Woodworking in early education has it’s origins in the late 1800’s. Several pioneering educational philosophers advocated the use of woodworking with young children. The Sloyd system of education in Scandinavia encouraged woodworking as an important developmental resource and the Sloyd movement was seen to influence educational thinking in several countries around the world at that time. It was embraced by Froebel, the founder of Kindergarten who’s ideas were by embraced by leading English educators. Working with the hands was thought to impact on brain development and give learning greater relevance and context.
Woodworking was then commonplace in nurseries right through the 1950’s. With school resources being limited it was an ideal activity, but with the rise of manufactured toys and readily available resources it began to decline. Then in the 80’s and 90’s there was a culture of over zealous health and safety polices. These were at the expense of opportunity irrespective of the benefits and the low levels of risk. This increased concern about litigation and many activities perceived to contain risk were stopped completely including woodwork. This also coincided with curriculum focus switching away from practical skills in higher schools resulting with many children having no experience of practical skills or working with tools whatsoever. Thankfully the climate is now changing and there is a renewed interest in Early Years woodwork, supported by the government adopting the recommendations of Lord Young’s Health and Safety Review (2010).
Learning and Development
The big bonus of woodworking is that it is full of associated learning and development with many aspects of the EYFS encompassed.
Personal and emotional development
In terms of personal and emotional development practitioners notice a profound impact on the individual child. Children are empowered by being respected and trusted to use real tools. They clearly take great pride in their achievements and take pleasure in accomplishing complex tasks and learning new skills. The combination of these elements helps build self-esteem and confidence. Children often persist at challenging woodworking tasks for extended periods. It’s not unusual for a child to spend an hour and a half deeply engaged so woodwork can be seen to have an impact helping develop sustained concentration.
Woodwork provides another medium in which children can express their creativity. Initial emphasis is on developing skills but this immediately extends into open ended creative explorations. There are many opportunities for problem solving and thinking creatively: “How can I best join these pieces”, “how could I make a …”, “How can I use the tool to…”, “How can I get nail to stand up straight…”. Working with wood also develops spatial thinking as they construct three dimensional forms.
Woodwork provides many opportunities to connect thinking from other areas of learning. The unexpected often happens in unusual ways. When picking up fallen nails one child suggests it would be easier with a magnet – after previously investigating magnetism!
It is important children must be able to make their own decisions and construct their own learning. It crucial not to do “set” projects such as bird boxes as these will often lead to frustration and disappointment and do little to promote creative thinking and problem solving.
There are endless opportunities for numeracy and exploring shape, space and measure. Many mathematical aspects are related such as: matching, classification, counting, measuring, comparison, shape, size, weight, balance, two and three-dimensional shape names and so on.
Understanding the world
Scientific investigation is explored by looking at how tools work and investigating aspects such as why the saw gets hot, how hard to hit the nail, how to correct the angle of a leaning nail, how to lever out a nail, etc. The material properties of wood can be investigated, for example, floating, burning. Investigation into trees and growth can offer another line of enquiry.
Woodwork is another area that can stimulate communication and develop vocabulary and language skills. In project development children, express ideas and dialogue ensues and they discuss, reflect and modify as their plans evolve. This develops their language of thinking. New technical and describing vocabulary can be introduced to enable the children to talk about their work in more depth. The process of learning to use tools also builds the ability to understand instructions and improve listening skills.
Woodwork provides many opportunities for physical development as the children learn to handle tools with increasing control. There are fine motor skills (holding a nail, screwing) and gross motor shills (hammering, sawing) and some movements involve pushing/ pulling (saw) and others are rotational (screwdriver, wrench). Hand-eye coordination is developed for example whilst hammering. One handed tools (screwdriver, wrench) and two handed tools (hand drill) tools are experienced.
Knowledge and understanding
In terms of knowledge and understanding the world, children gain a deep understanding of tools and how they work. They can investigate wood as a material by researching its properties and explore the context of wood and trees. The processes also develops their knowledge of construction and design.
Practitioners and parents are often concerned about the potential risk and possible litigation. Woodwork is actually a low risk activity if it introduced and supervised correctly. It also provides children with an opportunity to experience risk in a controlled way, allowing them to make judgements and naturally self-risk assess. If they are going to hit the nail hard they do know to move their fingers away. Of course, there will be small injuries from time to time such as banged fingers or a small cut but certainly nothing more than other playground injuries.
Many school activities were affected by overzealous health and safety policies in the 80’s and 90’s. At the time the feeling was that health and safety was paramount but this was at the expense of opportunity irrespective of the benefits. This climate of risk aversion was heavily influenced by the increasing litigation and compensation culture. Fortunately, the climate is now changing as pioneered by the Lord Young Review of Health and Safety. The recommendations of the review, “Common Sense, Common Safety” were immediately accepted by the Government in October 2010. The emphasis of the report was to encourage settings to embrace risk in a positive sense and not to allow it to limit valuable opportunities available to children. The report advocated a ‘shift from a system of risk assessment to a system of risk–benefit assessment’. For further reading, Tim Gill’s book, No Fear is a wonderful insight into these issues.
It is important to develop the children’s understanding of wood as part of their making sense of the world and gaining knowledge. In terms of woodwork this can be exploring the context of wood: thinking about where wood comes from, talking about the different types of tree, thinking about how they grow. It’s a great opportunity to get out into the woods, investigate trees; leaves, roots etc. Seeing a prepared section of wood can seem a bit abstract so it’s good to develop understanding that it does come from inside the tree. Planting a tree can provide more context and helps develops an understanding of growth.
Again, learning can go in all sorts of directions, for example: exploring different leaves in detail on a light box, examining the different colours and vein structures; exploring making prints with leaves; investigating the different things that grow on trees or animals that live in trees and so on.
Another aspect is investigating wood as a material. What’s made of wood? What are the uses of wood? Investigate its material properties; wood floats, wood burns, wood creates sawdust when cut, wood gets hot when rubbed and so on. Explorations can be extended in a number of different directions, perhaps after burning wood the burnt wood can be used to make charcoal drawings or by making simple boats that float in a water tub.
Logic takes you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.