Teaching Handwork at Madrona School

To create something with one’s own hands, if only once in one’s life, is surely a healthy antidote to becoming a passive consumer. –Michael Howard

Handwork is one of the unique specialty classes offered in a Waldorf grade school. At their most basic, the classes teach respect for simple tools: needle & thread, sticks and string, the spindle, wool, a knife, and of course, our hands. Handwork classes bring joy, teach practical skills around real work, and offer every student the opportunity to create beauty, along with the intrinsic satisfaction of completing an often long-term project.  

Developed to work in tandem with the curriculum as a whole, handwork strengthens fine motor skills and helps with hand-eye coordination, which in turn help students with writing, reading and math. Knitting, crochet, clay, woodcarving, embroidery etc., all contribute to the formative artistic foundations found within a Waldorf education, fostering creativity, flexibility and independence. 

Michael Howard, a Waldorf educator, and author of Educating the Will, writes extensively about what handwork classes offer our students, and he takes it further with spoon carving as his example, saying, “We must seek every opportunity to develop the feeling will [or an artistic sense or feeling] because the capacity to feel the clumsiness of our spoon and to intuitively feel, step by step, how to make it harmonious is not limited to spoon making. As our feeling will awakens through activities such as the arts and crafts, it will become active in other domains such as social life. …Our feeling will awakens our creative will to be social sculptors who transform dead and chaotic social forms into more living and harmonious ones.” Handwork classes speak directly to a main educational goal at Madrona School, the nurturing and teaching of whole human beings, capable of shaping their own lives beyond the classroom.


What are the handwork curriculum basics here at Madrona School? Our kindergarteners often do a bit of whittling and hand-sewing to create little pocket gnomes (see above), or dolls, but the program begins in earnest in 1st grade with knitting. In second grade, they add to their knitting skills and begin crochet. In third grade, they expand their crochet abilities, and experiment with taking a fleece through washing, spinning and weaving. In fourth grade, they learn basic embroidery, as well as designing and stitching a cross-stitch piece. In fifth grade, it’s back to knitting, this time in the round, making socks. In sixth grade they play with taking two-dimensions into three-dimensions, designing a stuffed animal, first on paper, and then hand-sewing their creation. In seventh and eighth grade, we often expand into working with different materials, including woodworking, carving soapstone, metal work and expanded embroidery techniques. The eighth grade also spends some time with machine sewing, making quilts and clothing. In addition to all of these skills, our students experience other crafts within their main lesson blocks – making drums or cedar baskets in4th grade Native American and local history studies, or stained glass in a 6th grade Middle Ages block.  The breadth of these opportunities adds further dimension to our arts-integrated academic curriculum.

Finally, handwork classes offer students a way to see form made visible. If you’ve had a first grader in our program, you’ve seen the loosely-knit first projects transform through further practice into a second project – often a flute case they can use for years – where the stitches even out and mistakes are seen and fixed. These lessons in learning to see their work echo observational skills grown throughout school, in experiment-driven science classes, in social relationships, and in an awakening self-awareness. Handwork classes ultimately contribute to a healthy confidence our graduates take with them into the world. 

--edited from our weekly school newsletter, February 14, 2017