Twelve 8-year-olds sit nearly silent in a room with me and await my next instruction. “Place your ruler at the left edge of your paper and measure out six inches. Place a dot at the six inch mark.” Rulers are taken in hand, the shuffle of wood against paper begins, and pencils are put to use creating barely visible dots on their papers. Some of the children finish quickly, others are unimpressed with their dot or notice that it does not look the same distance as their previous dot, made at what they measured to be six inches and just above their current dot. Accuracy matters in this craft and they know it, and so extra time is taken by the students who need it. When everyone is ready (shown by putting their pencils down on the table and [ideally] keeping quiet) then the next instruction can be given. We are doing paper sloyd, a craft nearing 150 years of age that I had learned about just recently.
Sloyd is not a term we use in everyday life. In fact, prior to reading Charlotte Mason’s work, I had never heard the word at all and yet Charlotte uses the term casually, as if it was obvious and needed no special explanation. Upon further research, it turns out that it is from the Swedish word Slöjd that means the rough equivalent of handiwork. It was a popular program of study in schools during the late 1800s and early 1900s and is indeed still mandatory for students in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway to this day.
Unlike many of the handicrafts we think of today, the purpose of Sloyd is not the output of a product, but the formation of the student. Sloyd’s creator Otto Salomon wanted to aid the children in the development of their character by encouraging moral behavior, intelligence, and industriousness. Charlotte might have used it because the habits of accuracy, attention, and self-control are all being formed, among many others. In the book, “Paper Sloyd for Primary Grades” by Ednah Anne Rich, it states “Observation is quickened; eyes are trained to see right lines and distances, thus aiding in free-hand drawing and writing; while the hand and wrist muscles, being used for a definite purpose, unconsciously become obedient assistants.” The paradox is then, that when our aim is for the children to grow in these skills and habits, the crafts that they create are truly beautiful rather than aiming for beautiful crafts and often feeling that we come up a bit short.
Through the practice of Sloyd, children are moving from what they know and being challenged with an unknown. When that is mastered, another challenge is added in. Always, it starts with the simple and slowly and incrementally grows in complexity. A program of Sloyd, begun usually when children were nine years of age would continue until about fifteen or so. A child who started with simple paper folding or whittling of wood would eventually move to larger pieces of woodwork and metalwork.
How then do we proceed? For our group, the book mentioned above, “Paper Sloyd for Primary Grades” was key. It walks you through the philosophy behind what you are saying and doing, as well as explicit instruction to give the students as you work. The idea of waiting for the next instruction quietly so that all the kids can be at the same place, how to hold a pencil to make a dot, how to draw a line using the edge of a ruler without shifting the ruler, and how to cut away from yourself are all covered before a single project can begin. I didn’t realize quite how many of us, and I include the moms of our group in this statement, didn’t know how to do these basic things in the proper way! After these skills are practiced, we enter into a simple first project that includes taking a regular sheet of cardstock and cutting out a perfect six-inch square. It isn’t until the folding of this square begins that many of the children realize the natural consequence of a lax approach to the prior steps of measuring and cutting. They may ask to start over as their corners fold in over each other or don’t quite reach the middle as needed, but we continue on and note that next time we will start by making a six-inch square again and they will surely be more careful. Some children may be vexed at this, but generally maintain their composure and rarely repeat their error. The book walks the reader through a series of projects of increasing difficulty, but in our first year of doing Sloyd once per month, we only made it through three of the projects. I might suggest scheduling this weekly in order to build on the skills more often, but do not rush. Remember that it is far more important to build the habits of attention and accuracy than to check off the list of projects in the book.
By the end of our time in class that day, the children had made an envelope. One of the scraps they cut seemed just the right size to write a note and insert into their newly formed creation. Some of the students, excited at the prospect of sending messages to friends, realized one envelope is not enough for all the messages they want to send and so they scurry out of the room to nature study time and make plans for many more envelopes, but this time the corners WILL line up just right!
© 2015 by Camille Malucci