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The Child And Handicraft

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



OUR national eagerness to acquire new ideas has become proverbial, yet there is at least one point in which our great public school system is curiously behind that of other countries; we omit from most of our schools any attempt to teach manual training. Yet the idea is no new one. Two centuries ago the philosopher John Locke pointed out the value of hand-labor in education, and urged that a child should learn one handicraft thoroughly, and two or three in part. Rousseau said in the essay on education that has been called "a pedagogical gold-mine," "If I employ a child in the workshop instead of chaining him to a book, then his hands work to the benefit of his mind." Froebel took up the suggestion of hand-work and introduced it into his kindergarten system. Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Russia, Germany, and France developed the plan, and to-day teach manual training in their graded schools. We still understand it so little that we think that only those who wish to learn a trade need know how to handle tools, while really nothing could be further from the ideas of those who understand the principles involved.

Object of Manual Training.-Handicraft is designed to develop the mind and the hand rather than to teach any particular thing. The child has two faculties which we are apt to overlook-that of construction and that of destruction. It loves to make things; give it a paste-pot, a pair of scissors, a knife, a needle, and see the pleasure it will take in evolving something of its very own. It loves to destroy things, too, but less from a wanton desire to spoil, than from the innate wish to find out what it is that "makes the wheels go round." It is to answer the child's needs in these two respects that it should be taught handicraft. It there learns the why and how of the manufactured article, and it learns to put together for itself. Its eye and hand are trained to a precision altogether lacking in the untaught child, while it is also acquiring at the same time concentration, exactness, and perseverance, all of which are of infinite value in its studies.

Through handicraft it also works off a large part of its superfluous energy. A recess of five or ten minutes in the middle of the morning, and another recess of an hour at noon are not enough to dissipate the boundless restlessness a child feels. Many a so-called "naughty boy" who is the torment of school, is suffering from a real nervousness which would disappear if he had something to do which would occupy pleasantly both hands and head. To drop arithmetic for a time and take up a saw or plane is an unspeakable rest. This is true for girls no less than for boys; they especially need a course in handicraft, since their hands do not naturally take a hammer or a chisel; they also get far less exercise than their brothers do, though their growing bodies need it quite as much, and their delicate nerves even more. To quote Rousseau again, "The great secret of education is to combine mental and physical work so that the one kind of exercise refreshes for the other."

Utilizing Skill with Tools.-Handicraft is also a benefit to a child in that it brings it into a closer relation to its home. When it feels that it is not a contributor to it in any material sense, but only a recipient, it misses something of comradeship; but when it can really add to the home's attractiveness or comfort it at once acquires a new love for it and pride in it. Under a good teacher of any form of handiwork it is not long before a child is able to make something really useful and beautiful. One has only to visit a school where manual training is taught to recognize with wonder the possibilities that lie there. There are picture-frames, tables carved in artistic patterns, chests for linen, plate-racks, exquisite bits of carved metal, beaten brass, carved leather, beautifully bound books. To learn to make such things is an education in itself, and to be able not only to make them, but to enrich the home with them, is to feel and to confer a true and deep pleasure.

Encouraging a Talent for Handiwork.-But beyond these actual or possible results of such training there is also the suggestion which it gives of the bent of the child's mind. Many a parent is puzzled to know what course to pursue in looking towards the child's future; here a latent talent will often be disclosed. The child will show plainly that it has a taste for art, or architecture, or applied mathematics, or sculpture, or something equally definite. Parents who hesitate over a course in handicraft lest it should either lead to a distaste for study or develop a wish for mechanical labor only, are surprised to find that it simply smooths the path to a desired career.

Where there is no opportunity for the study of handicraft in a school within reach, the father and mother should try to make some opportunity for it at home. A boy may have a tool-chest when he is very young, and learn to drive nails or do odd bits of mending about the house. He will take a certain pride in doing these things for a time, but very soon he will be ready for harder work under a regular teacher. He might then take lessons of a carpenter in the use of tools and a turning-lathe; or one can sometimes find a foreigner who for a very small sum of money will give lessons in wood-carving. If the boy inclines to metal-working he should have some one-if only the village blacksmith-to instruct him in simple iron and brass work.

Handicraft for Girls.-A girl may begin to study manual training after the excellent kitchen-garden system; she will enjoy the setting of tiny tables and the hanging out of dolls' washing, and the making of little beds, and at the same time she will be learning neatness and order, accuracy of touch, and a dainty way of doing housework. Sewing, too, that discipline through which every girl must pass, may be redeemed from drudgery and made a pastime if it is regarded as a part of an education in handicraft and taught so as to awaken an interest in it. The old way used to be to set a girl a daily task of a seam; later, to teach her to cut out and make garments for herself of stiff muslin, which she usually moistened with her tears. To-day a teacher is found who gathers a little group of children and gives them regular lessons; hemming is done on one square of cloth, backstitching on another, and overcasting on a third. To make buttonholes, even, in company, robs them of half their terrors. It is not so important that a child should know how to make garments as how to sew. If she knows that, the making will come later.

But it should never be forgotten that sewing is not the only form of handicraft with which a girl should be familiar. She, like the boy, should learn to make things of wood and leather and metal, for the development of both head and hands. A recent writer on this subject says, "Boys and girls whose hands have been left altogether untrained until their fifteenth year are practically incapable of high manual efficiency thereafter." Any woman whose hands are adaptable finds herself ready for many amusements and accomplishments which are delightful and useful.

Restfulness of Hand-work.--But quite apart from the benefit one receives in the possession of a trained eye and hand there is another, an ultimate value in a course in handicraft of which as children we never think-that rest which hand-work gives to the tired brain. It is most necessary for all of us to have some-thing in which we can find relaxation. Dr. Weir Mitchell in a recent article advises novel-reading, but to many brain-workers this is not as restful as something which occupies the hands as well as the mind. The lawyer, the writer, the physician, the teacher, the mother, may throw themselves into some interesting form of handicraft, such as artistic bookbinding or wood-carving, and find it absorbing, satisfying, restful. Hand-work in which there is no creative pleasure, mere manual labor in which the mind has no share, can never give rest, but that which occupies hand and eyes and brain at once makes us ready to take up our daily burdens again with a new vigor. This one reason alone-the benefit which a knowledge of handicraft gives to us during the stress and storm of life-seems reason enough why we should study it in our leisure years, the years of childhood.



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