By Jeannette Nagel
Every day we use our hands for a variety of tasks, and yet take this for granted. We open or close objects, lift or push, twist or turn caps; we pull, twiddle or tie, unwrap, peel, lift, wash and feel with our hands. Think of what these daily tasks teach us. Think of what a handshake tells you about another person. Where would we be without our hands?
As teachers, we must help the children become aware of their hands and of the great gifts they bestow on themselves and on others. Their hands need to become skillful, sensitive, and strong, so that they can accomplish all the mentioned wonderful deeds. Moreover, through the activity of the fingers the child connects to the world through a sensory experience.
So much of handwork has to do with waking up, seeing things, and noticing details. Current brain research reveals that using the hand opens up neurological pathways that otherwise would atrophy. So one could say that handwork with young children is a training ground for thinking. The more one includes the cultivation of beauty and feeling into such handwork projects, the more creative will the intellectual thinking become.
Yet it is important that in kindergarten and preschool many projects are done primarily to enliven the senses and secondarily with the idea to achieve an actual result. When we play and model with sheep wool, the children do it to have a sensory experience which is completely different from that of modeling with sand or earth.
From a wide range of handwork and crafts a few ideas are listed below for you and your child to try at home. These diverse occupations carry exceptional sensory richness when you use beautiful, pure objects from nature. Activities such as picking, searching, wrapping, tying, knotting, sewing, dying—and also sowing, harvesting, grinding, and baking—stimulate the child’s imagination and delight in creating, and thus nourish the child in many ways.
Handwork in preschool and kindergarten classrooms encompass activities outdoors with the actual experience of nature. The children always want to create when they hold something in their hands—they model with sand, stones, earth, and treasures, and often lots of water. They love to decorate and to mix and thus sand, seeds, grasses and leaves are turned into soup or bread dough or blueberry pie.
The next most natural modeling material is homemade bread dough. In our classrooms, most of the dough is formed into buns by the children, but they often also turn into snakes, pancakes, or eggs. The children in my classroom are always eager to make a baby bun for our little mouse on the nature table, too. The following bread recipe can be generally played with for a very long time. When it is the right consistency, it will need very little flour for kneading, hence very little sweeping up after.
Bread recipe: Mix 1½ cups warm water with ⅓ cup of honey, 2 Tbs. active dry yeast, ¼ cup of oil, and 1 tsp. of salt. Add 1 cup of flour and let sit overnight covered with a towel in a warm, draft free spot. The next day, add 2 cups each whole wheat and white flour, alternating. Knead about 15 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Form into rolls and let rise on an oiled baking tray for 20-30 minutes or until double. Bake them in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes.
Earthen clay is an experience all its own. The healing properties of clay have been known for millennia, and when children play with it, this sense of depth and healing is palpable. The perfect place to play is beside the creek, where it is naturally found. Assuming most of us do not have this source available, you can buy clay from a local potter. Clay cannot be played with for a very long time, as it tends to dry out. Thus it is only recommended for children five years and older. If it dries out during modeling, use a spray bottle filled with water to moisten it again. Clay can be used over and over, if it does not dry out. Children only need small amounts of clay to model, so sharing a bag of clay with a friend is a great idea. When finished, break the clay projects into little pieces and put them in an airtight container, sprayed with water.
If you find pine cones on a walk with your children you can decorate them with all sorts of natural material. If you want the seed pods to open up more, bring them inside. To make a pine cone person, glue a hazelnut on top of the pine cone (use tacky or carpenter’s glue); you may have to remove the top spire of the cone to make a spot for the nut. When it is dry and sturdy, place an acorn cap on the head and dress it with bits of raw sheep’s wool.
Children have a lot of fun tying and knotting wool ropes. They use them to move objects around in the classroom, to fence areas off for horse play, and as leashes. They tie a rope to a basket and go fishing with it. Wool bands are very easy to knit or crochet and are a great way to use up leftover yarn.
Wool rope knitting instructions: For a lightweight yarn, cast on 8 stitches on a US size 6 (4 mm) needle and work in garter stitch (means: knit every row) until the rope measures 5–6 feet (depending on the yarn used, the ropes tend to stretch quite a bit). Bind off and weave in the two loose ends.
A basket of colorful sheep’s wool calls for every child’s little hand to reach into it and to stay for a while, playing with these fine, transparent tufts. In the preschool classroom the children may take a tuft and hold it in their hands. They soon begin to round it, to turn it, to form it all around. It becomes a little ball or a mouse, or is opened up to form a cloud or a fluffy meadow. It makes our hands very smooth as we work with it. The results can be used in a game or in the play kitchen for cooking.
Wet felting is another wonderful way to spend time with you child. If you have finished your felted piece, you can use it as a coaster, cut it up for a necklace, make a bag to play with (it works well for bean bags or child’s purses), or make other presents.
Wet felting instructions: In a one-inch-deep baking sheet, lay down a thin layer of white, carded wool, all going in the same direction. Now lay down another thin layer of wool, going in the opposite direction. Now you can lay colored wool on top of these two thin layers, arranging the colors in a pleasing way. Pat the wool all over, checking for thinness, and add more white to thin spots. Then add hot, sudsy water, using a natural soap like Dr. Bronner’s, or a dish soap. Pour this slowly over the pad of wool, pushing the wool down into the warm wetness over and over, until you feel the wool starts to hold together (when the water is still hot in the beginning you may use a potato masher to push the wool down). You can rub it gently now, then later more vigorously. When it feels like one unit, turn it over and rub the other side. When it feels like one solid piece and also the colored wool on the front is secure, pour the suds out, keeping the mass of wool on the baking sheet. Then rinse with clean water until all of the soap is gone. Lay it flat on a towel to dry.
Jeannette Nagel, Teacher, Sweet Pea Preschool Jeannette was born in Eastern Germany and attended a Waldorf-inspired school from first through tenth grade. She attended Universities in Germany, Ireland, and Canada and received Masters Degrees in Geography and Environmental Education. She worked for five years in the Publications department of the Federal Statistical Office of Germany and traveled frequently to Eastern European and Central Asian countries. Her family joined Three Cedars in 2010 and she regularly volunteered in the early childhood classrooms and during school festivals. In 2014 Jeannette started her Foundation Studies in Anthroposophy and the Arts at Sound Circle Center Seattle and is currently enrolled in the Handwork Teacher Training program at Rudolf Steiner College, Sacramento. Besides teaching in the Sweet Pea classroom at Three Cedars, Jeannette enjoys gardening and tending animals at her Snoqualmie home, and using her hands for all kinds of crafts and woodworking. She loves to hike, swim, and scuba-dive, and usually spends her holidays at the ocean.