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Tomorrow’s architects and engineers: They’re hammering and sawing in today’s classrooms

It’s the end of another busy week, and parents are picking up their preschool children. The child care director, Ms. Rodriguez, has finished helping 4-year-old Daniel collect his belongings and notices a father standing at the bulletin board with a quizzical look on his face.
“Hello, Mr. Collins,” says Ms. Rodriguez. “Do you have a question?”
“Yes,” he says. “According to this activity list, our children will be doing some woodworking next week. Does that mean they’ll be making bookshelves and birdhouses?”
“Oh, no,” says Ms. Rodriguez. “They’ll do some sanding and gluing, maybe some sawing and hammering. It’s more about the process than the product, you see. We’ll also read some books about tools and building houses…..”
“…so they can grow up to be architects and engineers?” he asks.
She smiled: “It’s possible we have future architects and engineers, but we believe children learn many things in woodworking—muscular control, language and thinking skills, social skills, and creativity—you name it.”

• • •

Woodworking is valuable for preschool and school-age children for many reasons. Certainly it promotes mastery of basic woodworking skills such as measuring, hammering, sawing, and finishing. It can also be therapeutic for young children (Sosna 2000). But more important, it promotes skills in all five domains of child development.
Physical. It promotes the development and coordination of large and small muscles and competence in motor control and skill achievement.
Cognitive. It develops relational thinking—cause and effect; relatedness of things, activities, and feelings; single attribute and cross-set classification.
It leads to the understanding of number concepts through concrete use of counting, one-to-one correspondence, awareness of simple shapes, comparison of size, and experience with measure in three dimensions.
It leads to problem-solving through divergent thinking and planning to create three-dimensional structures.
Social. It promotes cooperation with others and sharing. It develops awareness of others as children learn to handle tools in ways that will not harm others.
Emotional. It develops a sense of power and self-esteem as children use adult tools and complete adult-type projects. It builds strong, positive feelings of competence and the ability to meet new situations well.
It encourages sustained interest in a given task and the ability to overcome frustration successfully. It allows for a healthy release of emotional tensions.
Creative. It offers children opportunities to invent, imagine, and creatively express their own ideas through a different medium. Using their own visual/spatial perceptions of the world, they can begin to perform transformations upon those perceptions.

Developmentally appropriate practice
Building upon sensorimotor skills acquired during the toddler years, woodworking is a developmentally appropriate approach to curriculum. It is a fascinating way for young children to discover their world by experimenting with natural materials (Patnaude and Costantino 1995). It provides an excellent strategy for creating an inclusive, non-sexist, and self-fulfilling environment that invites each and every child to be successful at the woodworking area (Huber 1999).

Developmental stages
Children progress through stages of interest and skill in woodworking, just as they do in art, blocks, and writing.
Age 2-4: Younger children are more interested in the process than the product. They need to explore equipment and supplies. They want to feel, smell, touch, and handle woodworking tools and materials.
Two- and 3-year-olds find satisfaction in such simple activities as sorting wood pieces, pounding pegs into a toy cobbler’s bench, tapping golf tees into Styrofoam® blocks, and hammering nails into a wood block or tree stump—and pulling them out.
Age 4-5: At this age, children are interested in combining woodworking materials. They may want to glue and nail things together, but only after satisfying their initial curiosity about materials and refining their skills.
The form of their products may remind them of something, and they will name it, but combining materials is the focus.
Age 5 and older: By school-age, many children begin to show greater interest in the product. Although they are still interested in the pleasure of the process, they have an idea of a product in mind before they begin. It is usually something simple like a boat or a car.
As children become more experienced, skilled, and mature, they make increasingly realistic and complex products.
It’s important to remember, however, that children of the same age may have vastly different skills and needs in woodworking (Brandhofer 1971; Moffitt 1973). For safety, teachers need to assess each child individually and tailor woodworking activities to the child’s developmental level.

Where to start
Children of all ages will be interested in the broad areas of construction, building and carpentry trades, architecture, and engineering. To stimulate or gauge their interest, consider the following activities:
Take a field trip to a construction site. Plan the visit in advance with the contractor so that work crews can plan safety precautions.
Visit a hardware or building supply store to see the types of materials sold and the jobs of people working there.
Visit a carpenter’s shop or high school shop class to see tools and people using woodworking skills.
Invite a carpenter, cabinet maker, wood carver, house painter, roofer, rock mason, or other skilled-trades person to demonstrate two or three simple skills.
Invite an architect, designer, or engineer to demonstrate the difference between using paper blueprints and computer-assisted design.
When inviting speakers to class, keep in mind gender diversity. Today many women work as architects and engineers on their own and in large companies.

Planning the woodworking center
Before introducing children to woodworking, carefully plan the environment and think through tool use and safety rules. Some tips:
Locate the woodworking center out of traffic flow and some distance away from quiet centers. Placing the center in a corner helps reduce distractions. Woodworking can also be set up in a hallway, as long as it is well supervised, or taken outdoors.
Match tools and materials to the children’s interests and development levels. See the selection criteria at right.
Start with a few basic tools and materials and gradually add more as children gain experience and skill.
Understand how to use each tool and practice using it before introducing it to children. Ask for help, if you need it, from a carpenter or hardware specialist.
Introduce a tool before the child uses it for the first time. Place your hands over the child’s hands to guide the sawing or hammering.
Start simple and easy. Begin with a 1 1/2 -inch roofing nail, which has a large head, for example. For sawing, start with a narrow wood piece less than an inch thick.
Instruct children to tap, not pound, the nail into wood.
Check tools and materials for safety each day before children arrive. Repair or replace broken tools before children use them.
Order and neatness help promote safety. Tools can be hung on a pegboard, with outlines marked to help children remember where each tool goes. Nails can be stored in coffee cans with plastic lids. The bottoms of the cans can be nailed to a board to prevent them from getting tipped over. A nail taped to each can help children remember which size nail goes in which can. Wood scraps can be stored in a cardboard box or plastic bin.
Most teachers limit the number of children in the center to two at a time. Stocking the center with two safety goggles not only protects their eyes but also reinforces the two-children-at-a-time rule.
Remember, part of the joy of woodworking for the children is the addition of useful work-related items such as a carpenter’s apron and pencil, roll-up measuring tape, a tool belt, or special gloves or shoes.

Teach safety rules
In addition to demonstrating how to use tools properly and providing appropriate activities, teachers must teach and model safety rules, such as the following:
Use tools only when an adult is there to supervise.
Use tools only in the woodworking area.
No more than two children can use the center at a time.
Wear safety goggles while working in the center.
Keep the work area free from clutter. Take out only the tools and materials you will be using.
Use hammers for pounding nails only, not people or toys.
Hammer nails into your project only, not the workbench or table.
Use saws for sawing only. Other uses can break the saw’s teeth.
If another child is sawing, keep your hands safely away from the saw in case it slips.
Use a clamp or vise to hold materials firmly in place. Have the teacher check to be sure items in the vise are secure.
Never hold nails, tacks, or other items in your mouth.
If you have a disagreement with another child, put down the tools immediately.
If you cannot observe the safety rules, expect to leave the center and find another activity.
Return tools to their proper storage place. Replace leftover nails in their storage containers. Return unused wood pieces to the storage box.
Never store wood that has nails sticking out of it.
Adapted from P. Skeen, A. Garner, and S. Cartwright, , 1984.

Literacy connections
Offering books about construction and tools in the literacy center will extend children’s learning. Whether teaching children about various tools or giving them ideas for their own construction projects, books provide that important literacy connection that adds to children’s exploration. Likewise, providing paper and writing utensils will encourage children to create their own plans prior to construction and to label their woodworking creations upon completion (Huber 1999).
To capitalize on opportunities to add literacy to woodworking, locate the literacy area near, but separate from, the actual construction area for safety and easy retrieval of resources. Provide markers, pens, and paper for list making, note taking, and sketches. Include advertisements from hardware and lumber stores. Post illustrations of simple wood projects youngsters can study.
Have books about working with wood and posters of individuals of all ages engaged in wood crafting. Create a word wall with pictures of tools and their appropriate names, and make a list of action words used daily in the center such as and
Finally, create a 3-D gallery for children to showcase their work. Label each creation with the child’s name and the title of the piece, if appropriate. If space is limited, photograph their work for display and documentation. Provide opportunities for children to share their woodworking experiences with others.

The activities below are arranged by age to match children’s developmental abilities. Remember that younger children are more interested in exploring materials and tools than making anything.
Take steps to provide safety and instruction in using tools, and than adopt a playful attitude. Observe children as they work, ask questions, offer encouragement, and build confidence.

Wood play
(Age 2 and older)
Here’s what you need:
assorted lumber scraps with smooth edges

1. Introduce the lumber scraps to children. Ask children to compare color and size. Invite them to smell and feel the pieces.
2. Ask children to identify things made of wood in the classroom.
3. Set out wood pieces on the floor for play. Children can stack and unstack them or place them in containers.

Sawing sounds
(Age 2 and older)
Here’s what you need:
Styrofoam® pieces
plastic knives, one for each child

1. Spread newspaper on the table or floor. Offer each child a plastic knife and piece of Styrofoam.
2. Invite children to saw the Styrofoam with the knife. Encourage them to listen to the sounds it makes.

Sawdust play
(Age 3 and older)
Here’s what you need:
crosscut hand saw (for adult use only)
scrap of soft pine
workbench or sawhorse
sawdust from a carpenter, someone who cuts firewood, or building supply store
metal baking pan
cups, wooden spoons, and other household utensils

1. Spread newspaper under the workbench. Start sawing a piece of pine, just enough to demonstrate how sawdust is made.
2. Invite children to feel and smell the sawdust.
3. Spread sawdust in a metal baking pan for play. Children can tamp and squeeze the sawdust, move it around with their fingers, or pour it into containers.
Variation: Mix sawdust with water. Add it to dirt for making mud pies. Mix sawdust with white glue to make modeling clay.

Sanding and oiling
(Age 3 and older)
Here’s what you need:
sandpaper, various grits
wood pieces
mineral oil

1. Invite children to gently feel the surface and edges of wood pieces, being careful to avoid splinters. Use words such as and
2. Spread newspaper on the table. Offer sandpaper for practice in sanding. Compare how wood surfaces feel after children have sanded them with coarse, medium, and fine sandpaper.
3. Invite children to apply oil to their sanded pieces of wood using a rag. Discuss what happens to the wood color and grain.
Variation: Instead of oil, children can use nontoxic paint.