Child doing woodwork, pete moorhouse

Woodwork in early years

There is something really special about woodwork in early years. 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.

Pete Moorhouse is an early years creative consultant and artist educator. As an artist Pete is a professional sculptor and he has worked in education for over 30 years. His work in schools is centred around nurturing children’s creativity and his practice is inspired by Reggio Emilia and Froebelian principles. Here, Pete explores the wonders of woodwork.

‘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 in early years runs 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 introducing 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.

Child doing woodwork, Pete MoorhouseWoodwork 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 your own woodwork provision

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.

When it comes to your toolbox, only four tools are really essential for children:

  • Hammers
  • Hand-drills (manual, non-electric drills)
  • Screwdrivers
  • Pull saws.

Having incremental progression is important in responding to an individual child’s stage of development and confidence. We need to avoid introducing too many challenges 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 a 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.

Child doing woodwork, Pete MoorhouseRisk

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. Giving children a high level of trust and responsibility is also empowering, and woodwork so often has been key to unlocking certain children’s learning and building their self-esteem and confidence.

Of course, health and safety do 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 and taking proper safety precautions.

Key Health and Safety

  • Safety glasses – wear safety glasses at all times to eliminate the 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 – the practitioner to stand in this area to prevent other children from 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 is 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 the 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 mindset 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.

  • childcare
  • early years
  • nursery
  • skill development
  • unique learning opportunity
  • Woodwork
  • Woodwork in early years

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