At the time when the first Waldorf School was founded, handwork for girls, usually from class 3 onwards, was a matter of course. The subject, with a distinct emphasis upon its artistic aspects, was immediately adopted by the Waldorf curriculum, but right from class 1, and for boys as well as girls.
From their first day on, pupils are exposed to an artistic way of working in lessons such as music and eurythmy, and to this artistic aspect handwork adds the practical. This creates a balanced relationship to the more cognitive subjects: the children are addressed on various levels – “holistically”. Even when the phase of detachment from their surroundings sets in this can be effectively compensated for (Marti 2011: p. 80). The fruit of such an educational path is a mature power of discernment, capable of sound judgment, and of grasping authentic relationships (➝Background considerations).
In handwork this is initially supported above all through the intense practising of rhythmic movements. In this way, not only do initially forced, fine-motor movements become relaxed and flowing, but there also occurs an immediate, unconscious merging with the thought content and logic of the manual technique in question.
At first, then, handwork teaching works upon the bodily foundations of the faculty of judgment. In later years, the emphasis is increasingly upon making the movements and task-specific actions more conscious, with a view to the basic aim of arriving at “knowledge-based work” (Fucke 1998: p. 58ff.). This means not only understanding and being able to manipulate technical processes for various useful purposes, but also becoming familiar with the design procedures involved in the production of an artefact. The pedagogical aim here is the experience of working in an artistic way. Handwork thus awakens not only awareness and understanding of the processes involved in the world of work, but also of the artefacts that surround us, as long as there is a correspondence between the way something is made and the use it is put to.
As a subject, handwork taps into the human wish for practical action and creativity. Not only the thoroughly worthwhile goal of the finished product, but also the overall process of making it, should provide the students with an experience that satisfies their creative impulses. Achieving this is a matter of ensuring that the levels of will and feeling are permeated with the cognitive aspects of a particular learned skill (Kranich 2002: p. 517f.) and with the effects of the materials and colours used (Ohlendorf 2008: p. 11). This, in turn, entails a high degree of differentiated sensory engagement on the level of the bodily senses (those of touch, movement, balance and general visceral awareness; Quadflieg & v. Vegesack 1998: p. 215ff.). All this depends ultimately upon the use of an age-appropriate methodology in conjunction with high-quality, natural materials in aesthetically appealing colours, which can be applied as desired.
Just as in main lessons the teacher does not content him- or herself with a purely cognitive description of the technologies associated with different cultural epochs, so in a practical subject like handwork the converse applies, in that a cognitive element must be included to make a success of the lessons. In exactly the same way, introducing – in class 4 – a more cognitive approach to creative and practical processes corresponds to the way – in class one – the age-appropriate presentation of materials in the form of a “teaching story” can have a positive effect on the attitude to the finished artefact.
Handwork can help children feel at home in the world and in their own bodies, and the extent to which it does this relates to the kind of tasks the teacher selects. Many different kinds of “home” can be produced: e.g. bags for every-day objects, articles of clothing, are reflections of this. In general, the practical usefulness of the products is of prime importance. Smaller, more decorative things can be made as extras, especially in connection with the seasons. These can serve to refine the sense of colour and form. However, high aesthetic quality should be a feature of everything that is produced. This is arrived at – as mentioned above – through artistic design conditioned by the nature of the object to be made. This also means that in every artefact the pupil’s personality can find expression. At the very least, therefore, the children are always allowed to choose the colour themselves, and thus have the possibility of further engagement with the process as a whole.
What follows offers general, age-related suggestions and perspectives for handwork in grades 1 to 8. What can actually be achieved depends, among other things, upon the character and composition of the particular group of children. Within the mixed-ability context the pupils are met, through qualitative and/or quantitative measures, in such a way that they are all able to manage and finish the tasks they are given.