Wood

This is another natural material which is interesting and useful in the playroom. Each kind of wood has different characteristics – the grain, the smell, the colour and the relative weight. Obviously children will handle wood frequently if they are provided with wooden blocks and toys, some of which may be simply sanded, some oiled, polished, varnished, painted or stained. In addition to this incidental experience there are many activities which children can carry out actually using wood with tools: we call this woodwork but it should not be confused with cabinet-making. Some of the results are very crude and the value lies in the manipulative skill and imagination involved rather than anything else. It is easiest to consider woodwork by the progressive stages which can be followed rather than suggesting activities for different age groups. Inevitably what a child can do with wood depends largely on what tools he is able to use.

Very early experience will be learning to use a hammer – most children have a hammer-peg or hammer and ball set at about eighteen months. The second stage consists largely of using proper tools. These should be of good quality in a small size rather than toy tools which may break and are not properly balanced to work efficiendy. Since neither strength nor aim is very good at about two and a half to three years some thought about how to minimize these handicaps is necessary. Firstiy a very soft material into which to drive nails is necessary. Fibre-board or insulation board cut into pieces about 18 inches by 12 inches is ideal. The cut edges fray but can be sealed by sticking strong 3-inch wide sticky paper tape over them. Since fibre-board is usually less than I-inch thick this makes a I-inch border on both sides of the board. The easiest type of nail to hit is not a nail at all but something which gives a larger head to aim for. The metal skids sold to protect chair legs called ‘domes of silence’ are about f-inch across and have short prongs. Quite young children can hit these in then lever them out with an old screwdriver kept for this purpose.

Once they can manage this they can progress to large brass- headed upholstery pins, still keeping the fibre~board as a small amount of pressure by hand is enough to make the tacks stand straight while the hammer drives them home. It is wise to check the length of the pin as it may be necessary to use two boards.

The next progression can be to carpet tacks which have a large head and a pair of pincers with which to remove them. Then on to large nails which again may need several thicknesses of fibre-board or a large thick piece of expanded polystyrene to hammer them into.

Other tools and materials to be introduced would be screws and screwdrivers. Early experience of the wrist movement necessary for screwing will arise from the baby screw toys, but for using real screws and a large screwdriver a board ready pre-pared with suitably sized holes is a good start. Using a drill effi-ciently is not usually possible till about four years or later. A piece of peg-board and suitably sized nuts and bolts together with an adjustable spanner is another useful activity which children enjoy. This too follows on from some of the baby toys which involve spanners and nuts and bolts. A variation of this game is to provide strong coloured cardboard shapes which have a hole punched in to take the nut so that the children can bolt patterns to the peg-board base.

A parallel stage arises because although children enjoy using tools they still want to make ‘proper’ things long before they are skilled enough to join two pieces of wood with a nail. The answer here is to have a large supply of small, interesting pieces of wood either collected from the offcut box at the wood yard or quietly prepared by adults. Children can be shown how to make these smooth with sandpaper – three grades from coarse to very smooth should be supplied – either using a sand block (a piece of sandpaper wrapped tightly round a small block of wood) or by rubbing the piece of wood on to sandpaper held flat on the work surface. The pieces can be stuck together using a non-impact wood glue. These adhesives take a Uttle time to dry but are much better than impact-adhesives as they allow for re-alignment of wrongly placed pieces. The success of this activity depends entirely on how interesting the pieces to be found in the wood box are. Since very little skill is required they can be large or small, hard or soft wood, thick or thin. The only rules to observe are that the pieces should not be splintery or contain nails.

A natural extension of this is to supply powder paint mixed with equal quantities of water and PVA glue and large brushes to paint finished objects. If the children are used to mixing their own paint this just fills in the time they have to wait for the glue to set. This type of paint dries quite quickly, can be washed out of clothes if fairly swift action is taken and gives an acceptable finish which does not flake off as ordinary powder paint would. It is also less messy than using gloss paint or enamel. For a great treat a can of spray paint used under strict supervision is usually highly enjoyed but some of those intended for metal surfaces will not take on wood so care is needed when buying them.

The third stage often arises naturally as a result of learning to handle tools and to make wooden objects by sticking pieces together. There inevitably comes a time when whatever has been made by glueing needs wheels which actually turn and this is the point at which the competent child insists that these be nailed on. There will also be the situation where the wood box does not contain a piece of wood of the right size and this is where a saw can be introduced. Eventually the advantages of using a screw instead of a nail becomes obvious. Some children, perhaps the majority, will not reach this stage before they go to school or even later than that. Some, boys particularly, can at five make a very workmanlike job of a project which is all their own idea from start to finish.

Many adults feel doubtful about the possible dangers of letting children loose with potentially dangerous tools. There are some rules which must be observed: woodwork must be done on a good strong surface, either a proper bench or a sturdy table tools must be strong and safe supervision must be constant training the children is important. This consists not only in showing them how to hold tools properly but also insisting that children who are watching must stand well back. It is the observer bending too close over a child who is hammering who gets hit in the face. This is a far more likely accident than someone hitting his own thumb or finger. Tools, nails and screws must all have a place and must be kept in it. A magnet in the tool box is useful for picking up nails when there has been an accident the number of children using tools should be limited to whatever the adult feels she can manage – probably no more than two at any one time. For sanding and glueing activities it can be more a vice or clamp is essential for sawing and a considerable help with some of the other processes. But for one child to hold the wood in the vice and another to screw it up is a good idea glue should be put into a small squeezy bottle if the normal supply comes in one-gallon containers woodwork can be a very noisy activity. In a room with a high ceiling the sound can reverberate. Placing a piece of rubber carpet underlay under the bench or table legs may help and hammering boards can also have a piece of underlay set between them and the bench top if the nursery group already has a very high noise level it may be better to wait for fine weather when woodwork can be done out of doors For anyone who feels confident about coping with woodwork a good basic set of materials and tools would be: wood of various types and sizes, sandpaper, several fibre- or plaster-board pieces for hammering nails in (these will have to be replaced fairly frequently), PVA glue for sticking, two or three hammers with a short shaft and claw foot of a suitable weight, a small tenon saw, a small rip saw, a small hacksaw or coping saw, small and large screwdrivers with a short shaft, a short, stubby screwdriver for Phillips headed screws, a hand drill with a set of drills, pieces of peg-board, nuts and bolts to fit this, an adjustable spanner, powder paint to mix with PVA glue to make a suitable paint for finishing objects, a bench or sturdy table, a vice or clamp and perhaps a bench hook. To this should be added a collection of the large-headed nails, pins and tacks already mentioned. Some kind of material to use for wheels is necessary. Tin lids of various sizes and metal bottle caps which have already had a hole made in the centre are useful. Screw-on tops need no further attention but the type which has to be levered off with a bottle opener may be hammered flat or, since this is rather a tedious chore, children can be trained to use them with the sharper edges towards their car, lorry or whatever they have made.

Even when adults are doubtful about their own competence or concerned about the noise it should be possible in both home and nursery to have at least the early activities. The question may arise about how much help to give. So long as it is the child’s own ideas which are being interpreted it may be reasonable to give help when asked but even this needs care. Some children have ideas far beyond the adults’ station.