“[The child] practises various handicrafts that he may know the feel of wood, clay, leather, and the joy of handling tools, that is, that he may establish a due relation with materials.”¹
In Charlotte Mason’s schools, short lessons were a standard practice to allow for afternoon occupations. Afternoon occupations describe a large chunk in the latter half of the day where students were able to participate in a variety of activities, including handicrafts. What exactly is a handicraft? The term handicraft literally means a particular skill of making decorative objects by hand. In the PNEU archives, there are descriptions of handicraft classes that students participated in while attending Mason’s schools including: leather-embossing, bookbinding, woodcarving, knitting, needlework, basket-work, gardening, and countless others.
The concept of handcrafts is intended to be much deeper than what we see during a typical“arts and crafts time” in a traditional classroom. One reason is because handicrafts and service go hand in hand. The end result should be useful, and the purpose is not to complete a project that will end up in the trash after a week, but rather to learn a valuable skill. Charlotte Mason provides the following criteria when considering handicrafts.“The points to be borne in mind in children's handicrafts are: (a) that they should not be employed in making futilities such as pea and stick work, paper mats, and the like; (b) that they should be taught slowly and carefully what they are to do; (c) that slipshod work should not be allowed; (d) and that, therefore, the children's work should be kept well within their compass.”¹
Therefore, handicrafts should not just be another item on our to-do to lists; and it should be noted that important life skills such as baking, laundry or changing a tire are considered handicrafts. Charlotte Mason tells us that education is a life, and what better way to teach our children how to do life than to give them real, practical, tangible, and meaningful skills? Not only that, they can then use these same skills to serve and love those around them in a very real way. It’s clear this idea extends way beyond glitter glue and popsicle stick picture frames - although, those are cute ;).
Charlotte Mason says this about the bigger goal behind incorporating handicrafts into students' education:
“Again, we know that the human hand is a wonderful and exquisite instrument to be used in a hundred movements exacting delicacy, direction and force; every such movement is a cause of joy as it leads to the pleasure of execution and the triumph of success. We begin to understand this and make some efforts to train the young in the deft handling of tools and the practice of handicrafts. Some day, perhaps, we shall see apprenticeship to trades revived, and good and beautiful work enforced. In so far, we are laying ourselves out to secure that each shall ‘live his life’; and that, not at his neighbour's expense; because, so wonderful is the economy of the world that when a man really lives his life he benefits his neighbour as well as himself; we all thrive in the well-being of each.”²
In Charlotte Mason's schools, handicrafts were not viewed as a lesser subject or something that's intended to kill some extra time at the end of the day. It's easy to see how the process of learning a skill and creating something new lends itself to endless opportunities to develop character. Whether it is perseverance, diligence, meticulousness, mindfulness, optimism, or fostering a growth-mindset, you can be sure that students will come away from handicraft projects with far more than a tangible product. Our God is endlessly creative, and we are made in his image. Therefore, there’s something truly profound in being able to use the gifts he’s given us to learn new skills that challenge us and encourage us to creatively love those around us.
Of course, as children grow and mature the nature of handicrafts becomes more complicated. But what about those early years? In the early years, we shouldn't neglect the importance of how imaginary play lends itself to naturally to the development of handicrafts. For instance, last week, my older boys built an obstacle course using various natural materials in the backyard. They spent hours building, attempting, and re-building the course. Does such an activity "count" as a handicraft? Absolutely! Oftentimes, the only handicraft my younger kids get to help with is unloading the dishwasher, or helping prep for dinner. And that's just fine!
I recently picked up an embroidery kit and a paper quilling kit on amazon - not for my kids, for myself! Modeling interest in varied handicraft activities is not only a great opportunity to demonstrate the process of learning something new, but doing so also tends to pique the interest of the kids in the house. Not to mention, embarking on new handicrafts can serve as a valuable investment in your own mother culture (remember when we talked about mother-culture??). As they say, more is caught than taught. And handicrafts are no exception. The things we allocate time for, and the ways in which we choose to take on something new (or challenging or step outside of our comfort zone) teaches our children more than any school lesson.
Not sure where to start? I borrowed a couple of handicraft list ideas from AmblesideOnline's Facebook group that I will link to the bottom of the page. Here's the challenge: try one new thing from either list this month for yourself. Even if you already have a hobby, go out on a limb and try something new! Education is an atmosphere, so our attitude towards handicrafts matters! Our kids will sense the difference between a joy-filled atmosphere and a begrudgingly acquiescent attitude as we embark to incorporating handicrafts into the rhythm of our homes.
¹ Mason, Charlotte. Home Education, p. 315.
² Mason, Charlotte. Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 329.