanding the nature of risk-taking. We have found that the most challenging daily risk-taking children will experience in our nature immersion programs has little to do with wild nature play at all. Snakes, fire-work, water-play and tree-climbing are not as challenging for children as putting on their own clothes, trying new foods or saying farewell in the morning.

In moving beyond the security of our comfort zones where everything within is known and safe, the children have learned that each person’s zone of comfort is different, and that we take a risk when we step out of it. We learn about fear … safely. And together.

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Children are very often much more courageous and resourceful than we adults imagine they will be. In our distress at noticing children’s discomfort, we can do them a disservice by not trusting them to learn and grow in this moment. We might even find that in our attempts to provide comfort that we are teaching children that they cannot do it themselves.

It’s hard for adults to see the strength in children when it gratifies us to help them. It’s even harder when children are expressing frustration, sadness, fear or anger because they are out of their comfort zone and learning how to be present with that. We don’t want them to feel sad or fearful and we want to solve their problem.

But should we solve their problems?

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Offering bandaids for tiny scratches, carrying children’s belongings for them, carrying children when they can walk, packing their bags, opening lunch boxes, doing things that they can do themselves (or are capable of learning to do themselves) teaches children to rely upon others for the comfort, strength, courage and resourcefulness that we know is within them.

Do we make children learn tricky things before they are ready? No, of course not. We understand that risk-taking looks different for everyone, and is different again at various ages. But we will hold the vision for them that we believe they can learn, and we will provide lots of opportunities for practice and we will encourage a child to try even if it’s a bit frustrating. Learning how to try something new is often the biggest risk-taking lesson of all..

We encourage our other children at Birdwings to model courageousness for their new friends in these situations. When one of our friends is feeling uncertain, missing home, or a little scared of trying something new, the others know just what to say:

“Are you feeling worried? I miss my mum sometimes too. This is what I do to feel braver…”

“Do you want some help to pump up your courage? Here, I’ve got your hands”

“I never liked mango before but I kept trying it”

“Why don’t you watch us? Or try it this way instead?”

“We can sit together when you feel sad.”

“I’ll give you a clue. Watch out for this bit, it’s tricky”

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In this way the children are acknowledging risk that they’ve already overcome and helping each other to greet challenges. They know it’s hard to try new things when you don’t feel confident in your skills yet. They know that these feelings are real – whether it is concern about leaving your mum, not liking the look of that spider, the feel of mud on your toes, not wanting to eat that fruit, or uncertainty of walking through tall grass. They all know the feeling of risk – and they know it passes because we are learning together in a safe space. They have felt it, and we encouraged them to step forward and try anyway, and they realised they could.  We can be present, and we can be kind. We know we are all capable of great things.

I wonder, if we never ventured out into the world and just stayed in our comfort zones, might we have had the experiences and opportunities to build relationships, confidence, resilience, trust and sensible decision-making? I reflect on these children, and myself, and realise how wide our comfort zones have now grown, and how happy we are in them.

Children can do it, and so can the big-people. It takes vision, effort, courage, community support and a lot of empathy.  Stepping outside is a challenge for both children (and many adults too), however by the very nature of outdoor play we are embracing the possibility of risk in children’s play. As we go forward together we learn more about our world and how to be in it – and children are learning for themselves about the magnificent things they are capable of doing!

Birdwings offers a variety of nature immersion programs for children,  nature connection and forest school training for educators and parents, and incursions and excursions for kindergartens and schools. Birdwings are available for conferences and special events.

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The challenges of childhood are meant to be tricky.

Challenges mostly come to us in our lives when we are ready for them. As infants we learn to walk after we have grown strong core muscles from rolling around on the floor, sitting and crawling. We are ready to move so the challenge is embraced. We learn to talk after listening to conversation and sounds around us, watching people interact socially and practicing the sounds for ourselves. When we need to communicate we are ready to try. Such challenges come to us naturally when we are in a place of comfort and ready shift into a new period of growth.

Sometimes in our growth we deliberately seek a new experience and at other times, moving around outside of the zone of familiarity is awkward, uncomfortable and requires a new skill set. New skill sets require practice. Practice means we need to navigate that space between what we know and don’t know, over and over again. One foot in the comfort zone, and another out, until we are ready to step out all together into a new space of learning. It sure does help when we have people to watch and learn from: mentors to guide and encourage us and help us reflect on our learning.

Challenge is meant to be a bit tricky. Challenge stretches us and asks us to find our more about ourselves. Challenge encourages us to reflect on our capabilities, our effort and our motivation. It hones our vision and it uplifts us when we finally realise that now we can do it, when we couldn’t before. Remember when that was hard?

Sometimes challenges come to us before we are ready. They take us by surprise and ask us to grow too quickly and learn too many new things at once. We might have to learn new skills as we go, and without a guide. We have to navigate a new environment that feels hostile and unfamiliar. These challenges will come to us in our lives – without a doubt! Children might greet such challenges when they are starting a new school, moving house or experiencing a family trauma. It can feel overwhelming, maybe traumatic. It doesn’t get easier as we get older, the challenges keep coming: learning to drive, moving out of home, starting new jobs, travelling, managing finances, being a parent, coping with grief and loss.

When those big challenges come, who will cope better? The person who has learned to embrace difficulty or the person who has had few opportunities to practice stepping confidently forward in their own learning? The person who understands that hurt, disappointment and confusion is temporary, and can shape us and teach us new skills – or the person who has never had the opportunity to feel such pain and grow through it?

As we cannot predict when major challenges will enter our lives, let’s encourage children to embrace the day-to-day ones first. Ask them to be responsible for their belongings, to pack their own bags, carry their things, do their own shoes laces up. Involve children in food preparation, tidying up and garden jobs because they are capable of doing this from an early age. Such responsibilities help children practice life skills and learn to apply effort to do a job well.

Let children have time to play outdoors with friends and without adults around. They’ll be ok! Allow time for children to address their disagreements before stepping in. Remember that we learn our social skills by being social – and this means experiencing arguments and disappointments from friends from time to time. It’s sad and frustrating at times. We are not responsible for our children’s happiness – but we can teach skills to reflect on empathy, emotional well-being, self-management and problem solving.

Let children feel a little pain. Let scratches bleed a little and watch the blood before it is covered up with a bandaid. Blood helps us heal. The pain of a bruise and the discomfort of a bump is our body’s way of saying “I got this! I’m healing!It’s going to take a little time so be patient!”, and we learn more about our bodies so that we don’t feel that again.

Children who are not provided with opportunities to discover their capabilities might experience every new difficulty as a major one because ALL the big challenges will come before they are ready! We, as parents and educators can be the mentors for children by providing a supportive challenge environment, and gently stretching the zone of comfort for children to learn that tricky things are not insurmountable: “We know its tricky and we know you can do it”.

Birdwings Nature offers Little Birdwings Forest Kindy for children aged 18 months to 5 years and Birdwings Bush Club for children aged 5 – 10 years. Birdwings offers nature forest school mentor training for educators who wish to deepen their practice in outdoor learning, risky play and nature connection.