The Importance of Handmade

One of the most revelatory training sessions at AMI was when we had to make and illustrate a poetry and song anthology from scratch.

Why? I wondered. Couldn’t I just print something off the Internet? Also, what exactly about making a book was “Montessori”?

In Montessori schools, teachers make their own materials- especially books and art.

Handwritten poem by a teacher in an AMI Children’s House, top right next to fishtank

We access so much of the written word through print, that it’s rare to see a sample of beautiful handwriting… yet we expect our children to write beautifully.

The cover of my handmade book. We were expected to handletter each page.
We use our phones and Kindles to read… yet we expect our children to be voracious readers of books.

We want them to concentrate…. yet when was the last time we modelled concentration? Doing something because we enjoyed it?

My amazing trainer answered my unspoken question: we make things because we have the amazing ability to personalise it to each individual child, and what could be more Montessori than that? 

A page from my handmade book, a poem written by me bearing Dylan’s name and favourite construction vehicle
I have since started making things for my children, and making things with them. I want to model how to work with concentration and joy, and nothing – not an instruction, not a grace and courtesy lesson – is more authentic than actually doing so. 

I don’t announce when I am starting my work, but they may come over, drawn to the purposefulness of my actions.

Cutting and laminating “around the home” classified cards, featuring Google images of objects we actually own, and a cover picture of our living room.
Cards in use. She can concretely relate the image of the plant to the real plant behind her.
They are endlessly captivated, and also mostly respectful of my tray and my work. Occasionally I have to remind my younger child (2.5yo) who tries to help me with paint, that this is my work and she may watch. (Sometimes I invite her to help, but not always. Learning at a young age to respect another’s need for work will be important preparation for her entry into a Montessori classroom- and into the world!)

For example, I wrote this Guo Nian book (words of book here) together with my children in ten minutes, and meant to donate it to Dylan’s Montessori nursery after we had finished sharing at their Chinese New Year celebration- but it has become a firm favourite, with the children requesting to read it daily and even choosing to bring it to Paris. 

This fantastic article about how making is hands-on learning sums it up:

“While maker education is often defined in terms of 3D printers and Arduino boards, it’s really the culture around making, rather than the act of making, that makes it essential to learning.”

This isn’t a good shot by any means, but if you look closely you can see “my work”, a magazine and a Marie Kondo book, while the children do “their work”, watercolor painting.
You don’t have to be a master craftsman to make things! Some ideas for creating a culture of making:

  • Make your own books and art that represent who your children are. You need not be a wordsmith or artist, children just love hearing stories about themselves or seeing representations.
  • If you have somehow managed to retain a hobby outside of parenting e.g. woodworking, weaving, pottery, I applaud you. Invite your children to join you. Children are interested when they see how interested you are in making something- even when teaching teenagers Literature I found this to be true. Your passion rubs off on them.
  • Putting together Montessori trays and materials (such as three-part cards- see our AMI tutorial here) for your children, in their presence. 
  • Cooking- cooking is about transformation, which is why it’s a great way to “make”. See some recipes kids love doing here and here.
  • Have a maker corner, somewhere they can create, write and make art (see our low-budget art space here). A bonus? It develops finger strength and supports the explosion into writing.
  • Buy handmade for the things you cannot make. Marvel at how exquisitely the item was made (and by whom, if you have bought it directly from the artist, say at a craft fair). I can’t sew, but I commissioned my grandaunt to sew aprons and my aunt to knit a Land, Air and Water mat.
  • Display handmade proudly in your home. It could be a hand-blown vintage vase or some watercolor calligraphy hanging over the snack station. That tactile quality and artisanship bring the essential element of beauty into your prepared environment.
Two needlepoints by the cloakroom welcome children to an AMI Children’s House

Above all, it is so important that children see themselves as important. When they see themselves represented in books, song, art and later media.

Yes, we must do this by bringing in books (see how to select Montessori-friendly books here), art and topics that represent diversity, but we can do it even more powerfully by making things inscribed with their names, faces, customs, favourite colors even. It isn’t easy to find a book about an Asian purple-loving brother and bespectacled sister celebrating Chinese New Year- but I sure can make it. It is my labour of love, late nights and papercuts, and I know it will be worth it.

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