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
“…so they can grow up to be architects and engineers?” he
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
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
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
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
(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.
(Age 2 and older)
Here’s what you need:
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.
(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
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
1. Invite children to gently feel the surface and edges of wood
pieces, being careful to avoid splinters. Use words such as
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.