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Woodshop for Kids

Jack McKee
Jan 23, 2008
The excitement and interest of my own kids about using tools, about building, and about woodworking taught me how competent kids could be and inspired me to do volunteer woodworking at my sons' school. My plan was for the children to arrive with an idea of something to build and I would help them build it. From woodworking with my own kids I knew enough to collect a workbench, kid-sized tools, and some scrap wood.

Not suprisingly it was a bit more complicated. Six kids arrived. Two had some idea about what to build and I was able to help them get started, even though I had to demonstrate a tool or help with a design problem. Some didn't know where to begin and I didn't know how to get them started. I tried to create, with words, an image of a project that would capture their interest. I asked, "Would you like to build a boat, (candle holder, key ring)?" The answer came back something like, "maybe" or "let me think about it." Other kids had an idea about what to build but no clue how to begin, so I had to figure out construction details off the top of my head and communicate those details to the child in a way they could understand. No one got hurt. I didn't get mad or upset and make anyone hate woodworking, but the class was confusing for the kids and hectic for me. And not much was built. I went home to evaluate.

I had expected too much. Perhaps I made unconscious and unfair comparisons with my own children who had been around tools since birth. I had assumed kids could use a vice. They couldn't. I assumed they knew enough to keep their fingers away from the saw teeth. They didn't. Later I asked and none of the kids had ever used any tools before. How could they be expected to know what to do?

I needed to review the way I used tools to see if I could break down actions that I did automatically into steps kids could understand. I started with a safety demonstration: how to carry the saw, how to put a piece of wood in the vice, and how to use a saw. This was a step in the right direction and gave kids enough background to begin using tools without getting hurt. I became intrigued by the details of how to use tools at a beginning level. Over time, I refined this introductory demonstration and developed short lessons for each tool.

I was also expecting children who had never picked up a tool to be able to figure out what they wanted to make when the whole idea of making something was foreign. I decided to take a boat and a candle holder my son had built to the second class to see if this would help the children visualize a project. When I showed the boat and candle holder, the kids reacted with excitement and enthusiasm. Everyone wanted to build both a boat and a candleholder. The class was still hectic, but it was amazing to me that a few tool lessons and a couple of projects could change the class tone from hectic and lost to interested and excited. Everyone went home with a project. The kids' enthusiasm was contagious and I went home and thought up more projects.

I had so much fun I approached the local Park Department with the idea of a summer shop class for children. Even though I didn't have much teaching experience, they were enthusiastic. I, however, was more than a little unsure about how things would go. Could I duplicate the playful atmosphere that prevailed at home with my own boys? Would other kids respond? Could I keep them from hurting themselves? Would they be interested in the projects I had created?

I need not have worried. That first year, half of the projects I developed were too complicated, but the other half worked surprisingly well. Other children responded much like my own. They appreciated real tools and engaging projects. They worked hard to be safe. The kids got a taste of the magic of building and I got a taste of the magic of kids. It was the most meaningful, fun, and interesting woodworking I'd ever done.

Jack McKee 1994
About the Author
Jack McKee has worked as a mechanic, remodeled houses, built small boats and designed equipment used by children's museums, schools and preschools. He has worked at a Montessori school teaching "shop" to 3-6 year olds and for the parks department teaching summer woodworking classes for kids. His articles have appeared in Home Education, Tech Directions, Early childhood Today and Wooden Boat. He has written two books, Woodshop for Kids and Builder Boards. You can see more of Jack's creations in the do-it-yourself section of his web page at: home.earthlink.net/~mchkee
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