Everett says goodbye to his mom and heads out to the woodworking table. A teacher is in view but doesn’t move in too closely as Everett selects a piece of wood from the basket. He carefully inspects the assortment of nails and chooses one of medium length. At this point, he stops and looks around. Spying the teacher, he smiles.
“Do you need some help?” the teacher asks, and Everett nods.
“What would you like me to do?” The teacher comes closer to the table.
Everett hands him a pair of needle-nose pliers and asks, “Can you hold it?” The teacher holds the nail with the pliers while Everett hits it several times with the hammer, using small, slow, controlled movements, firmly holding the hammer close to its head.
“You can let go now,” he says to the teacher, but continues to hammer. After several minutes he stops and “tests” the nail by wiggling it. Seeing that it is not moving, Everett smiles to himself. He chooses another nail and begins the process again.
Woodworking for 3-year-olds? Are we crazy?
Not at all. Young children learn best when they can manipulate materials, try things out and repeatedly practice the same skills. Using tools with wood is a challenging and satisfying experience that helps them develop fine-motor control and eye-hand coordination while productively focusing their energy. Through woodworking, children develop competence and confidence, acquire and use precise vocabulary, and learn to work safely and cooperatively in a group of their peers.
Like other curriculum areas, the woodworking table is set up with careful consideration for safety, skill level and interest. Spaces for four to six children are stocked with enough tools that each child can use one at a time. On days when interest is high, waiting lists are created to ensure that all children will have enough space and time to work. Tools are introduced one at a time, beginning with the hammer. Children learn to name its parts, to hold it correctly and to use it for the purpose for which it was designed.
Children new to the area familiarize themselves with the tools and materials, repeating an activity several times to develop competence. It is common for children to spend significant time selecting a piece of wood and devote 10 to 20 minutes hammering in one nail, only to leave the project at school at the end of the day instead of taking it home. Often, simply controlling and working with the materials is more satisfying for children than the end product.
Success with materials motivates children to try more challenging tasks. After the exploration stage, children often choose to combine pieces of wood or other materials. They also begin to name the products they create.
Children may practice a long time before they move into the representational phase, where they actually plan what they will make. Paulo, a frequent participant at the woodworking table, announced one morning that he was going to create a jaguar. He proceeded to create an animal using nails for teeth, and rubber bands and a hinge to make a mouth that would open and close.
Providing items that stimulate interest can draw children with experience and competence to challenge themselves further. For this purpose, we provide bits of foam, corks, bottle caps, pipe cleaners and other intriguing objects. Matthew spotted a piece of straw one day and decided it would make a perfect antenna for his walkie-talkie. He asked a teacher to help while he stood his wood piece upright and hammered the nail into the straw. He then used a marker to add numbers to the front of his piece of wood, and his dramatic-play prop was ready.
The cognitive experience of woodworking is also valuable. Children acquire science and math skills as they become familiar with different attributes of the materials (hard/soft, long/short, rough/smooth, rounded/flat). Woodworking provides an opportunity for problem solving and inventiveness. When a nail hammered into a thin piece of wood causes it to split, children grasp the concept of cause and effect. Sponges, being softly supportive, are effective for holding nails in place and are easy to hammer into wood. Wood pieces with flat edges are easier to connect than angled ones, but children learn to position even angled pieces so they connect more easily, sometimes by cutting them with a saw. When Arun, for example, decided to create a flying train, he carefully selected pieces to connect in a particular configuration.
The social-emotional component of woodworking is equally significant. Children learn skills by watching, listening and interacting with others. They begin to perceive themselves as “teachers” when they are able to help another child accomplish a task. Social problem solving is common during woodworking. When Ben wanted to connect several pieces to create a train, other children suggested possible techniques. Children who feel angry or frustrated can work through those emotions in a safe context, channeling them into physical and mental tasks while creating something that brings personal satisfaction. Being able to direct their own learning and to invent can be a very empowering experience for children, helping them develop self-esteem. And trips to get wood from the shed of Wilhelm, our resident carpenter, give children a chance to move outside the familiar boundaries of the classroom.
There are many advantages to exposing young children to real tools as they embark on authentic woodworking projects. The experience gives them opportunities for creativity, social problem solving, language development, and strategizing and carrying out a plan of their own design.
So let the hammering and sawing begin!