When a child exercises muscles in the hand,
she/he is actually forming the brain.
Handwork, in the traditional sense, are activities such as sewing, darning, mending, embroidery, weaving and knitting. One of my Waldorf mentors told me that handwork is deeply related to the development of morality. Just watch a five year old sew! It is magical! But I also think that all acts of creation by the use of the hands is handwork! Joseph Chilton Pearce said that the fingers were the eyes of the heart. I loved this! It is so true – I see children love the process of learning when they get hands-on and dig in! Taking children away from hand-based activities, we take away a child's access to an education with heart. Pencil and paper is not handwork – it is intellectual work. This is not bad – it just isn’t what engages the heart.
Frank Wilson, in his book “The Hand: How It's Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture” traces the pivotal place of the human hand and the amazing opposable thumb in the evolution of the species. The density of the nerve ending in the fingers is mind boggling. When engaged in lively hand activities, the neural pathways of learning are laid down in the brain that will serve the child for the rest of their life! Until recent history, children were taught to plow, sow, weed, cultivate, harvest, grind, bake, care for the animals and more! These were meaningful activities that contributed to the family. Through the training of the hand, a deeper understanding of the world they lived in was forged.
It is important in early childhood to provide the first experiences of basic human tasks such as wrapping, sewing, tying, knotting, decorating, painting, picking, shaping, drawing, stirring, rolling, building, constructing and so forth. These are a child’s beginnings of using unskilled hands in experimentation and creative expression. Truly, it is just play at this point. But this play offers multiple opportunities for learning about the world, for constructing one’s own understanding and for developing skill.