Friday, January 23, 2015

toddlers in the wood shop?

When my daughter was two, I was always nervous having her in the wood shop. At the time, I was in full production mode, had written no books, and the place was always full of projects, that presented a level of risk. Even a board leaning against the lumber rack could present huge danger to an unwary child. Anyone with a 2 year old knows they require a lot of attention, and while parents and grandparents will "baby proof" a home to assure child safety, it is very hard to baby proof a shop.

Still, it is important for children to be witnesses of their parents involvement in the real world and carefully monitored forays into the creative wood shop are important, even for the very youngest child.

A reader, Nick, asked the following:
I've been following your blog, Wisdom of the hands, for a while now, and greatly enjoy your articles.

As the father of a 2 year old, and also a hobbyist woodworker, I am curious if there are any projects/exercises you would recommend for a child this young? Most of what I've seen on your blog appears to be aimed more at grade school aged kids, and the same with most of what I can find published online from Sloyd. He's not ready for a handsaw or chisel yet, and at this point all I can really think of is giving him some scraps & a bottle of glue, and letting him make a mess of things. Other than that he's very good at "unsweeping" the plane shavings in my shop and spreading them evenly across the floor with the small broom I bought him and hung on the wall low enough for him to reach.

I couldn't find anything in your blog about children this young, but I would venture to suggest this could be an excellent topic for a book, and I'm sure other woodworkers with small children would also be interested in this as well.

Any guidance you could provide would be greatly appreciated as I am not sure what would be appropriate for a 2 year old in my shop.
What a special gift it can be to share what you love with a new generation. And it would be a good topic for a book.

As Nick noticed with his son, two is a bit young for making much more than a mess of things. When my daughter was two, my wife and I made chairs and a craft table where my daughter could work with playdough. She also started playing with blocks that could be stacked. Froebel’s block sets can be easily made, starting with gift number 2 and introduced at age two, progressing to more complicated sets over time, and only after the design limitations of each has been reached. At age three my daughter began playing with scraps in my shop. I had a low table where she could take the odd shaped cutoffs from the things I made and glue them into things that only she knew the meaning of.

At four, you might consider carefully introducing your son to various tools, small hand saws, hammers, and drills. Also at 4 or 5, introduce him to your use of drawings in your work, and give him the basic drawing tools, square, compass, ruler and pencils. It is easy to do all that stuff with an iPad, but the real tools are more tactile and give the body more of a sense of things. By ages 4 and 5 he will also be ready for some of Froebel’s drawing tools, consisting of small triangles of wood, sticks for laying out designs, and for weaving.These are great things to work with the child. when my daughter was 3, I would join her at her play table, each of us "crafting" with the same materials. Pipe cleaners were a particular amount of fun

Also, at age 5, get yourselves two very sharp knives. Whittling is best when the child has received some instruction in the use of a knife. Whittling together helps because it gives the opportunity to discuss proper safety of others as well.

At age 4 you can do collaborative projects, and at age 5 children can be encouraged to do much more of the work, with you serving as a watchful companion to serve the safety angle or the third hand when needed to hold something being nailed. I find my role to be that of cheerleader when working with kids on hard projects. They may complain, and then I ask, “Would you prefer that I give you something easy to do?” They assure me that they like hard work.

In any case, I hope this helps Nick and others to feel confident as we introduce children to the joy of woodworking.

Make, fix and create...


  1. What development characteristics do you look for before progressing to whittling?

    And do you have any recommendation on basic instruction? (I did some whittling at ~8 yrs old, and enjoyed it, but never developed any special skill and sure haven't given the instruction part of it much thought)

  2. I have a brief youtube video in which students in first grade talk about the rules and regulations on whittling and safe handling of the knife.

    What you want to watch for from a developmental standpoint is for responsibility in other tools. Also, whittling is a thing that requires some physical strength and cross-lateral communication in the brain, integrating left and right hands.

    Some keys to watch for are similar to what you watch for in reading readiness. The ability to skip or to use the monkey bars hand-over-hand, are indicative of cross-lateral development and preparation for coordinated use of both hands,

  3. This is a great question. I'd be interested in hearing about more project possibilities.

    My daughter is going on four and we had a fun afternoon building a really simple single string cigar box guitar.

    For better or worse, like most kids, she's mesmerized watching videos, so I try to get her to watch interesting things and translate them into our world, rather than just passively experiencing them.

    We've also made some simple wooden airplanes, and recently a tanker truck. We sit down and draw them together, she loves designing the color scheme. I cut the pieces and she does some sanding and filing and then paints them herself.

  4. If you have a low workbench -
    I suggest a safe saw(Montessori Services carries one that we use at the school) and a section of pool noodle for the first sawing activity for a two year old.
    They love this!The pool noodle gives just the right resistance and feel for a beginner. Adult supervision and goggles are important for safety.