Language of Touch – How Knitting Can Improve Manual Dexterity
Päivi Kankaro explores why our fine motor skills might be declining, and what should be done about this.
How often do you think about your hands? Those two oddly shaped body parts at the ends of our arms, featuring ten digits (usually). The ones that help us perform daily tasks, enabling us to touch things and caress and connect with our loved ones and pets. Hands that knit beautiful garments, or fearlessly take on new challenges such as picking up the needles for the first time or learning new techniques that require hundreds of repetitions. Our hands do a lot for us, and yet we don’t pay much conscious attention to how they do this. Unless, of course, we are unable to use them.
Manual dexterity is the ability to make coordinated hand and finger movements to grasp and manipulate objects. The development of these skills occurs over time, primarily during childhood, and involves muscular, skeletal and neurological functions to produce small and precise movements. These skills are an important aspect of our everyday lives and were vital for the success of the human species. But in recent years, there have been concerns that our dexterity and fine motor skills might be declining. What do we lose if we go from using all our fingers to being all thumbs?
A few years ago, I read an article in The Guardian about Roger Kneebone, a professor of surgical education at Imperi al College London, who stated that young medical students lack crafting skills to the point that they struggle with practical tasks in their studies. Professor Kneebone said he had seen a decline in the manual dexterity of students over the past decade, and he was concerned that children don’t learn enough practical skills, such as cutting, sewing or making things.
In Professor Kneebone’s opinion, surgeons need crafting skills as well as academic knowledge to succeed in their demanding work. For example, stitching requires delicate hand movements, but many students struggle to perform even the most basic clinical procedures: “We are talking about the ability to do things with your hands, with tools, cutting things out and putting things together ... which is really important in order to do the right thing either with operations, or with experiments.”
Such crafting skills might have once been learned at home or in school, and it is easy to blame the time spent on computers and phones, as well as the changes in the education system, with fewer hands-on courses and an increasing emphasis on screen usage.
Now, the point of this column is not to spread doom and gloom about digital devices and the threats they pose to our brains, even though some potentially harmful effects do exist – I’m sure we can all vouch for that. New technological inventions have always sparked panic. The world is constantly developing and one might even claim that while surgical students have declined in dexterity, technology has gained the ability to do things better and more accurately than humans in the first place. In Japan, human-like robots are already being utilised as supplemental healthcare workers in elderly homes across the country. And for people who have limited dexterity or reduced grip, digital devices can provide alternative ways to communicate and operate, giving them more freedom and autonomy.
But, to reiterate Professor Kneebone’s concern, it is worth considering what a society loses if it is less and less engaged with crafts. There are already many skills dying out: this year, the British Heritage Crafts Association evaluated 244 crafts and added another 27 skills to the critically endangered list. We are basically forgetting how to do certain things. But it’s not just the niche skills that are in danger, it’s also the way we live and express ourselves.
For example, creativity is vitally important for children to develop imagination and
resourcefulness. It helps them to build resilience and learn problem-solving as well as technical skills. Manual dexterity is a big part of our creative expression and keeping our hands as active as possible throughout our lifetime is equally important. Knitting is a great example of a practice that develops and maintains our manual dexterity and can also strengthen our hands. It demands that our brain and hands work together and accesses different areas in our brain, stimulating the connections between nerve cells, keeping them quick and efficient.
So how to make sure that children get the craft education vital for their development, especially in the digital era? The policies differ from country to country. In my native country of Finland, craft classes have been part of compulsory general education since the mid-1800s. Students from first to seventh grade (ages seven to thirteen) study both textile and technical work designed to benefit them in the future, including in their professional life.
Whereas in the past, the Finnish craft education focused on practical everyday problems, the objectives and content of craft education have changed over time–
from a product-centred approach into a process-centred approach. Producing crafts is a multifaceted process, which includes creating product ideas, visual and technical design, and manufacturing and assessment. The goal of craft education is that the pupils slowly gain the mastery of an entire craft production process. Additionally, when children learn to understand and respect materials through personal experience, it promotes the development of ecological ethics.
Craft education in schools is, in my opinion, very important. Even though many of us here in Finland might still have haunting memories of failed knitted mittens projects from the fourth grade, the actual process of learning was not wasted. Not all of us will be knitters, or surgeons for that matter, but using our hands for creative solutions is vital for us all. “There is a language of touch that is easy to overlook or ignore,” says Professor Kneebone in a New York Times article from 2019. Insurgical education, it means that being book-smart doesn’t always make you a great surgeon if you aren’t also able to manipulate your tools.
Keeping arts and crafts as part of school curriculums, and in our everyday lives, provides value. So, keep knitting. And make sure the kids do too.
Text: Päivi Kankaro
Illustration: Sanni Wessman
This feature was first published in Laine issue 13