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"The objects that are used for practical life... are the objects used where a child lives and which he sees employed in his own home, but they are especially made to a size that he can use."
—Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child

Woodworking Boy

Believe it or not, even a very young child of two-and-a-half or three years can learn to use real tools. It takes a little preparation on the parents' part, but is certain to produce happy hours of satisfying activity for the child.

One of the most traditional toys for the toddler is the cobbler's bench with multi-colored pegs to be hammered down with the wooden mallet. In fact, you probably grew up pounding away on such a toy! Not only do children love to pound and hammer, but they also have a keen interest in the work of adults, especially when tools are involved. And, of course, they want to do what they see adults doing.

Before using real tools, children need sufficient muscular control. They need eye-hand coordination and the ability to concentrate. Using the toy cobbler's bench is a good first step. As coordination improves, your child will control the mallet, hitting the pegs squarely and consistently. Screwing large wooden bolts in a bolt block toy or using large nuts and bolts from the hardware store helps with smaller muscle control.

Safety and Supervision

Children will have safer and more successful experiences when they use child-size tools. Be sure to model and demonstrate the safe way to carry, use, and store tools. Designate a separate toolbox for your children's tools. The toolbox is not another toy on the shelf for your child to choose, but rather a special activity to do only with an adult. Safety glasses are a must for any woodworking activity.

At the Workbench

It helps to plan, prepare, and practice any woodworking activity so your child can safely experience success. First, gather the supplies needed to create a hammering or sanding project for your child. Make certain that everything works before introducing it to your child. Keep in mind that your child enjoys the process as much as the end result. Success means being able to use the hammer to pound in a nail even if it's crooked or bent; or sanding the wood just a bit smoother. Safety glasses should be worn with all these activities.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • For a hammering project, use big nails with large heads and a tree stump (available from your local tree service or firewood company) or 2X4 held securely on a flat surface. You might start the nail, demonstrating how to hold the nail with thumb and index finger, tapping lightly at first. Then your child hammers the nail in. A thinner nail can be held in place between the teeth of a comb lying flat on the wood. Hold the end of the comb securely until the nail is set.
  • Once they have mastered the skills, children enjoy nailing two pieces of scrap wood together. You can prepare such a project by pre-drilling the holes or using soft wood. Hold the pieces together while your child hammers in the first nail.
  • Sanding a piece of wood smooth is satisfying for your child. After you've shown how to move the sandpaper back and forth, demonstrate how to feel the difference between rough and smooth. A sanding block can be used and the wood can be held in place with a vise. Or, move the wood back and forth over a piece of sandpaper that is secured to a flat surface.
  • With the child-size drill (manual, not power-driven) and fairly soft wood, children can successfully drill a hole. Be sure to mark the drilling spots in advance and then show how the drill works. A vise can keep the wood steady.
Simple Projects and Repairs

Even if you don't consider yourself "handy, " there are many ways you and your children can work with tools together. The woodworking books in our catalog and on our website give specific instructions for many simple projects, as well as for the above activities.

After children show some competence, they are prepared to apply their skills to real life situations. You might work together to make simple repairs around the house, such as hammering a loose porch board or screwing in a towel hook. With an older child, you could plan and execute a simple project such as building a box or birdfeeder. These projects might require learning additional woodworking skills such as sawing, measuring, gluing and clamping, painting, etc.

Remember to take the time to think through the process, have the needed supplies, and make sure all the tools work. Demonstrate the activity from beginning to end. Then stand by and watch while your child works to become an accomplished, contributing member of the family and society.

—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.

—Originally Published 2012