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The Importance of Crafts in Schools

Personal Arts Development

James Kelleher


The Importance of Crafts in Schools

"The more we take into account that intellect develops from the movement of limbs, from dexterity and skills, the better it will be."

Rudolf Steiner, 1920

Since the 1980s crafts in state schools have been in decline, this is mainly because the idea of crafts is not considered important.  The National Curriculum would appear not to value craft in schools, given how few hours are devoted to the subject. Instead, craft has been replaced by IT (Information Technology) and DT (Design Technology).  With less people having the chance to learn skills at an early age, the craft-based professions are in decline and the crafts themselves are being lost.  In my essay, I will look at the importance of teaching crafts in schools.

My own experience from being at York Steiner School for ten years helped to develop my interest in crafts.  The Steiner curriculum places great emphasis on craft work.  From kindergarten through to Class 8 I was taught a new craft each year:  in class one I was taught to knit, but before knitting we all made our own knitting needles. The rest of the craft curriculum includes: felt-making from fleeces, felt slipper from felt, crocheting music cases, pottery, green woodwork, weaving, gardening, painting, brick making, stone carving, metalwork, dressmaking, set-design and building, candle making and wax modelling. My love of crafts led me to create my own workshop in which I make items out of wood.  Along with my brother, I had a stall at the Steiner School Advent Fair were we sold wooden spoons, bowls, chopping boards and ladles.

Then I got interested in blacksmithing through some open days I attended, and that's when I met Peat Oberon, an artist blacksmith. Through doing the Silver Arts Award I attended courses in ironwork and learned a lot from a practicing artists. Afterwards I produced a mandala showing the relationship between the seven planets and the seven metals and how they in turn relate to the days of the week.  I used 'The Secrets of Metals' by Wilhelm Pelikan for my research.  This book helped me to understand the relationship of metals and humans and the cosmos from the macro-cosmic to the micro-cosmic. I felt myself drawn to the intellectual aspects of metals and would not have been able to come to this point without first working with my hands with the metals and understanding their complexities and individual properties. This year I have been working towards my Gold Arts Award and working particularly with copper and producing wall-mounted sconces.  In February I arranged to meet with Peat and spent a full day with him learning the process involved in copper beating and planishing or polishing the metal with a hammer. Since Christmas I have been working on creating my own forge at home. Once I have completed it I intend to work more with metal with a view to selling my work and taking on commissions. In my view, from my own experiences including working with Peat Oberon, I believe that crafts in schools is of utmost importance to help with development and to offer a wider choice of subjects from which to choose a future career.

'Between 1870 and the present day, Britain has declined relatively from being the world's leading industrial nation to sixteenth in economic performance. Throughout this time contemporaries and historians have placed the blame on defects of the English education as a contributory cause of this deterioration.'

Education and Industry in the Nineteenth Century: The English Disease G. Roderick and M. Stephens. 1978.

This quotation helps to highlight the point I am attempting to make in my essay.  If the skills mentioned in the above paragraph are encouraged in schools and the children learn to work with their hands in an involved and meaningful way which fully engages the willingness to learn, then I believe that they would find they are better able to make more informed choices about what they want to do with their lives. One of the things that I have most enjoyed about my experience with the Arts Award has been learning skills from a professional and then passing those skills onto the rest of the group in the role of tutor.  I have held my own workshops in bookbinding and copper sconce making and enjoyed the process of planning the session, gathering the materials, looking at the health and safety aspects, organising the space and then teaching.  The teaching aspect is where I felt I learned a lot as I realised that not everybody is confident with the materials and tools and everybody works at different speeds and has different levels of creativity.

Through learning to work with our hands and with different materials we can also become more self sufficient and innovative, be able to repair things and have the confidence to tackle jobs ourselves.  Rudolf Steiner said that the purpose was not to train weavers, potters, etc., but rather for the pupils, by practicing such work to be able to stand more secure on leaving school, with a basic confidence for managing the practical affairs of life.  These things can never be achieved unless we all recognise craft as a valid and important part of child development and give it a proper place in education.

The importance of working with our hands in relation to our development as human beings has been proven through the discovery of Lucy, a fossilised human ancestor who lived 3.25 million years ago.  The discovery has led to a greater understanding of human development and in particular the development of the hand.  Lucy and her family lacked the ability to move the ring and small fingers across the hand towards the thumb a movement known as ulnar opposition. Between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago we developed the ability to perform this movement allowing us to grip things across the palm as we use a hammer and pretty much anything else that we hold in a grip. This small physical change had massive effect on human thinking and through the ability to do more with our hands our brains developed their intellectual capacity.

"A healthy way to develop the intellect, would be as far as possible, through the will."

Rudolf Steiner, 1919

If the child is engaged in a subject they will probably be more interested in it and more willing to take a more active part in their learning.  By being involved you can have more ideas about what to do next and be more motivated about the subject.  The child may even start to work things out for themselves because they are involved in a process.  Once they are fully engaged they will possibly ask questions about where the materials come from and what  the best materials are for the job etc. - for example in the Amazon people make the boats from the trees before they can travel as it is easier to travel by river than through the jungle.  I learned to identify trees and know that an oak tree gives off a resin that would not work for spoons or other items used in eating and cooking and that for these things sycamore or birch is much better.  Other subjects such as history, geography, maths and physics all come into play through craft work as you get more interested in the subjects - how the metals are formed and how they are built up over millions of years, where they all come from, how they change from their original state to the metal that can be worked, accurate measuring and weights, the history of how things were originally used, the development of tools, how other cultures use natural resources and hundreds of other questions.

My conclusion is that crafts are important subject in schools, they help with thinking and to concentrate thoughts and they should be taken seriously and recognised as a valid part of child development.