Stitching Kids Up for Success

Every winter holiday season, I give my little nephews enough plastic blocks to build a scale model of Manhattan. I give them books, and they devour them faster than I eat potato chips (an impressive speed). This year, I’ll give them a gift that will help set them up for success in school and in life: I’m teaching them how to knit.

At a time when even infants are addicted to screens, rates of behavioral and cognitive issues are rising, and kids are just as susceptible to stress as adults are, there’s good news from the yarn shop: Knitting, as well as crochet, can help children in a variety of ways. Knitting is being taught to children to increase their motor skills and boost their grades in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and to provide an anchor for those with attention issues and a tether for those on the autism spectrum.

It turns out that knitting can be the best gift you can give a child this year.

“It’s About More Than Knitting”

Knitting, sewing, and other fiber skills were commonly passed on to children up until the era of mass production of clothes. Then, it became a pastime, mostly for adults. Today, knitting is experiencing a resurgence, with new benefits, such as stress relief, being discovered all the time.

Its most obvious benefit for children is it reduces their screen time. The American Heart Association estimates that children spend an astounding seven hours a day on screens, forgoing playtime with other kids in favor of playing video games, often by themselves.

“I’m not for that,” says Louis Boria, better known as Brooklyn Boy Knits on Instagram. “I want to get kids working with their hands and getting the mental stimulation that comes with that.”

Louis, a hospital administrator in New York City, became an internet sensation after being photographed knitting on a subway by American Idol contestant Frenchie Davis. Instead of going on an ego trip with his overnight success, Louis went on a school trip. “I was invited by the principal of P.S. 145 to teach the kids how to knit,” he says. “That led to teaching in more schools.”

Knitting seemed like a natural way to teach children about math, as well as patience and social skills as they interacted with one another.

But the school knitting lessons led Louis to a larger discussion about a serious issue among children and teenagers: bullying. He began working with Lion Brand Yarn’s #HatNotHate anti-bullying campaign and, during the knitting lessons, talked to the kids about bullying. “I don’t single out the bully,” he says. “I tell them that everyone has a responsibility to help each other.” The children were able to open up and talk to teachers, parents, and one another about what is usually a silent and potentially devastating issue. Knitting opened the door to the discussion.

Louis is now organizing The Knitting Initiative, a group that will use knitting lessons to launch further dialogues about social issues and help create solutions in schools and organizations. “It starts with knitting, and it can be so much more,” Louis says. “It’s about bringing kids together and forming community.”

Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

“An Easy Jump from Knitting to Coding”

While you wouldn’t ordinarily put knitting and robots together, Cathy Swider did. Cathy is the senior program manager at the Oregon Robotics Tournament and Outreach Program—in other words, she teaches kids STEM skills by teaching them how to build robots. Robots function when people program them with code. “And coding,” Cathy says, “is exactly like knitting.”

She entirely loses me there, so she explains further: “First, you start by teaching kids to knit, then learning to read a pattern, then knitting the pattern. Then, the kids start to write their own patterns.” Knitting patterns, Cathy says, have similarities to coding patterns. “It’s all there—the syntax, the loops, subroutines,” she says. “It’s an easy jump from knitting to coding, developing applications, and running them.”

Another plus is that knitting is hands-on training. “If first-graders can manipulate something with their hands, it makes a different kind of brain connection when it comes to learning.”

Cathy is currently developing her knitting-to-coding program. Hopefully, this will bring more girls to the currently male dominated STEM field. “Just this weekend, a friend and I taught an eleven-year-old girl how to knit,” Cathy says. “Within a few rows, she got it, and you could see her self-confidence blooming.”

“The Finest Version of Themselves”

Long before computers and smartphones became an extension of our arms, Cat Bordhi knew that knitting would be good for children. In 2000, the knitting legend and author of several well-known pattern books was a humanities, language arts, and ancient-history teacher on the island of Friday Harbor, Washington. “I found out that the oldest human technology is twisted fiber—rope, sails, tents, and, of course, yarn,” she says. “I wanted to teach this in my history class, and I wanted to teach it through knitting.”

Cat knew she was dealing with a tough crowd: seventh-graders. “Oh, the hormones, the social issues they’re going through!” she says. Yet, once again, knitting became a connection. “Within one week, everyone was knitting—boys as well as girls,” Cat says. “They were patient, they were kind and helpful to each other. Knitting made them into the finest version of themselves.”

Additionally, the students were unusually attentive to her lessons. “There’s something called cognitive anchoring,” Cat says, using a little-known term for increased ability to pay attention through mild engagement of the hands. (Another method is doodling.) “I could’ve taught them anything while they were knitting. And once the kids with ADHD started knitting, they showed no signs of behavioral problems,” Cat says. “With all the kids, while we were knitting during lessons, I had no classroom-management issues. Teaching children to knit is so necessary. It’s what they need, and what they deserve.”

“Now She’s the Star of the Class”

Inspired by the knitting-lesson plan on Cat’s website, Tanya Singer, cofounder of Ewe Can Knit, taught a group of children in the Bronx, New York. “These were second- through fifth-graders, some with motor and attention issues,” Tanya says, including one little girl on the autism spectrum. “The teacher wasn’t sure I’d be able to reach her.”

The results went beyond her hopes. “I thought maybe I could get a few of them knitting, but within two classes, they were all knitting!” Tanya says. And the little girl with autism? “She was the star of the class. She learned to knit almost instantly and cranked out a scarf in two days,” Tanya says. “Now she’s the knitting teacher for the other kids, and she was basking in all the praise.”

There’s no end to the plastic toys and video games you can buy children for holiday gifts. But teaching them to knit or crochet can be the beginning of a path to learning, a greater connection, and—let’s not forget one of the most important parts—more time spent together. There is no greater gift than that.

This article originally appeared in Interweave Knits Gifts 2019. Main photo credits: Lane Oatey/Blue Jean Images/Getty Images

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