Why Crafts Are The Perfect Unschool Activity

When I was pregnant with my youngest son, my twin boys, who were 9 at the time, decided they wanted to make him a blanket. Since neither of them knew how to knit (in the usual sense), we had to get a bit creative. They both had an interest in finger knitting, which is a way of knitting without needles that produces long cords of knotted yarn. The drawback is that you cannot make anything wider than the span of your fingers. We wondered if there was a way to weave the cords of finger knitting into a blanket, and started doing some research. Of course, there was! In the era of YouTube, one can find a way to do almost anything.

We needed to make a loom, which in this case meant placing nails equal distance apart to form a perimeter around a board of the approximate size and shape we wanted the blanket to be. This spurred all kinds of conversation about how big the baby would be, how fast he would grow, and how warm we would need him to be. Then we needed to attach the cords in one direction across the board and begin weaving more cords across the other direction.

They had to agree on a size, color scheme and a method of keeping track of the pattern. It took many days, and they were excited throughout the process. And when they were finished, they had not only succeeded in creating a testament to their new sibling, but they had practiced geometry and construction skills, cultivated focus by tracking patterns, and gained insight into an activity that has occupied humans on every continent for as long as history records. Not bad for one project.

When I was growing up, the word “craft” conjured images of old ladies embroidering doilies or sewing dolls for church fundraisers. Though I have come to recognize these as legitimate and valuable pastimes, it took me a while to appreciate the skill and intelligence involved in making things with your hands. For me, it was first the exposure to the field of “primitive skills” (some of which could also be called crafts), and second the joy of creating things with my kids, that taught me to appreciate this universal aspect of humanity. I think the biggest turning point in my attitude was when I realized that making crafts, or anything that uses your hands to create, forces you to be in the present moment and by definition means that you cannot be occupied with a computer or other technological device (I suppose there could be some issue with this categorical definition. Though there are exceptions, of course, I will recognize my definition of craft here as creating things without the use of modern mechanization. I will ask the reader to be forgiving with the potential loopholes!)

A couple of years ago I was sitting around the fire at a primitive skills gathering (one of my favorite excursions) talking with a friend who happens to practice the same body-centered therapy that I do. We were talking about the healing potential of doing crafts and “skills” (as the older crafts and technologies are often referred to) with kids. He mentioned there is a growing body of research into this area, which intrigued me greatly. Upon further inspection, I realized there has been a lot of research into the mental and physical health benefits of crafts. Occupational therapy, which was developed around the end of WWI to help soldiers recover from post-war trauma, has always used crafting as a mainstay “How Craft is Good For our Health”

Recently, there has been increasing focus on the neurological processes involved during craft activities, which have been found to be similar to those of mediation. “This is your brain on crafting”

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his 1990 book “Flow”, includes crafting (particularly knitting), as an activity that leads our nervous system into what he calls “the optimal experience”, in which we feel calm, creative and connected. Crafts like knitting, sewing, and basket weaving, in particular, tend to create a meditative state of mind, in which we are both challenged and lulled by repetitive, building motions. If you include in your definition of education helping your child manage stress and finding a pastime that creates a peaceful, embodied and rewarding state of mind, then crafting is certainly educational indeed.

My personal opinion is that the reason crafts are so calming is that they involve motor skills we have been using since the beginning of time. Humans have always needed to make things with their hands in order to survive, and it makes sense that re-creating these activities would be enjoyable. Think of it as reassurance for our primitive brains; if we have the time to make a basket, all must be relatively safe and well. In educational terms, however, it also means that by creating things, we are learning, in a very direct way, about all aspects of human history.

For example, I recently lead a class at my homeschool co-op on making mats from cattail leaves. Besides learning about the life cycle of cattail plants and its physical properties, the conversation inevitably led to the question of what exactly one does with a cattail mat. After suggesting they could use it to dry herbs, store painting or other projects, or use it to sit on, we talked about people the world over using mats from cattail or similar plants to process food (such as winnowing rice). We also talked about people weaving similar mats for sleeping on, both historically and in current times in some parts of the world, and that plant weaving can be used in housing and roof structures in tropical areas. Science, art, geography, history, covered.

When doing a felt project with my kids we have the opportunity to discuss differences in varieties of sheep, the physical changes in fiber during felting, and the fact that felt has long been used as a sturdy, wind and water resistant material for clothing and housing in cold climates (how about a documentary on Mongolian gers, portable houses made from felted yaak fur? Sewing, knitting, crocheting, and quilting are even more universal tools for survival and commerce through the ages. The learning opportunities are endless.

I am especially captivated by the fact that making crafts gives us a visceral experience of how so many people around the world have spent a great deal of their lives. I cannot think of a better way to empathize with someone in a different time or place who has spent countless hours making their own baskets, blankets or dresses, than that to physically experience what if feels like to make a basket, blanket or dress by hand. What if you had to use that basket to carry firewood, or that blanket on your bed or that was your only dress? Most of human history took place long before mass consumerism, and in much of the world it still is, so this insight can be invaluable for raising a compassionate world citizen.

And, even if all of that seems a bit lofty or far fetched- the fact is that making things, especially together with friends and family, is just good old fashioned fun, and as we know, fun is an essential part of any education.

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