Following Their Thread

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Project summary:

An observational study of the value of weaving in early years settings, including gender factors at play


This essay offers a short account of a project I designed and undertook in my nursery setting, inspired by the work of Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) – to explore one of the play “occupations” he advocated but wrote very little about, namely weaving. It is preceded by my reflections on what Froebel might have written today, drawing on his wider philosophy.


Froebel strongly believed in nurturing children through “productive work” in the kindergarten (Lilley, p64). Yet he argues in The Education of Man that:

“The idea that man labours only to get material things and to earn food, shelter and clothing is illusory and degrading. He works primarily to give outward form to the divine spirit within him…” (ibid, p.65).

It is similarly in this light that we have to understand Froebel’s conceptualisation of his “play” Occupations: as the beginning of a proper lifelong relationship to work, and life itself. The Occupations included drawing, woodwork, paper folding, clay – and various threading pursuits such as sewing, knitting, crochet etc. which I refer to collectively as “weaving” activities. Hermann Poesche assesses how the Occupations compliment Froebel’s more objectified “Gifts” (spheres, blocks, sticks), which he devised to promote cognitive development:

“The gift leads to discovery ; the occupation to invention. The gift gives insight; the occupation, power.” (Hermann Poesche, 2016).


I wanted to explore whether children from 0 to 5 could find a more instinctive, open-ended way into weaving play.

I was particularly interested in whether boys might be equally engaged, drawing on feminist writing (echoed by Froebel) which suggests that we often reinforce boys’ tendency to play which divides and separates (i.e. power games) over that which “weaves” and harmonises. I have, however, often observed boy’s interest in “webbing” or enclosure schemas. These typically find expression in “power over” play: setting traps and marking boundaries. Yet Froebel believed, like Hegel, that “every aspect tends to engender its antithesis” (Froebel in Lilley, p101), and beneath this play I have repeatedly sensed a testing and stretching of ideas of protection, connection and care which I hoped to draw out.

I wanted to see how how children would interact with an explicit invitation to weaving play, and set about designing a weaving board, in effect a giant cross-stitch canvas with complimentary resources, in the hope of making Froebel’s “constant process of becoming” both more visible and conscious.

“We may not call these products of infantile skill true inventions, perhaps, since that word would imply a more conscious use of power; but we may think of them as "findings" of the child. He has really found a new and beautiful combination of the old and familiar lines, and it is his own… Who can doubt that when the little one has once experienced the joy of creating he will long to feel it again and again, and be more impatient of mechanical routine and joyless monotony in his after work… An aspiring teacher is proud of the visible proofs of her skill in teaching, but the true value and best proofs of that skill are not, and never can be, visible.”

Wiggin, K, and Archibald Smith, N (1895), Froebel’s Gifts. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Boston and New York


I wanted the size and mobility of the board to enable collaboration and community. (Similar resources I have seen in nurseries are more Montessorian – that is, sized to facilitate individualised play, whereas
Froebel, like Vygotsky, “tended to focus on the social interaction taking place” (Gary & McBlain, 2015, p104) as much as the benefit to the individual learner). With a large board children could pivot around it easily, which in practice I quickly saw them do, rotating it among themselves not only for the practical purpose of threading but to share and experience each other’s perspectives as they weaved their own bodies around – even into, the work. In these movements, I noticed a softness and reciprocity to the children’s play, as well as a stillness, particularly among those whose default modes are often more masculine. (In schematic terms, I immediately saw less trajectory and positioning, and more connecting and transforming).

The pre-drilled holes made it very easy for children to thread yarn using fingers or crochet hooks (although wooden ones snapped too easily) without the need of constant adult support, and the size meant there were no issues with even the youngest children playing with the hooks as there might have been with needles. At the same time, these holes – indeed the existence of the board itself – focussed the play in a particular direction and made notions of a “correct” way of weaving more likely, which troubled me. It did occasionally limit play, either extrinsically (children issuing directions) or intrinsically. For example, R, aged 4, quickly worked out he could make highly linear shapes and pictures – displaying great skill, but also some discomfort with the freeform play of other children.

S (4), did not as I anticipated focus in on web/wrapping play (as several others did), but became fascinated with how the different threads which other children were pulling back and forth connected – moving repeatedly from the front of the board to the back. In this way, observing with intense curiosity, he saw where things had become blocked, or jammed, or could be linked together, and he periodically and generously offered to extend or evolve a thread of the play in highly intuitive ways. In this way he seemed to manifest “the inherent formative principles of his own life” in a new way, moving beyond reactively defending people and things to proactively connecting them.


Certainly the weaving board is a practical resource. It fosters hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor skills. But it might more fundamentally be a symbol in the nursery of each child’s freedom – male and female – to make and remake, to twine their own threads round and through other people’s, and to make connections with an unbroken line. In the words of three children playing with the weaving board:

“I’ve made a rocket.”
“And I’ve made a tangle!”
“Can I make a tangle with you?!”

Research implications

To be completed

Practitioner enquiry

To be completed

Leadership learning

To be completed

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Karin Leitch
    Karin Leitch
    27 May 2023 at 10:24 pm

    I like the idea that you have looked into the difference between male and female in this project and how you have related it to Froebel’s writing and theories/arguments about preparing children for work. Your assignment is detailed in this. I often feel that the creativity part is over looked for these things like weaving and sewing and has become less offered in centres (including my own) I nspired to revisit. Thank you

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