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Could knitting help pupils cope with exam stress?

Research suggests knitting can help alleviate anxiety, so could it benefit stressed students, asks Zofia Niemtus?

Knitting for exam stress

Research suggests knitting can help alleviate anxiety, so could it benefit stressed students, asks Zofia Niemtus?

During this year’s Winter Olympics, the news that half of the 102 athletes representing Finland were spending their spare time at the games knitting got the internet talking.

Initially, the discussion was around how odd it was to see competitors sitting at the sidelines with knitting needles and wool. But the debate quickly moved on to how ‘knit one, purl one’ can, unexpectedly, offer an advantage to athletes trying to perform under pressure.

UK gold medallist and skeleton racer Lizzy Yarnold even revealed that she opted for a night of “knitflixing” to celebrate her big win.

Knitting is having a moment, it seems. But, could the benefits identified by these athletes be applied to schools and the often stressed-out students in them – particularly now, in the midst of exam season?

Teaching assistant Bridget Kay certainly thinks so. Kay is a lifelong knitter, having picked up the skill from her grandmother.

She decided to pass it on to the young people at her school, Wystan’s Nursery and Primary School in Derbyshire, through a knitting club for children of Sats age, which is now in its second year.

She set out, she says, to overcome the “old-fashioned” associations with the craft and to show students how enjoyable it can be, especially as it doesn’t “offer instant gratification or involve a screen”.

“I felt it would be beneficial for our children in this fast-paced world,” she explains.

Kay runs the group for 10 children in Key Stage 2, and says that the progress they are making – after lots of nervous starts and concerns about making mistakes – is heartening.

“Recently a dyslexic child who struggles with all sorts of things in the classroom, including the fine motor skills required for neat handwriting, has surprised herself by becoming a really competent, neat knitter,” Kay says. “She is so proud to have achieved something her more academic sibling hasn’t tried yet.”

'Knitting club is a pretty chill place'

Knitting can benefit older pupils too, suggests Maeghan Provencher, a 7th-grade maths teacher at Donald McKay High School in Boston, in the USA. Her knitting club is also in its second year and takes place in the school’s elective periods, during which students try new activities.

The group now has about 20 members aged 11 to 15, about a third of whom are male. She says the club has come to offer a sanctuary for students in the busy school day.

“Knitting club is a pretty chill and relaxing place,” she says. “No one is rushed and everyone can truly learn and work at their own pace. There’s no judgement when someone's scarf is already 10 inches long and someone else has had to start over for the seventh time.

“The students have been really encouraging and supportive of each other. Some have disabilities or are on the autism spectrum, and others understand very little English, but they have all had success and received support from their peers.”

Provencher says she has noticed another positive side effect: pupils often display increased perseverance during knitting club – something that could surely be harnessed to help them during stressful situations, such as sitting exams.

She says it’s common for pupils to find that they need to start over several times, and overcome challenges like dropping stitches or knitting too loosely. But, although they may feel frustrated, she has never had a student give up. Instead, she says, they always end up being incredibly proud of themselves.

Health benefits

Teaching pupils to persevere is just one of the potential benefits of knitting, though. There is also evidence that the activity can offer a number of health boosts, both mental and physical.

Dame Hilary Blume is the founder of Knit For Peace; an initiative that distributes items knitted by volunteers to those in need in developing countries and the UK. The organisation released a report last year documenting the many health benefits of knitting, including a research review which points to studies into how knitting can boost relaxation and creativity and even aid recovery from anorexia.

“It's hugely health-giving,” Dame Hilary says. “It lowers your heart rate, produces serotonin and gives a sense of well-being.

“And for people who don't have much choice in life, it's very important. They are creating something, and they can make choices about it. They choose the colours, the stitches and what it is that they make.”

The report highlights the calming “rhythmic and sensory nature” of knitting, which can prompt the “relaxation response” in the body, helping to combat anxiety and depression.

One of the cited studies suggests that regular knitting can have “meditative and therapeutic qualities”.  

These qualities can be particularly relevant during the exams, says Caroline Spalding, an assistant headteacher from Derby, who recognises how activities such as knitting can be used to support pupils.

“Funnily enough, in our autism resource centre yesterday students were untangling balls of wool to destress before their exam,” she says.

“I think any activity that encourages positive social interaction and helps focus the mind can only be a good thing in exam season. It reflects the brilliant, quirky and fun nature of teaching that, in this school, means borrowing a past-time more commonly associated with your granny.”

John Tomsett, headteacher at Huntington School in York, also agrees that a craft activity like knitting could be helpful for pupils who need support in managing stress.

“Anything that occupies the deeper rhythms of your brain I have always found useful to reduce stress,” he says.

And while English teacher Grainne Hallahan has never tried knitting with her students, she has often considered setting up a crochet club at her school because of how much the activity helped her when she was suffering from post-natal depression.

“I learnt how to crochet when I was on maternity leave with my first child. I was never very good, but the relaxing rhythmic nature of the process was so helpful,” she says. “I would have loved to have started a club in school, because any kind of craft where you have the satisfaction of creating something yourself acts as a soothing tonic for stress and anxiety.”

However, not everyone is sold on the benefits of knitting. When a school in Kent proposed reintroducing it to their curriculum in 2013, the British Educational Suppliers Association is reported to have responded that the move would “result in some fabulous knitwear but, sadly, fewer world-class engineers and innovators”.

Dame Hilary disagrees. She says that it is a “tremendous shame” that knitting is no longer a staple of the curriculum, as it was for previous generations. “They’re teaching well-being in schools now and knitting is a very easy way to do that,” she says. “We can teach people to knit in about two hours. It might take a little longer with children, but it really isn’t long. And, above all, we know that it's good for them.”

Tips for setting up a club

For those thinking about setting up their own club, there are practical considerations to bear in mind. Provencher says she started out using her own leftover supplies but has since had to ask for funding from school leadership. For Kay, meanwhile, keeping the group small and well-staffed enough to ensure sufficient attention for all her young members has been crucial.

You can also follow these additional tips.

1. Rally other knitters

Bridget Kay recommends asking around to see if any other staff have a passion for knitting and could be interested in helping out. “Try to have a few competent knitters to work with a couple of children each,” she says.

2. Turn to technology

There is a huge selection of knitting resources available on Tes resources, as well as a world of tutorial videos available on YouTube. Maeghan Provencher says that using laptops or tablets to show instruction videos in small groups can be helpful, allowing for differentiation and repetition as needed.

3. Stay manageable

It’s important to think about the size of the group, Kay explains, to ensure that beginners get sufficient support. She tries to limit her group to 10, she says, although having more experienced children act as teachers can allow for more members.

4. Consider charitable projects

Knitting club can offer a fun way for young people to engage with charities: Kay has put her members to work on a blanket for the local animal shelter. And there are lots of organisations that encourage knitted donations, including Oxfam, Knit for Peace and many more.

Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer

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