3 Reasons Why Hands-On Activities Can Be Transformative

Written By Ta Corrales

Published June 30, 2021

a collage of three images in which a woman is cutting pink and green cardstock into shapes, folding a piece of blue paper, and threading a hole in a white plastic cap

Hello there! As a maker, I love using my hands to design, make, and create. I’ve experienced first-hand many times during my career how powerful it is when we build objects with our hands, and let ourselves apply all of the creativity we have within us to start seeing ourselves as creators and even inventors. In this post, I want to share with you three reasons why I believe hands-on activities are one of the most powerful tools for collaboration, learning, and enabling transformation.

1. Making is an act of joy, empowerment, and love

“Making is fundamental to what it means to be human. We must make, create, and express ourselves to feel whole. There is something unique about making physical things. These things are like little pieces of us and seem to embody portions of our souls." — The Maker Movement Manifesto by Mark Hatch (2013)

As described in the first section of the Maker Movement Manifesto, I believe engaging our hands to “make” is an essential component of our humanity. We have been making for at least 1.6 million years, when during the stone age we created Acheulean cutting stone tools using hammerstones. We don’t only “make” to fulfill our most basic needs for food or safety. Making is also a way to fulfill our psychological and self-actualization needs.

Over the past century, Maker culture and Do It Yourself culture have highlighted the importance of engaging our own hands to produce, transform, repair, modify, or reconstruct our own tools and objects. Research by Wolf & McQuitty of Academy of Marketing Science Review in 2011 has shown that people who engage in making activities feel a sense of empowerment, accomplishment, community belonging, and enhanced sense of identity.

And, because we connect with our humanity when we create, making can also be a way to tell stories, nurture culture, and even be an act of love. The Triqui people, an indigenous community who live in Oaxaca Mexico, are skilled artisans who use backstrap looms to create “huipiles” (the traditional long dress-like garments worn by women). The textiles of their “huipil rojo” (red huipil) use various colors, patterns, and shapes to tell the story of the metamorphosis of butterflies, which is an important part of their cultural heritage. According to Estrella Soto, a Global Innovator from OAXIN (our nonprofit partner for 2021), Triqui women make huipiles as an act of love for their daughters.

2. We learn better when we make

Hands-on activities are infinitely powerful tools for learning. A research study conducted by Purdue University in 2011 compared the test results of two groups of students who learned about water quality, one group using hands-on methods and another group using more traditional learning methods. The group that built water filtration systems with their hands had consistently higher test scores than the group that only learned via true/false statements and open questions.

We also experience various and lasting benefits from sensorial experiences. In a research study by the University of Chicago, brain activity was scanned and measured to compare students that learned about the physics concept of angular momentum while holding bicycle wheels and physically feeling the change in angular momentum with those who simply observed the phenomenon. In Prof. Sian Beilock’s words: “Those students who physically experience difficult science concepts learn them better, perform better in class and on quizzes the next day, and the effect seems to play out weeks later, as well”.

These studies are not the exception. Experiential and hands-on learning have taken the educational space by storm, and are among the most important techniques to reskill our workforce for the future. According to the OECD, they also play a critical role in the adaptations we need to undertake to deal with the rapid environmental, economic, and societal changes we are facing as a society. In order to rebuild our systems to be more resilient and just, our collective learning as humans and societies must be hands-on.

3. Hands-on activities can be therapeutic

“When people are doing things with their body, there’s a connection between body, mind, and spirit. They’re being creative and active. Being fully engaged in a creative thing like sewing, the mind is engaged, the heart or creativity is engaged on a more spiritual level and they are physically engaged, working with the hands. It allows people to feel more secure, more safe. They’re in an almost trance-like state and they go deeper into the issue they are talking about than if they were sitting face to face talking with a counsellor.” — Creative Arts, Culture, and Healing: Building an Evidence Base by Linda Archibald and Jonathan Dewar (2010)

Using our hands during activities can be therapeutic. The study cited above, conducted by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, mapped the benefits of creative arts in First Nation, Inuit, and Métis healing programs throughout Canada. It found that many hands-on activities like drawing, carving, sculpting, and beading were an important part of their healing programs, especially for Aboriginal people affected by the atrocities and/or horrific impacts of the residential school system.

Most of us have at least once had the experience of feeling completely devoted to and invested in an arts-and-crafts activity, like knitting or wood-working, and found ourselves in a profoundly relaxed state of mind. Making is an effective reducer of stress and anxiety. It also helps provide emotional release and has even been shown to improve self-esteem. This is because our bodies release dopamine, a feel-good chemical, when we are using our creativity and being artistic.

Many indigenous groups have for centuries been doing hands-on activities as part of their communal practices. Gladys Santos, another leader of OAXIN (our nonprofit partner for 2021), and a Mixteca woman, believes that the traditional palm weaving done by families in her home village of Diquiyú in the Mixteca Sierra of Oaxaca plays a critical role in healing. In Gladys’ words: “I think that palm weaving was therapeutic. My mother tells me that she used to sit with her cousins and while they talked, laughed, and listened to each other they knitted... and that they wove more hats when they were together”.

These are only a few reasons why hands-on activities can be transformative. In my own work across many countries, languages, and cultures, I have found working with hands to be a magical thread that weaves connection, with ourselves and with others, in ways that I sometimes would have thought impossible. As someone living and working in an increasingly digital world, I treasure the moments in which I get to touch wood to repair my home’s door, color my ideas with crayons during a brainstorming session with my co-founder Liz, or fold paper to build a paper toy during one of our workshops. Ultimately, I believe that the gift I can give to others while I am in this world is just that — the facilitation of transformational hands-on experiences.