But while SUs have been trying all sorts of alternatives to the hedonism of foam parties and seven nights of hearing the Baywatch theme tune at midnight for some time now, many have struggled with engagement with some of the alternatives on offer.
But one particular type of event really seems to have caught on in 2023. Up and down the country, with few exceptions, events focussed on craft appear to have been a big hit – and in many cases are extending well into the term.
Even more interesting than the novelty for some is the way in which craft events both address mental health and build belonging – often amongst students who would not normally spend time with each other.
If clubs, socs and student networks are places where students can build “bonding” social capital – connections with people just like us – crafting events appear to be helping students to build connections across identity divides, helping foster elusive “bridging” social capital that we know if good for student confidence, outcomes and health.
Cricailly, while some universities think “belonging” is about some decals or furniture, we know that fundamentally belonging is built when students do things together. So it’s not a huge surprise that events featuring everything from banner making for campaigns to crafting up costumes for Halloween events as an alternative to pre-drinks are emerging as the breakout hit of 2023 – and if you’ve not dabbled as an SU yet, you should probably consider doing so for Refreshers planning in the new year.
In fact funding and supporting the SU or its societies to stage craft events may also be a crucial intervention to consider as part of the risk mitigation steps a university in England might take in response to OfS equality of opportunity Risk 7 as part of Access and Participation Planning:
Students who do not receive sufficient personal support on course, including (but not limited to) mentoring, advice, counselling and access to extracurricular activities may be more likely to report lower wellbeing and/or sense of belonging, experience poor mental health, achieve lower-than-expected on-course attainment and lower continuation rates. These may be experienced for all students, but may be experienced more acutely by students with certain characteristics.
It also just so happens to be (relatively) cheap to put on and rarely is expensive for students to take part.
Go with the flow
Why does it work? Other than the social capital and community aspects, plenty of scientists and cultural theorists argue that crafting activities like knitting can induce a state of “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In this state, individuals become so engrossed in an activity that they lose track of time and external concerns, similar to the effects of meditation. This state of flow can help dampen internal chaos and reduce stress levels.
There are also neuroscientific aspects of crafting. The repetitive motions involved in activities like knitting can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to calm the body’s “fight or flight” stress response. Crafting also stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, effectively acting as a natural antidepressant.
What does the research say?
There inevitably is not much research out there on the impact or efficacy of crafting events or activities among university students specifically. But as well as plenty of related research on belonging and social learning, there is some helpful stuff on the way in which it ban build bonds, induce “flow” and calm and reduce anxiety, and assist with emotional expression.
This meta review of small scale studies found that doing creative activities like art or music therapy can help people feel less stressed – consistently more than 80 per cent of participants in most studies found that people felt better in some way after doing creative activities.
A 2021 study found that group craftwork encourages the sharing of ideas and perspectives and also strengthens people’s sense of connection to society. In another 2020 study arts and crafts were found to have favourable and multiple impacts on mental health for caregivers in need of support, with improvements in empathy, self-esteem, resilience and empowerment.
Activities don’t have to be especially complex or intricate to have a benefit. This research from 2019 found that simple projects like bow-tie making or basic knitting can enhance overall well-being, and the mental health benefits increase when working on them in a group setting. It used the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) – which is starting to be used by multiple universities to measure the impact of mental health strategies.
A 2021 review found that painting and drawing can help people to express emotions and perspectives more freely and can be beneficial for a variety of mental health conditions, and even calligraphy has been found to offer benefits- this 2018 study found evidence for improvement in brain function and the easing of symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
Ramping up craft
As well as events and socials, some student organisations in the US have been taking things further with dedicated craft stores, rooms and projects.
Iowa State University’s Memorial Union is home to The Workspace. Operating since the early ’70s, it offers a range of art classes from drawing to woodworking – as well as offering kits for student groups to use and staging events as simple as badge making.
At the University of Florida’s Reitz Union Arts & Crafts Center, there’s more than just an opportunity for art – it’s a place for “community building and personal growth”. As well as Wellness Wednesday, First-Year Fridays and sewing classes, this past week they’ve inevitably been running a “Make it Monday Paper Pumpkins” event.
The University of Oregon’s Erb Memorial Union (EMU) Craft Center is another of these spaces – and there as well as spaces and classes, there’s a series of community partnerships that see students learn from glassmakers and artists from across the area and the creative arts subjects in the university.
There are also major links to potential activist and campaigning activity too. “Craftivism” originated as a term in 2003, with roots in feminist movements – although it has evolved to include issues like environmentalism, anti-capitalism and wider liberation work and campaigns.
Because “crafts” were often dismissed as “women’s work”, some strands of feminism harnessed domestic arts as a form of subversive messaging – breaking down the traditional boundaries between the “private’” sphere of home and the “public” sphere of activism. The use of craft as a tool for social change has expanded – and given practices within craftivism often focus on using sustainable and repurposed materials, they also aligned with sustainability work and values.
Given it’s a form of activism that is seen as collective and participatory (often taking place in public spaces to attract wider attention) events and activities can be seen as a less “risky” form of protest for students to dip their toe into – and an important way to do consciousness-raising and community-building. Hence its use in SUs like Canterbury Christ Church around sustainability, Ulster over sexual misconduct and harassment, and as prep for DMU’s Light the Night event.