The Wonder of Woodwork
Pete Moorhouse, Bristol, UK

Exercising the imagination – Big bang! Small hands… Big ideas!
Creative Woodwork in Early Childhood Education

Millie (4) has a satisfied radiant glow. She is admiring her work after spending two hours in the woodwork area where she has been engrossed constructing a bed for a princess. She used the hammer, hand-drill, screwdriver and a small pull-saw. It was a complex process, first designing then making, adapting and resolving problems as she went.

She had to adapt and problem-solve, using creative and critical thinking skills throughout, for example cutting sections of wood so they would be the right size to fit. She joined her four legs, but was disappointed to discover that the bed was wobbling. On closer examination, she realised this was because one leg was too long. The next problem was how to remove it, and then how to get it the right length… woodwork certainly throws up lots of problems! Millie finished by elaborately decorating the bed with beads and buttons ensuring it was a bed fit for a princess.

Millie made a wonderful bed, but what was really ‘made’ was within Millie. Seeing her sense of agency flourish as she put her ideas into action, and seeing her confidence grow as she mastered the tools were both clearly visible. We also know by using the multitude of creative and critical thinking skills involved in the making, new neural connections and pathways will have been established. This is the wonder of woodwork. It can be truly transformational.

If you’re new to woodwork with young children, you may well have some initial concerns. But once some very basic health and safety measures are put in place, you’ll see that woodwork is low-risk, and makes a wonderful addition to early years provision. In this article, I’ll give some insight into the value of woodwork and some pointers to safely embedding woodwork within practice.

The Value of Woodwork

There is something really special about woodwork. It is so different from other activities. The smell and feel of wood, using real tools, working with a natural material, the sounds of hammering and sawing, hands and minds working together to express their imagination and to solve problems, the use of strength and coordination: all go together to captivate young children’s interest.

‘We observe children working with their hands, tinkering, constructing models, and working on projects, but in fact the real transformation is inside the child – personal development is at the heart of woodwork.’

These are exciting times. Currently around the world we are seeing a surge of interest in woodwork within early childhood education with examples from all corners of the globe. In some cases this will be settings starting from scratch, in others, it’s a case of dusting down the workbench and digging out the tools after many years of neglect.

This is very welcome as the benefits of woodwork run deep. Teachers who provide woodwork regularly observe exceptional levels of sustained engagement, with deep focus, concentration and perseverance with challenging tasks – especially with complex problem solving. It is not unusual for children to spend all morning at the woodwork bench. Woodwork really engages hands, minds and hearts.

When we analyse a woodworking session it is extraordinary to see just how much learning is involved. It’s truly holistic encompassing all areas of learning and development and invites connections between different aspects of learning. In this sense woodwork really can be central to curriculum. It incorporates mathematical thinking, scientific investigation, developing knowledge of technology, a deepening understanding of the world, as well as physical development and coordination, communication and language, and personal and social development. This is evidenced by research from ‘The Big Bang Research Project’ The interim research findings are now available see link below.

Children are particularly drawn in as they explore possibilities, rise to challenges and find solutions. Woodwork is really unrivalled in terms of providing children with problem solving opportunities and challenge. With woodwork children can develop their learning at their own pace and find their own challenges. Once they have mastered basic skills, they move into open-ended exploration – initially tinkering, exploring possibilities and then starting to make unique creations drawing on previous experiences and their emerging knowledge of tools to create new forms.

Sustainability

In terms of sustainability, woodwork helps counteract the current culture of ‘consume and dispose’ by developing an understanding of the value of making and repairing. Children also discover how they can re-purpose materials, by making models from a selection of recycled wood and other materials. In addition the understanding of where wood comes from and seeing the beauty of wood can develop respect for the value of wood and inspire us to take responsibility for our shared environment.

Woodwork for All

To ensure equal opportunities introduce the tools to all children so they all feel comfortable in the woodwork area and in that way they can make an informed decision whether they want to choose to do woodwork. It’s important to acknowledge that there is often gender stereotyping around woodwork and sometimes an assumption that only boys will be interested.  However after this initial introduction we notice no gender difference in who chooses woodwork. It’s hard to become what you don’t see, so support equality by having books with positive role models of girls and women using tools.

Woodwork captures children’s curiosity and it has been particularly successful in significantly engaging children from more disadvantaged backgrounds who can be less confident and have more difficulty focusing. Giving children a high level of trust and responsibility is empowering, and woodwork so often has been key to unlocking certain children’s learning and really built their self-esteem and confidence. 

Establishing a Woodwork Practice

Woodwork is perhaps one of the more difficult activities to offer. There is a fair bit to get organised:  tools, wood, and other materials such as corks and bottle tops, nails and screws, sandpaper, safety glasses and a workbench all need to be sourced. A sturdy workbench is essential as wood being sawn must be clamped tight in a vice. Only a few tools are essential – stubby hammers, stubby screwdrivers, hand-drills and pull saws. Having incremental progression is important responding to individual child’s stage of development and confidence. We need to avoid too much challenge too soon.

Introduce the tools in small groups, (1:3 for 3/4yrs, 1:4 for 4/5yrs 1:8 for 6/8yrs). For younger children starting with a softer material such as balsa wood makes for a much more positive initial experience. Gradually increase the level of challenge – start with small nails, and thin wood to join to blocks before slowly introducing a wider selection of wood sizes and larger nails.

As children gain confidence woodwork can become continuous provision or made available to larger groups at specific times. Continuous provision gives children more choice and autonomy but it only works well if you have enough resources and children can get through a lot of resources fast! What is important is that the provision is a rich experience, with enough resources to allow complexity in thinking.

Risk

If you have not done woodwork before it’s natural to feel a little apprehensive! It’s easy to conjure up images of accidents with children wielding saws around! But those who have embraced woodwork find that it’s actually surprisingly safe. Woodwork is low risk when introduced correctly and basic safety measures are put in place. I have been providing woodworking for young children for over 25 years with no significant incidents. I would advise introducing woodwork from 3/4yrs.

We are now seeing a more balanced attitude to risk. Health and safety measures should enable children to experience new opportunities safely, not to deny them. It is important children get to experience risk within controlled experiences, as they need to learn to understand and manage risk. This way they learn to self-manage and make decisions and judgements in order to better protect themselves in the future.

Of course health and safety does need to be taken seriously, after all it is our prime responsibility as educators to ensure the physical and emotional care of our children. We need to put in measures to reduce risk such as using the most appropriate tools.

Key Health and Safety

  • Safety glasses – wear safety glasses at all times to eliminate risk of eye injury. Children are more comfortable and are safer in safety glasses than chunky goggles.

  • Ensure children are given instruction on the correct use of all tools. Take time to discuss together and draw attention to hazards. Children need to understand why H&S measures are put in place.

  • Monitor sawing with a 1:1 ratio. Ensure no children are watching from in front of the sawing area – practitioner to stand in this area to prevent other children getting close to the saw. Pull saws (held with both hands) are much easier and safer for young children. After use, saw to be put out of reach. Wood always to be clamped in a vice when being sawn. Adult to check vice clamped tight.

  • Hammering – After the gentle taps to get the nail standing up, then hold the wood well away from the nail before hammering hard. Embed this practice right from day one.

  • Check wood for splinters. We need to limit exposure to splinters. Avoid rough splintery wood. Sand the edge after sawing if rough.

  • Children should be monitored at all times. Initially with close supervision. When children are confident using tools ratios can be relaxed and they can work independently with the exception of sawing which is always done with 1:1 ratio.  A staff member should always remain within line of vision of the woodworking area.

Final Thoughts

Woodwork is a symbolic language of shape, form and space. It encompasses a way of working that develops over time as children express their ideas with increasing fluency and complexity. As children tinker and experiment and then construct, create and explore narratives these experiences can combine to build rich foundations for children’s healthy emotional, physical and cognitive development. Woodwork can promote an experimental mind-set and at the workbench children ‘become’ innovators, makers, sculptors, tinkerers, engineers and architects.

‘As children make with wood they will be learning skills that will empower them to shape their world.’

 Woodwork is certainly a very popular activity and incorporates so much learning – a real win-win. It would be wonderful for all children to have this opportunity to flourish at the woodwork bench.

Pete Moorhouse is an early years creative consultant and artist educator. He is an honorary research fellow at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol researching creative and critical thinking in Early Years, regularly presenting research at international conferences. Pete is an associate trainer for Early Education, UK and deliverers training both nationally and overseas. Pete is an endorsed Froebel tutor.  His work in school is centred around developing children’s creativity and his practice is inspired by Froebelian principles and practice in Reggio Emilia. Pete is the UKs leading authority on woodwork in Early Years education and has written several books and journal articles, including ‘Learning Through Woodwork’ (Routledge) and Outdoor Learning. He is currently working his latest book – ‘Creativity in Practice: Nurturing creative and critical thinking in early childhood education’. Pete won the national award (2019) from the Creative Learning Guild for his work promoting creativity in education. He was awarded a Churchill Fellowship and is a Follow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Contact: [email protected]

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