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It’s the process not the product

It’s the process not the product

The words woodworking in early childhood would have many educators cringing as they imagine children running wild with hammers and saws and having to deal with sore little fingers.

The reality of a wellplanned carpentry area is in fact quite the opposite.

Just like any other area of your classroom children can be taught to respect the carpentry area and learn how to use the tools carefully and appropriately. Carpentry offers a rich learning experience for young children.

It gives them opportunity to explore what they are interested in whilst encouraging numerous learning and development skills, many of which are encompassed in Te Whāriki.


● Develop self-esteem and build confidence. By having the responsibility of using real tools and accomplishing a task they may have found challenging to begin with, and by being proud of their creations.

● Develop physically. Hand eye coordination, fine motor skills (holding nails, twisting in screws), gross motor skills (hammering, sawing) and muscle development are all improved as they learn to use the different tools correctly.

● Investigate science and mathematical concepts such as shapes, measuring, size, balance, length and force.

● Develop communication and language skills through working with others, sharing and co-operating. Learning the names of the different tools. Expressing their ideas, frustrations and successes.

● Express their creativity and engage their imagination by allowing them to design and build their own creations, come up with new ideas, problem solve and role play.

In my opinion it is clear that the benefits of carpentry far out weight the risks.


Just like any other area of your centre, you will need some rules to keep everyone safe. Here are some basic essentials. You should, however come up with your own set of rules to suit your centre and skill level of your children.

Consider involving the children in the rule making process too. Perhaps you could get an artistic staff member to write the rules with pictures on a big poster so that you can display them in the carpentry area to remind everyone.

Safety Rules: The essentials.

● Have a maximum number of children working in the carpentry are at one time. This will be dictated by the size of your work bench and the required student/ teacher ratio.

● Everyone in the carpentry area must wear shoes.

● Safety glasses must be worn at all times.

● Every tool has its own special purpose and should only be used for that purpose.

● No tools should be lifted above head height

● When sawing, timber must be held securely in a vice.

● Never run with tools.

● Do not remove tools from the carpentry area. You could have a peg board with the outline of each tool drawn on it so the children know where each one belongs and staff can easily see if something has gone walkabout.

There will of course be minor injuries such as banged fingers, splinters or small cuts from time to time. When taught and supervised correctly these can be reduced and the activity shouldn’t be any more risky than other areas of the playground.


The first thing is to decide on an appropriate space in which to set up your carpentry table. Outside is usually best because of the noise hammering creates.

Make sure there is plenty of room around the table for elbows to saw freely and others to walk around at a safe distance. Creating an area that is well defined helps to keep the activity (and tools) contained.

It also helps children to remember the rules of the woodworking area and stay focused on their project. There should be space nearby to store tools securely.

A sturdy work bench is the next thing on the list. Make sure it is strong and stable. It should be waist high for the children using it.

Consider the size depending on how many children you want working comfortably around it at one time. It doesn’t need to be an expensive custom made model.

An old table cut down in height would work just as well. To get started you will need to invest in some good quality tools that are fit for the job.

Inappropriate tools will make the tasks more difficult and lead to frustration so choosing the right size and type of tools is essential.

Don’t be tempted to use plastic play tools as these are not designed for real carpentry. Children aged 3.5 – 4 years and up can be using real tools.

By this age they should have the necessary co-ordination and understanding to work safely.

So long as you teach the children how to use the tools correctly and have clear safety rules you will find that they tend to have a much greater respect for real tools compared to their plastic counter parts.

If introducing carpentry to younger children start them off with materials such as polystyrene, golf tees and a rubber mallet.

Let them hone their skills with these before moving on to the real tools and harder wood.


Your local hardware store should be able to provide all that you need. I recommend the following for a basic starter kit:

Hammers: Most hardware stores will have smaller sized hammers. 8oz ones are an ideal weight for children. Look for hammers with a short handle, good grip and full size hitting surface. Stubby hammers are also a good option for little hands. “Stubby” tools are adult tools with short handles that are designed for use in tight in spaces. They are a perfect size for children.

Saws: Choose proper adult hand saws designed for cutting timber. Saws come in a range of different sizes. Ones with a blade length of around 350mm tend to be a good size for the children to manage.

Nails: Have a variety of different sized nails available for the children to experiment with but avoid getting ones that are too big or too small. If they are too big then the children won’t have the power necessary to be able to hammer the nail into the wood and they will cause the timber to split. Nails that are too long will go right through the timber and into the work bench. On the flip side, nails that are too small will bend easily and be too fiddly for the children to hold safely.

Nails are designed with different types of heads on them depending on their purpose. Flat head nails are the best for young children as they have a larger hitting surface. A variety of types and sizes creates extra challenges and keeps things interesting. Plaster board clouts are ideal and anything generally up to 50mm long depending on the thickness of the timber you have available. A good tip to save little (and big) fingers from getting squashed is to use combs, clothes pegs or pliers to hold the nails at a safe distance.

Screws: Choosing screws is much the same as choosing nails. Make sure they are suitable for woodworking (some screws are designed for metal and concrete rather than wood so check the packet for what they are designed for). Have a variety of lengths available that match your screw driver heads (phillips and flatheads are most common). Choose the length in the same way as choosing nails depending on how thick the timber is that you want to screw through.

Screwdrivers: A selection of different sized screwdrivers with both flat heads and cross (phillips) heads. Again, stubby screwdrivers are great for little hands to manipulate and are readily available from hardware stores.

Hand drill: A couple of good metal hand drills are a great addition. I prefer the metal hand drills over the plastic craft ones as they seem to last forever. Have a good stock of replacement drill bits in a variety of sizes as these can break easily. Use the drill to make small pilot holes in the wood to help get nails and screws started and to prevent the wood from splitting. Pilot holes should be a little bit smaller in diameter compared to the size of nail that is going to be used in that hole so choose your drill bit accordingly. Other

Hardware: To bring even more interest to the carpentry area you can introduce nuts, bolts, washers, screw hooks etc. You can then add spanners, wrenches and larger drill bits to the tool box for using with them. Assorted hardware also makes for great decoration.

Bench Vice: As children do not have enough strength to hold on to a piece of wood firmly enough to saw with the other hand a vice should always be used to hold the wood steady. Vices come in a variety of sizes; a standard mid-range one will do the job. Make sure that the vice can be bolted on to the side of the work bench so it doesn’t move about. Vices can be expensive but a good one will last a lifetime. Also consider getting some G clamps which can be moved about the table and are a good option when working with larger pieces of timber. Safety gear: Child size safety glasses and ear muffs. Why not also add: Measuring tapes or rulers, sandpaper in different grades, PVA glue, hot glue guns, plyers (get ones without a cutting blade on them), builders level, builders aprons, hard hats, pencils and paper for them to plan out their designs. A large magnet can also be fun to pick up stray nails with.


When sourcing wood you must ensure that it is not treated with toxic chemicals. Often offcuts from building sites and hardware stores are treated pine so make sure you check these carefully. You want to ensure recycled wood is free from old nails and other contaminates. Stay away from hardwoods such as gum, kwila, or oak which will be extremely difficult for the children to work with. Don’t use building products like chipboard, Gib or MDF which have other additives and can create irritating dust.

Try to source timber that is relatively soft such as macrocarpa or untreated pine. Have a good stock available in a variety of lengths, shapes, thicknesses and textures to keep things interesting. If you have trouble with wood splitting and breaking here are some helpful hints:

● Don’t put nails too close to the end or edge of the piece of wood.

● Don’t nail through or too close to knots.

● Look out for pieces of wood that have a very curly wavy cross grain to them. These pieces tend to be a lot harder to nail and are best for using with glue.

●Check the size of your nail is not too big.

● Drill pilot holes for the nail – this the most effective way to prevent wood from splitting.


When introducing children to carpentry start off with the basics. It is often best to bring out one tool at a time and let them master that before moving on to the next. Learn how to use the hammer first. Show them how to hold the hammer in the middle of the handle rather than up close to the head and show them which end to hit with.

Explain the importance of keeping their eyes on the spot they are hitting and how important it is not to distract other children who are woodworking. To reduce the risk of the child losing control of the hammer, have a rule that tools are not to be lifted above head height. Pounding nails into a big block of wood or the end of a log is a great way to learn the initial skill of hammering because they don’t have to worry about the wood moving about.

Once they have mastered the basics they can move on to hammering smaller pieces of wood more accurately and then on to joining pieces of wood together. When introducing the saw start off by showing the children how sharp the teeth are. You can let them gently feel the teeth and imagine how much it would hurt if they cut themselves.

Make a rule that when sawing, the piece of wood must be held firmly in the vice and the hand that is not holding the saw must stay behind their back well out of the way. Getting the cut started is the trickiest part. It is easiest to start off with a few little back strokes to create the initial groove.

Explain that it is important to keep the saw in a straight line otherwise it can jam. To help with this you could draw a straight line on the piece of wood for them to follow. Once the cut is started they can use the traditional back and forward motion to cut through. It is important to have 1:1 supervision with children who are sawing and to maintain a wide “no go zone” so that other children don’t get in the way of the end of the saw.


Rather than giving the children set projects to make I prefer to let them use their imagination and creativity to design and build whatever they like. Wood work is a challenging activity and it is quite unrealistic to expect preschoolers to be able to build to a specific plan. Trying to do this will lead to frustration when it doesn’t turn out like the picture which can in turn lead to discouragement.

Remember that the carpentry process is more important than the end product. Allow them to follow their interests, and let their ideas evolve as they go. Difficulties will arise but see these as opportunities for them to question, problem solve and work as a team. Often what starts out as being a car ends up being something quite different but equally wonderful. If you do want to plan a more structured activity or you have children that need a bit of inspiration then sculptures are a good place to start.

A sculpture could be absolutely any combination of wood and craft materials of any shape and size so you are still letting them use their creativity. Perhaps you could display their creations in your new sculpture garden! A good resource for ideas is my “Preschool Carpentry Wood” Facebook page. On here I have loads of simple woodworking projects that are suitable for pre-schoolers as well as other carpentry related tips and articles.

You can extend carpentry into the real world by investigating the wood itself. Where does it come from? How does it grow? Look at different types of trees and the different parts of the tree. What are some things around us that are made of wood? Does wood float or sink? How about burning some wood or even planting a tree? I hope you agree that when introduced and supervised correctly carpentry is a valuable addition to the early childhood setting.

It is a fantastic platform for open ended exploration that develops skills to carry over into real world settings. I still have fond memories of using the carpentry table when I was at preschool. I hope this Kiwi tradition and the sound of busy hammers continues in early childhood centres for generations to come.