Have you got a preschooler/s?  If your answer is yes, then be sure to introduce woodworking and make suitable tools and resources available for use.  

Woodwork is a most ideal way of supporting children to work in their ‘zone of proximal development’.  What children can do and know is always being extended by the open-nature of woodworking requiring children to be problem-solvers. They often model what they see others doing and with guidance children get tremendous pleasure from being able to master new skills and achieve what they could not do previously.woodwork 1

Woodworking provides an excellent play situation for children to engage in problem solving - an important skill for children to develop from an early age for their future. Children will also be developing eye-hand coordination, their spatial awareness, their sense of precision, and understanding how to use potentially dangerous tools safely. 

 

What if I don’t like or know how to use tools and make things from wood?

If you have little experience in using carpentry tools why not take up the challenge of learning alongside the children. When you are just starting off the most important thing is to take your time. Start with what you are comfortable with and go from there. When you take your time, children will engage more readily with you and this will grow their confidence and you will soon be surprised at what they (and you!) can do.

It’s not expected that every adult feels confident in this area of play for children, and can handle a hammer, saw wood, etc.  But it is important that there is at least one adult in the educational setting who does, and who is available to assist, advice, and support children.

 

Female teachers can’t be expected to teach this and girls would sooner be doing other things

Gender is actually irrelevant. Women/ girls can certainly do it too!  They can be as competent and as interested if allowed and supported. Both boys and girls can develop skills, competence and confidence in this area.

It may be argued that having a well-stocked woodwork station/area makes the teaching environment more boy-friendly but the opportunity should be made available and encouraged for both girls and boys. 

From an equality perspective it is important that girls are not discouraged from learning to bang in a nail, craft an object out of a piece of wood, etc.

 

A play context for children to learn from more skilled and knowledgeable children

Older children and children more experienced in woodworking will be watched and copied by those who are less familiar and unsure about what to do and how to do it.  Around a woodwork bench it’s not uncommon for children to advise each other or spot when someone is having difficulty achieving what they want to achieve and offer help.

 

Setting up

1. Work bench

Providing a dedicated work bench for carpentry is not necessary at home, but a child needs a table surface of some kind (children can’t do sawing and some of the things they will want to do on the ground).  

At early childhood centres a workbench is necessary to ensure all tools and wood are kept together and accessible.  A 1200mm x 600mm workbench can be used by up to four children safely, depending on the activity children are doing – if they are gluing and not sawing for example, more children may be able to stand at the bench. The bench should be around waist height for the children using it.

woodwork3

2. Wood

Having a variety of different pieces of wood and a good supply is important for children’s choice and imagination.  Workshops, some hardware stores, building businesses, tree-cutters and sawmills may be able to help and provide off-cuts for free.   

Do not use H4 or H5 treated wood as it contains arsenic salts, which are toxic when transformed into sawdust.

What you can use, if all else fails, are branches that are 4cm to 10cm thick. Branches that are 4cm to 10cm thick can be great for sawing and easy to come by compared to furniture grade pinewood.  House clearance companies often have broken tables they are willing to give away since they have no value.  Pallets are often free and with a pry bar and a hammer can be stripped down quickly.

Fat logs that measure 40cm across and are about 25cm -30cm high make awesome single workbenches for toddlers. They can put nails into the top as they practice.

Drift wood although somewhat softer than normal wood is great for learning to saw. It is also easy to get in some areas.

3. Vices and clamps

Children do not have the strength to hold a piece of wood and cut with one hand like an adult, so the first step is to teach them how to use a vice or G-clamp to hold the wood still.   

Some children may need a little help to get the required clamping force to stop the wood moving.  Get them to tighten the vice as much as they can and then give it the last turn for them. Once the wood is firmly in position, move onto the next step.

Vices can be bought from hardware stores and should be bolted to the bench so they don’t move. Engineers vices are preferable as they are much easier to attach to the workbench and prevent the risk of children sawing into the bench top.  Or a good option is a couple of G clamp vices if there is sufficient overhang on the bench top. These are inexpensive and can be quickly shifted - two can be put in line for long pieces of wood.

4. Saws

Using a saw is quite a difficult task when all you know is that you need push it back and forth as fast and as hard as you can. This approach is dangerous. If children manage to actually start the cut off and get through the wood, the final cut will saw through the wood, removing all resistance and the saw will move across the table driven by the child’s weight.  A backstop in the form of a sheet of plywood behind the saw is great and will stop the saw harmlessly if a child slips.

The best method to get the cut started is to have the child draw a pencil line or mark on the top of the wood. Place the saw on the mark, close to the handle, then with a little force draw the saw backwards. Then place the saw on again and draw it backwards. Once a groove of around 5mm has been created, get the child to lightly push the saw forwards and backwards until the groove is around 2cm deep. This is the light and delicate part.

Now they can really apply themselves. Remember a three or four year old will require all their available strength and body weight to get the saw to work and will not have any strength left to correct when they finally cut through. If you know what’s going to happen, you can be prepared.

Buy cheap saws and replace them when the saws lose teeth – which they will do over time.

5. Pliers

Pliers are normally used for picking things up and pulling things out. Pliers are quite similar to scissors once the child gets used to using them like tongs to pick things up. 

Avoid having pliers with cutters, as these can be dangerous if a finger gets caught.  Small electronic pliers are the perfect size for children and are readily available.  These are about half the size of engineering pliers and are better suited for small hands.

6. Hammers and nails

Adults may fear that if they let children have hammers they will hit each other.  But equally there is a risk that children will hit each other with other objects such as blocks from the block corner or spades from the sandpit.  It is a case of supervision, watching children and making sure that hammers (and other tools) are used for the purposes intended.

For safety reasons, talk with children about lifting the hammer no higher than their head height – this avoids them accidentally hitting themselves or another child behind them.

Small or child-sized hammers can be purchased from hardware stores.  Shortening a regular length wooden-handled hammer is an inexpensive and simple exercise, requiring only a regular saw.

Show and explain to children about using your wrist and swinging the hammer to hit the nail. Once the child has gained confidence in using the shorter hammer, they can begin holding the nail themselves to get started.

When children have mastered starting a nail off within a piece of wood they can be given a full sized hammer and a little bit more instruction.  A clothes peg around the bottom of the nail can be helpful if necessary to save little fingers from getting unnecessarily hurt.

When selecting nails resist the urge to choose cheap panel pins as these bend over easily.  Long nails go through the wood and will damage the bench or surface underneath. Plaster clouts are cheap and the perfect length. When the children are comfortable with clouts, try other sizes too.  Avoid big nails as they are designed to be put in with a much heavier hammer than a child can handle.

woodwork2

7. Screwdrivers and screws

A small fat crosshead screwdriver and screws work well with little hands. An electric screwdriver can be a great addition but like electric drills they usually take quite a lot of time to charge.

8. Drills

Never use a mains powered drill with young children. Mains powered drills have far too much torque; and there is a danger that clothes and hair can become caught and tangled, and major injuries sustained.

Cordless drills are generally used for drilling holes and putting in screws. Most of the 12-volt cheap ones don’t have a great deal of power.  Some pre-schoolers can use a 12volt cordless drill reasonable competently but again supervision is important. The adult should be within reach of the child to support the child’s safety if needed. Cordless drills have a lot of weight at the bottom of the handle, which counteracts the torque and usually have a clutch system allowing some control over the force used. They also have keyless chucks with fewer areas to tangle things like hair in – however long hair (on boys and girls, and adults) should always be pulled back into a pony tail when using any tools, especially drills.  

The other type of drill is a hand drill.  There are two varieties commonly available - a plastic one with a winding handle on the side that looks like a normal electric drill and a geared one made of metal. Of the two the metal is the sturdier model, however it is quite big and so can be difficult for smaller children (though most 4 to 5 year olds will not have a problem with it). The plastic one is fine but it may not last as long.  The metal drill can take larger drill bits.

When using the drill the wood should be held by a vice or clamp for safety as it takes two hands to operate a drill, whether hand or electric. 

Use a wider drill bit.  Around 10mm is the limit that most children can manage in order to pierce a piece of 10mm thick pine.  Generally a 7mm to 8mm bit is best.  Educational suppliers normally sell 3.5mm to 4mm drill bits but the wider drill bit has the benefit of resisting the sideways force children put on them.  Wire nails are sometimes used as cheap drill bits but they don’t work very well.

Children may try hitting nails with the drill so be prepared to have the drill sharpened around once a month in a centre or 3 – 6 months at home.  If you choose plastic drills you will need to replace them often.  Metal drills usually come with a lifetime guarantee.  A cheap cordless drill is recommended but this is not essential.

9.  Other accessories

  • Sandpaper – cut the sandpaper into half or quarters to make it a suitable size for children.  Provide smooth, rough, coarse sandpaper.
  • Ruler – either a folding ruler or a long stiff ruler.  Handy for drawing lines on flat wood and older children who can recognise numbers can be introduced to measuring.
  • Carpenter’s pencil – a dot or a cross may be drawn by children to mark where they are going to hammer in a nail.  Pencil marks can also be used for other purposes such as to show where to start sawing.
  • PVA glue
  • Paper (can be used for sails, decorations, making framed pictures)
  • Water-based paint and brushes
  • Plastic milk bottle tops (make great wheels and lights),  string (for guitar strings, pull-strings to attach to the toys the children make, etc), and anything else for decorations or other purposes such as foil, scraps of cloth, fake fur, even leaves!
  • Invest in a socket set for the children and make things with nuts and bolts.  Children can use the socket set to tighten bolts more easily than using spanners.

 

Starting Off

One way to start is by bringing out one type of tool at a time for a few days or a couple of weeks (depending upon frequency of use). This makes teaching the children how to use each tool not only safer but also easier as you can show several children together at the same time. Wait until the children have grown confident with the tools and how to use the tools safely before you introduce more tools.  

It’s very important to think ahead of time about what needs to happen if you need to leave the woodworking area. The area needs close supervision at all times.

 

Safe behaviour and rules to discuss and remind children about as necessary

  • No tools above head height.
  • Never run with tools.
  • Don’t remove tools from the workbench area.
  • Use each tool correctly. (The children will need showing first, to know this).
  • Put on safety ear muffs to protect hearing when needed.
  • Always wear shoes when working with tools and at the carpentry bench.

 

Extending the learning and the fun

Once involved and used to using tools it’s time to let the imagination flow and keep the fun going.  

Here are just some of many possible ideas:

  • Framed pictures - Make picture frames for a painting or picture, cardboard for the backing, and string attached on the back for hanging.
  • Aeroplanes - Starting with 3 small lengths of wood, cut to size for the main body of the plane, the back wing and the front wing.  Add a propeller by drilling a hold for the nail in the centre of propeller so that it can turn easily.
  • Guitars – Use a flat place of wood and nail a long stick to it.  Attach lengths of string to the nails placed at each end.  Paint it for colour.
  • Signs – make street signs, garden signs, or name signs by nailing a stick to a plank of wood and using the carpentry pencil write a word on it (e.g. Stop, Go, Tree,  Molly’s House) then paint.
  • Push cart - If you or another adult has some skills in carpentry, creating a push kart is a great project. There are many plans on the Internet and 100mm x 40mm decking offcuts make a great base for about $10. Wheels can be sourced from old bikes and an old plastic patio chair is great for a seat. Get the children to do everything they can - help them where they struggle. They will have a lot of fun and learn some great skills along the way.


Acknowledgements
Thank you to early childhood teacher extraordinaire James Lochead-MacMillan for his inspiration and permission to use his material especially on setting up and staring off for this article.  We also recommend if you can get a copy of 'Woodwork Wizardy' a book by Nic van Onslen published by the Playcentre Federation/ Ako Books (this may be available for loan at some libraries).    

 

Further information and related articles

Another article you may like to check out is Making and Using Signs with Children

Also see James Lochead-MacMillan's article on how his centre engaged in self-review of the woodwork area and turned a Wendy house into a popular workshop space.

 

Feedback

Mike Kurtz
Love the article. One thing that I found works well as a cheap vice is: purchase pipe clamps and matching pipe, then mount the pipe to the workbench and use the tightening part of the clamp as your vice against the edge of the bench. The pipe clamp is sized right for small hands.

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