Theory and practice

Why you should explore the wonder of woodwork in the Early Years

Get expert advice on how to get started.
November 10, 2021
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 In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • This story explores the benefit of exploring woodwork in Early Years provisions. The trend is starting to gain steam — and in this article, you’ll learn just why that is.
  • Pete Moorhouse, who has over 25 years’ experience in woodworking with children, offers his insights on why it’s so valuable, and how you can get started with the practice.
  • Read on for safety tips, do’s and don’ts, and reflections on why woodwork is such a unique, beneficial experience for young children.

Four-year-old Millie has a radiant glow: she’s admiring her work after spending two hours in our outdoor woodwork area at St. Werburgh’s Park Nursery School in Bristol. 

Millie had been constructing a bed for a princess. She used the hammer, hand-drill, screwdriver and a small pull-saw. She had to adapt and problem-solve, for example cutting sections of wood so they would be the right size to fit. She then joined her four legs, but was disappointed to find that the bed was wobbling. On closer examination, she discovered this was because one leg was longer! The next problem was how to get it off, then how to get it the right length… woodwork certainly throws up lots of puzzles! 

After some tinkering, Millie finished off by adding decoration by nailing on beads and buttons, to ensure it was a bed fit for a princess. After she decided it was finished, she then fetched a princess doll from the home corner and an imaginary narrative developed.

The smell and feel of wood, using real tools, working with a natural material, the sounds of hammering and sawing, the thrill of problem-solving and creating — this is the wonder of woodwork in the early years.

If you’re new to the concept, you may 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 provisions. In this article, I’ll give some insight into the value of woodwork and some pointers to safely embedding woodwork within practice.

Woods stacked together

The value of woodwork

In my 25 years of working with young children, I find woodwork engages children considerably longer than with other activities — it’s certainly not unusual for some children to spend all morning at the woodwork bench. Woodwork really engages children’s hands, minds and hearts.

Though it’s not yet commonplace in the early years, woodworking provisions are gaining popularity in early education settings across the globe. To understand why, let’s look at the way woodwork touches on the most central areas of learning and development:

  • Mathematical thinking - As children build, there are many opportunities to explore mathematical concepts like measuring, matching, comparing and counting. Exploring how to get a construction to balance or stand up is a dynamic puzzle for children’s mathematical thinking.
  • A deeper connection with sustainability As children work with wood as a material, they deepen their understanding of where it comes from, and the many uses it has as a renewable material. Woodworking also shows children the value of making and repairing things, countering the prevailing culture of consuming manufactured, disposable goods. This develops a sustainable mentality.
  • Physical development and coordination - Woodworking tests and builds children’s hand-eye coordination, manipulative control, muscular and core-body strength, and motor skills. Children can explore detailed, accurate motions like turning a screwdriver, or gross motor skills like pushing and pulling a saw. 
  • Communication and language - Children talk about what they are planning to make and discuss their designs with each other. As they work through problems, they will be applying the rich vocabulary of creative and critical thinking. Children will be sharing thinking and ideas, problem solving together, developing empathy and respect as they work alongside each other.
  • Personal and social development - This is very much at the heart of woodwork. Children feel empowered and valued by being trusted and being given responsibility to work with real tools. They show satisfaction in their mastery of new skills, and take immense pride in their creations. This sense of empowerment and achievement provides a visible boost to self-esteem and self-confidence. 

Three boys holding branches

But what about the risk?

If you haven’t done woodwork before, it’s natural to feel a little apprehensive! But those who have embraced woodwork find that it’s quite safe. I have been providing woodworking for young children for over 25 years with no significant incidents. 

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 entirely. It’s 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 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, and taking proper safety precautions.

You can scroll down for a list of best safety tips down below.

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. 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

It’s important to introduce these tools incrementally, at a rate you feel suits your children’s development and learning. For younger children, starting with a softer material such as balsa wood makes for a much more positive initial experience, as it’s easier to work with. You can 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. What’s most important is that the provision is a rich experience, with enough resources to allow complexity in thinking. 

Yellow pencil on white paper and carpentry tools

Woodwork is for everybody

To ensure equal opportunities, introduce the tools to all children so they all feel comfortable in the woodwork area. 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. But once you make this initial introduction of your woodwork provision, it’s likely you’ll 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. 

The big ideas

Health and safety tips for woodworking in the early years

Wear safety glasses at all times to eliminate risk of eye injury. Children tend to be more comfortable and well-protected in safety glasses than in 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 the why behind your health and safety measures.

Monitor sawing with a 1:1 ratio.  Practitioners should stand near the saw user to prevent other children getting close to the sawing. Pull saws, which are held with both hands, are much easier and safer for young children. After use, place the saw out of reach. Only saw wood that is held tightly in a vice grip or clamp.

Check wood for splinters. We need to limit exposure to splinters, as it can make for a nasty experience with children. Avoid and check for rough splintery wood, and sand the edges after sawing if they’re rough.

Children should be monitored at all times. At the start, you should have very close supervision. As children learn how the woodworking provision functions, your ratios can be relaxed and children can work independently — with the exception of sawing, which is always done with a 1:1 ratio. A staff member should always remain within line of vision of your woodworking area.

Why do woodwork in the Early Years?

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, experiment and then construct, these experiences can combine to build rich foundations for 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.

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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