To knit is a hit

Fourth-grade boys and girls enjoy a hands-on tradition at this school

Let's just say it from the top: Boys can learn to knit - and learn to love it, too. At least that's what fourth-graders at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Mass., have been learning for the past eight years.

Judith Austen, their art teacher, says knitting can be an easy and rewarding project for girls and boys of any age. Not only is it fun to make wearable art, but knitting can also be shared with family, friends, and even the community.

Every child makes a hat. Scott Mendelssohn has almost finished his. For Scott, knitting is a challenge of skill, dexterity, and speed. "I've dropped at least five minutes off my time for knitting a row," he says holding up a hat packed with geometric designs. Completing a row took him 20 minutes at first. Now, if he really concentrates, he can finish one in less than 15 minutes.

Justin Conway thinks his next project will be a sweater for his little sister. He says knitting is a good project for when you are stuck in bed, or "for rainy days when we can't go outside."

But is it cool for boys to knit?

"Yeah! It's awesome!" yells Dylan Ackers from across the classroom. Dylan leans on his elbows over a piece of graph paper, figuring out a new frog-pattern hat. He's already finished an impressive penguin-pattern hat he designed himself.

Men were probably the first ones to knit, in fact. Historians think that knitting was invented by fishermen. Knitting probably evolved from a technique for making fishing nets! It's simply tying knots in a string using two sticks. There is still debate about exactly where and when knitting got its start. By the 1600s, though, knitting was well-established in Europe. Spain, Italy, and Scotland have long knitting histories. (The Scots say they invented knitting - and introduced it to France.)

Early knitted garments were thick wool sweaters designed to protect fishermen from the wind, rain, and spray from the sea. Fishermen in different regions developed unique patterns. Early sailors could probably tell where a stranger lived just by looking at the pattern of his sweater - or mittens.

By the late 1700s and early 1800s, knitting machines had been invented. Because today's computer-controlled knitting machines are so fast at turning out hats, sweaters, scarves, and mittens, knitting by hand is just a hobby for most. But it's fun. And you can knit almost anywhere. (Even while wearing all your ice-hockey gear on your way to a practice, as some of Ms. Austen's young students have proved.)

Austen didn't learn to knit until she was an adult, but then she fell in love with knitting. It wasn't long before she was offering knitting, spinning, and wool-dyeing as art electives. Students had so much fun that she decided to try teaching the entire fourth grade to knit. That was eight years ago.

Austen says it's important for children to have activities that turn them away from computers and let them be creative and "tinker." "You can remember everything you touch," Austen says, "see everything you did - you see every stitch.... Every year I'm dazzled by the new inventions" the students come up with.

"You are making something yourself from scratch," says fourth-grader Sarah Bates. "It's not like sewing, where someone else has already made the fabric. It feels good to have something you made yourself." (Sarah has big plans for future projects. She wants to knit something for her whole family for Christmas, but she figures it will take her a couple of years to get everything ready.)

Knitting will come in handy for years to come. Shady Hill eighth-graders Rose Friedman and Farrar Cooper are combining their love for knitting with helping the community. They have invited anyone who knows how to knit to knit with them during lunch. They plan to donate the finished hats to the Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter in Boston. They've got a basketful of completed hats already.

The project knits together the school community, too. Young students see the older kids wearing their hats through the years, Austen says. "And they know that, in the fourth grade, they are going to learn how to knit. Last year was the first year that the boys came in and said, 'We're going to knit, right?' "

During art class, as students sit knee-to-knee working on their hats, they chat about other projects and the new Harry Potter movie. For the most part, fingers are at work. But when tongues start wagging, more than fingers are knitting, Austen puts in a story tape. The class quiets down as brows furrow and heads bend over geometric patterns of yellow, purple, black, and white.

"It's very calming," Austen says, "to sit and knit and listen to stories."

Note to parents and teachers

Knitting is an excellent way to develop concentration and small-motor skills, and to learn about color and design, says Judith Austen. It also has an appealing social aspect - you get to sit and talk as you knit. Ms. Austen has been teaching fourth-grade girls and boys to knit in her art classes.

If you'd like to try teaching a child to knit, make sure you have a passion for it yourself, Austen says. Your enthusiasm makes the project more fun for the children. Plan on spending a lot of hands-on time 'rescuing' their projects. (But remember, some 'mistakes' add character.)

Before beginning a hat, children should knit a few practice rows. Also, get the hat under way before trying to create a pattern on graph paper. (See hat instructions.)

It helps to work as a group, so children can encourage one another and share progress. Try listening to audiobooks as you knit. Austen also lavishes incentives: Whenever you finish a row, you get a cookie!

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