Shaping, Cutting, Connecting for Kids

What do words like woodshop and woodwork bring to mind?  For me, it’s always been the hand and power tools one uses that I think of most easily.   For kids in some of my afterschool classes, that’s been pretty much the same case.  When I asked Kindergartners and 1st and 2nd graders what words came to mind when seeing pieces of wood, the same answers always came out: hammers and saws, sandpaper and drills.  When I asked five, six, and seven year olds if they wanted to learn to use these tools and others, most of them answered loud yeses with excitement.  285Sure, some students looked at the teeth of our saws with trepidation and others were reluctant to help me hold the handle of our power drill, but after a few weeks our students left afterschool classes feeling more confident of their own fledgling woodworking skills. Tools cause trepidation for a reason: saws can bite and drills have a loud snarl when digging into wood; accidents can happen, and that means that there is the potential for injuries, large and small.  Regardless, woodworking skills can be an important component to a maker’s abilities–for this reason, we’ve decided to get students learning how to work with wood early on, starting the very first year they join our community here at Lighthouse.  That’s why the Creativity Lab closed off the year with a quarter-long focus on woodworking skills: kindergartners made wooden houses, 1st graders created their very own wooden boats, and 2nd graders put together and decorated wooden cars, thanks to support from Nova.

Three broad woodworking categories we delineated for young makers are Shaping, Cutting, and Connecting.  Safety is itself important enough to warrant its own category, but it’s also a component that runs throughout any other area and so it functions as the common denominator for everything children are doing when they are first learning proper usage for tools.  Things like safety glasses and work gloves are essential to keeping kids safe from splinters and irritated eyes.  Modeling proper usage of all tools is a necessity, and setting up norms that guarantee that children continue using tools properly is also a must.  In my classroom, the first time a student misused a tool, they were unable to use that tool for ten minutes.  The second time they misused it, they lost the right to use that tool for the day, followed by an end of class conversation on safety.  Anything beyond that, and a student would lose the right to use a tool indefinitely, until they could adequately demonstrate that their attitude towards safety had changed.

139We found Shaping to be the easiest and safest place to begin.  Children were given an end goal, either a house or a boat or a car to work towards, and after putting on safety equipment and seeing proper usage for sandpaper and hand files, they were asked to bevel the edges of 2x4s, to shape the curve of their boat’s hull or the curvature of their car’s hood.  Using crayons to mark progress worked really well: students or teachers could mark corners and planes to sand away in red or blue, and students knew that they were properly sanding away and shaping those areas when the colors started to rub away from the wood.  Shaping is a long, at times tedious, process that asks younger students to learn persistence.  Sanding takes effort and little hands get tired.  Letting students take short breaks here and there was a necessity.  But also, shaping as a process extended throughout all the many weeks our young makers spent learning how to work with wood.  When I was introducing a new skill to a few students others could continue shaping their wood.  When students had finished another task earlier than others, they could continue shaping their project.

289This year we introduced Cutting in kindergarten during the school day, and in afterschool we had 1st graders using clamps, a miter box, and this saw to cut the bow of their boats from 10” length of 2×4.  In class, I modeled usage of the saw for the class, and then had students try to use it one by one before setting up a sawing area with five miter boxes.  Sawing through a 2×4 is no easy task when you’re six years old and it took all of my students two to three weeks (and in some cases four!) to cut their way through the wood.  When they were tired of sawing, they continued shaping the hulls of their ship.  When they were tired of sanding, they came back to sawing, and finally when that piece of wood fell away, there were cheers around the room, kids congratulating themselves and others when the task was finally done.  After cutting hulls, they also cut through smaller pieces of wood, donated decorative trim kids were marking and cutting to use as gunwales for the sides of their boats.

281Connecting was the one area in which we reverted to one of making’s most versatile tools: the hot glue gun.  The plan was to have students using doweling as a simple introduction to joinery methods, but time ran thin, and students were able to learn and practice safe usage of hot glue guns in order to adhere larger pieces of wood together.  Doweling methods were used, though briefly, to fashion chimneys for kindergartners’ houses and to create the masts for the 1st graders’ boats.  With assistance, students practiced using the power drill, holding the tool outwards and pressing the trigger switch to see what it felt like when powered on.  Then they drilled into an old log we have in the classroom, practicing how to press the trigger switch while pushing on the drill, then changing the drill’s direction to be able to get the drill bit out of the wood.  Once they had practiced, they learned how to use clamps to clamp their wood down onto makeshift workbenches, and with assistance, they were able to drill the boreholes they needed for their dowel chimneys and masts.

After four weeks, there were no major accidents, nothing more than a scrape here or there.  What we did have after all that time you can see here in our students’ final projects.  More importantly, though, we had young makers who had been introduced to and were incredibly excited to continue work developing their woodworking skills.  Though I won’t be here at Lighthouse this upcoming year, I’m certain this young makers will keep up the good work, will keep bringing energy and excitement to the Creativity Lab and to everything they choose to do with the skills they’ve been learning.283

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About John Howard

JT taught Making in the Creativity Lab's after-school program during the first year of this program (2013-14). He is currently studying creative writing at the Indiana University.