The Importance of Working with Your Hands

Have you ever had the experience where things just come together?

You have a discussion with someone, and that person brings up a great point that causes you to ponder. You form some ideas in your head and tuck them away for the time being.

Then just a few days later, someone else mentions that exact same point and adds another idea to it.

And the next day it happens again with yet another idea!

That’s when you begin to feel that you’re growing in that area from all of the mental food that came with those related ideas.

I just had one of those experiences, and I want to share with you the ideas that have enriched my thinking and living because of it.

Recently, I wrote a post on Productive Afternoons and shared lots of ideas for how to keep your children learning and growing informally after regular schoolwork was done.

That post generated a lot of questions, and one of those questions is what sparked this whole thought process and relation of ideas that I want to tell you about.

The mom who wrote this question has a son who loves to read and dislikes doing anything “creative.” He would rather spend his afternoons just reading. So this mom was asking me for ideas of how to encourage him to work with his hands and do other things besides reading all day. Her question made me start thinking about why it’s important to work with things as well as books.

Let me give you her question and my original answer first, then I’ll share with you those related ideas that have come my way since that conversation. It’s been fascinating to make some new discoveries.

First, the question:

Hi. I love this post [Productive Afternoons] and all the ideas in it. I’m wondering, though – how do you get your kids to do these activities? Mine usually just read or play. I would love to have them do things like [the ideas you suggested], but I’m not sure how. My kids are 10, 7, 5, and 2. My two middle kids love creative things, so it would probably be easy to encourage them to do more of that. My eldest strongly dislikes doing anything creative, so he pretty much reads all day. Should I start requiring it? What should I say? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thank you. Christie

And here was my answer:

Thanks for your question. I think it’s great that your little ones play and read. They need time for free play. And it’s great that your 10-year-old loves to read, but it would also be good to encourage him to have a variety of activities and hobbies, especially ones that get him up and moving physically. Balance in life is important, and I think physical work is especially important for boys.

Not all of the ideas [in Productive Afternoons] are about creating. You can do your nature study and nature notebooks in the afternoon; have him help with outdoor yard work; have him walk the dog; work on a seasonal outdoor chore, like sweeping the porch or washing the outside of the front door or vacuuming the inside of the van or shoveling snow or mowing the lawn; he could work on his Book of Centuries; play chess; collect something of interest; or you could all do volunteer work in your neighborhood, at a local non-profit, or a church.

As a growing boy, he needs exercise in order to strengthen his muscles. Plus, he will be learning a lot about practical scientific concepts as he works with heavy objects, friction, momentum, etc. and exercises his problem-solving skills in the physical world as well as in his mental/book world. Good physical coordination and personal familiarity with how the physical world works are important for our children.

So go ahead and assign him some extra chores for afternoons that will get him up and moving. You don’t have to completely fill his time, but start nudging him toward doing other things along with reading. It might help to create a list of expectations/responsibilities for each child each day of the week. List what chores you expect to be done before school and what chores you are assigning for each afternoon.

Another possibility: you could write several afternoon ideas on index cards, one per card. Choose mostly ideas that aren’t creative (you can throw one in every once in a while if you want to; maybe once a month or something). Then every Monday give your son five idea cards. He should choose one to do each afternoon that week. That way he has some choice in the matter, which may be important to him, but you are still encouraging him to expand his horizons and keep his days balanced.

As he grows older, include some of the maintenance skills (around the house and vehicle) for him to learn and practice. Those will be important things for him to have mastered when he moves into his own household. Look at it as a long-term goal: you have seven years or so left with him; what does he need to know how to do by the time he moves out? Set up a seven-year plan to ease into all the skills gradually, and know that you have those afternoon time slots to plug them into over the years.

OK, those were my initial ideas about the importance of working with your hands. I also reviewed what Charlotte Mason said about the importance of children forming relations with various materials in their world:

“He 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” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 31).

“Another elemental relationship, which every child should be taught and encouraged to set up, is that of power over material. Every child makes sand castles, mud-pies, paper boats, and he or she should go on to work in clay, wood, brass, iron, leather, dress-stuffs, food-stuffs, furnishing-stuffs. He should be able to make with his hands and should take delight in making.” (School Education, p. 80).

A few days after reading those passages, my friend and coworker, Karen Smith, sent me a link to an article. Karen often does that when she comes across something that she thinks is interesting and will be interesting to me too. The article she sent was put out by the BBC, and it drew attention to a problem with today’s medical students: they had so little experience making and creating things with their hands that they didn’t have the dexterity that is needed to carefully stitch shut a wound or an incision. Such work requires delicate fine-muscle work, but the students lacked that necessary coordination because they had spent all their time simply swiping a finger across a screen or typing with their thumbs.

That idea rocked my world. I had never thought about the impact that working with your hands can have on a future career! I know that if I have surgery, or even a deep cut that requires stitches, I want a doctor who has the head knowledge, yes, but who is also good with his hands, please!

So I tucked that related idea away in my mind along with that previous conversation and Charlotte’s thoughts about working with your hands.

The next day I received another e-mail. This one was from my chiropractor. It contained a link to an article about a related study.

Education is the science of relations! I’m being educated as my mind connects the dots and forms these relations between ideas.

Well, this article suggested that, according to the research they cited, busy hands can alter your brain’s chemistry and make you happier. And working with both of your hands increases that sense of well-being and contentment.

Isn’t that amazing? Karen said, when she sent me the first article, “We often hear about the advantages of the academic side of education: reading to children, graduating from high school, and going to college. We rarely hear about how important it is to learn and practice cutting things out, measuring ingredients, sewing, and just plain working with our hands.”

I must admit that my view of handicrafts has been pretty limited. I’ve thought of them as a nice, wholesome pastime; or a good way to switch and use a different part of your brain; or even a good way to increase fine-muscle skills so the child will improve in handwriting.

But now I have a whole new appreciation for handicrafts. Working with your hands is not just a pleasant distraction from bookwork. It’s not just a wholesome way to pass the time and stay productive.

It is those things, but it is also so much more. Working with your hands is an important part of our children’s education. Just as Charlotte said it was so many years ago.

What handicraft project or life-skill project are your children going to work on this week?


  1. Wonderful article! This just goes to show that Charlotte Mason considered the whole person in her educational methods; she considered the physical person and the intellectual person. Her methods are so natural and come from a time when we were not overrun with electronic gadgets and screens that take away our precious time. And I LOVE having the moments you describe where
    I connect the dots and relate things to one another.

  2. In my last comment, I left out that Charlotte Mason considers our soul and the spiritual person as well! That’s too important to leave out. : )

  3. This really demonstrates the importance of manual activity!

    Could you comment about frustration, careful work, and age appropriate expectations? My daughter is 7, highly creative, and loves crafts. However, she is not naturally a careful worker, is left handed, and responds poorly to correction or requirements to improve her work. I think she’d really enjoy certain handicrafts, but I’m afraid to introduce them and deal with the emotional issues that will come up.

    • Maybe you could find out if there is a special handicraft she’s been wanting to learn—something that’s a little more complicated, like knitting or crocheting or sewing—and keep that for your lesson time. Show her just one stitch or step at a time (similar to what is done on the Handicrafts Made Simple videos). But then also have a craft box of lots of supplies available to her in her free time. So during her free time she can create as much as she wants and the way she wants to with no corrections or instructions, but during lesson time you’re going to show her slowly and carefully how to do excellent work. And you’re not going to move on to the next step until she has mastered the first one. That might give her “both worlds.”

      My thought is that it might be that she just loves to explore different ways to do things and likes to find out the best way for herself. So try not to take it personally, but you’re right that you need to balance that tendency with an ability to take instruction. So you might approach the instruction/lesson time as “Let me show you how thousands of other people have done this and what has worked well for them.” Then during her free time with the craft box, she’s free to explore her own ways of trying.

      If you don’t feel proficient at the knitting or crocheting or whatever she chooses for her special learning lessons, see if there is a person in your church or in your community who could come in and teach it. Have a little talk with that person ahead of time and let her know that you would like it to be approached just one tiny step at a time with an emphasis on doing it well. It might be that your daughter would receive that instruction from an artisan in the craft. If so, that will tell you a lot, but it also may make that handicraft time a little smoother.

      If you need extra incentive to help her exercise self-control with the emotional side of things, you could stipulate that as long as she cooperates during the short lesson time, she is allowed to access the craft box during her free time that day. If, however, she pushes back during the handicraft lesson, then the lesson is done, everything is put away, and the craft box is not available either.

      Just a few thoughts that, hopefully, will get your own customized ideas flowing and fit your situation best.

    • I would like to comment on this as I have been blessed with a perfectionist and a child who sounds more like yours (and more in the middle). I have rarely, if ever, corrected my children’s mistakes in crafts as I believe they know when something looks great and when it looks lousy-just like you know when that cake you made looks beautiful and is delicious, and when you forgot to put rising agent in and it turns out flat and dense-or worse, burned! As children grow and mature and their work becomes more important to them, they naturally will take more care and will self-correct.

      • That’s a great point, Amy. I assumed the correction and instruction mentioned would be along the lines of technique, such as how to hold the knitting needles and how to do a certain stitch. You’re right that we don’t want to correct or criticize the child’s creativity or project. They definitely can tell how their final product looks compared to the standard; we don’t need to point out all their mistakes. Thanks for adding this idea to the discussion!

      • That’s an interesting point, too, about technique-I hadn’t considered that when I read the post. What I have found with my strong willed children who “can do it myself” is that in advance of child’s frustration, I can offer my availability if they get stuck on something. A sort of “you seem very determined to learn that on your own. I’ll be reading my book if you need any help.” I find that when I back off and seem less concerned, my child increases his care for his work. Important to note, too, is that with strong-willed children, if they are given their choice (not mine) of handicrafts, they will have a natural desire to produce something of quality in their eyes. And sometimes that takes trying several projects before finding a good fit. You tube has become an invaluable, albeit free, teacher for any handicraft she can think of-taking you out of the instructor position for that time. Have fun!

  4. This is an interesting article-affirming to me in what I sometimes think, for my children, is too much time outdoors/ pursuing hobbies. We really do well with short lessons and tend to finish around lunchtime. That really does leave hours of time for activities when you’re not busy running kids from here to there. So to answer the question of what life skill or handicraft will my 8 children (6 boys, 2 girls) work on this week… valentine making, valentine box/bag making, hand sewing, machine sewing, flint-knapping, blacksmithing, cutting firewood, outdoor shelter/fort making, and the latest which has been difficult for me to grapple with but is very resourceful: butchering a rabbit, brain tanning the hide, and making smoked rabbit jerky.
    I am so thankful for this lifestyle and with my oldest graduating this year, we are able to see fruits ripen and future plans directly related to the hours of handicrafts he’s been able to take up over the years.
    Thanks for this article, Sonya. I really needed the affirmation.

  5. As I continue to learn about Charlotte Mason and her approach to education and her love for children, I realize that I was blessed with time to do handcrafts and how that enhanced my life as a child. I learned how to knit and crochet. I also played the piano and sang in the chorus. This made life in general and school in particular find and interesting.

    Do you feel the areas of creativity, in general, are equally beneficial to the learning experience of a child or would you say that handcrafts, as apposed to activities related to playing an instrument or singing differ in their value to the educational experience?

    I agree that this switch in gears during the day can bring a high level of richness in a students life. Thanks again for the article and answering our questions.

    • It’s interesting that I’ve just started reading a book about the benefits of handicrafts, and within the first couple of chapters the authors mentioned the same thing you did. Mainly their premise is that the benefits come from being creative and producing something. In those respects, music would fit in.

      However, they also talked about the “down time” that they experience when crafting—how they get to a point where they are knitting or crocheting familiar patterns almost on autopilot—and that allows their brains to wander to places they might not have a chance to contemplate and mull over in everyday busyness. That’s not usually the case with music, at least not in my experience. Sure, every once in a while, the lyric of a song will become a mental focus, but I’m usually so engrossed in concentrating on the music itself that my mind is not free to “move about the cabin.”

      Now, playing the piano does use a completely different part of my brain, and in that way it gives me a refreshing change.

      I think at this point I’d say that, yes, absolutely, both handicrafts and music are beneficial. And while they offer some similar benefits, I don’t think that one could or should be substituted for the other. Let’s give our children both!

      (Note: I’m not going to share the name of the book I’m reading, because I have been saddened by the worldview of the authors and it is woven throughout the chapters I have read so far. It’s definitely a separate-the-wheat-from-the-chaff read.)

Comments are closed.