Tools, Kids and Making Things

It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I introduced elementary school kids to tools and woodworking in the classroom that I noticed a pattern. Every young child seemed to have some interest in building things. It must be hard-wired from the start, though that wiring certainly is fragile. This seemingly small observation is worth remembering because there’s so much to be gained when kids engage their minds, hands and hearts building things of their own devising. If you’re interested in boosting the creativity and self esteem of a child in your life, then consider some toolbox time.

Do you have a tool phobia? Don’t let that scare you. The main thing is that the work be your child’s own idea, that it involve simple, manual work, and that it takes place in a supportive framework created and encouraged by you. It’s not a lot of trouble, but without this kind of start, kids and tools never make lasting friendships.

My four children range in age from 2 to 11 years old, and of all the activities available to them outside of school, I consider their time with tools to be the most important because it’s unique. And I’m not saying this just because I’m a tool freak, either. It’s all about balance. In a world where kids’ lives become so full of orchestrated, preplanned activities, it’s good to reserve a few time slots for creative opportunities where children can get excited about their own ideas, figure out how to make them happen on a practical level, and bring that vision to reality under their own steam. This isn’t about training for a trade, though the start you make now may lead your kids in that direction. That’s great if it happens, but it’s not the main goal. Give a kid a toolbox, fill it with real, durable tools, and watch them take one step closer to becoming a more confident, capable human being.

The Tools

Kids love to own things, and that’s an excellent sentiment to harness when introducing a youngster to tools and how to use them. I started by handing out toolboxes whenever my kids began expressing an interest in making things. This is a great time to start building the sense of tool ownership by using name labels. My Dymo labeling tool gets a hefty working whenever new tools come into the house, which happens fairly often. Whenever I buy a hammer, screwdriver or pliers for a child’s present, I figure it’s better than yet another kid-grade plastic trinket or bobble. Kids deserve top-quality tools for two reasons. First of all, cheap tools perform poorly and lead to disappointment. This translates into a drain on self-esteem and the mistaken belief that a kid is somehow no good at working with their hands. Nonsense. The second reason to buy good tools for kids is durability. Excellent tools need only be bought once in a lifetime. Every kid has the potential to be creative in a physical way. And that potential needs to be nurtured with tools that actually do what they claim they can.

The Work

The best projects are the ones kids choose for themselves. Never nag a child to make something, and never suggest a particular project too firmly. That defeats the purpose. Your job as a mechanically-supportive parent is to offer advice, demonstrate basic technique, and set limits on what can and can’t be done safely. My four year-old, Joseph, loves to pound nails into one particular board. It’s riddled with them now and he calls it his shield. I think the long-term plan is to clad the shield completely with roofing nails to ward off flaming bad guy arrows. He’d love to use my air nailer for the job, but I think that’s where I draw the line, at least for now. Robert is heavily into making elastic guns right now, though Game Boy accessories and hyper-power Bionical disc flingers are recent favourites. Katherine, 8, loves duct tape and has made aprons and hats and wallets out of the stuff. One productive Saturday she used $40 worth of duct tape boosting her wardrobe before I noticed. Jacob, 2, pounds on his Fisher-Price nailing set.

Carla Clipsham and her husband Fred Savage are parents to Oliver, a 3 1/2 year old who enjoys spending time in the family’s commercial workshop in Hillsburgh, ON. Oliver often joins in on a task in the work shop of his own accord, explains Carla. “If I’m working on sanding and spokeshaving chairs, Oliver will come over and help for a while (and then take a break and come back again). For his own work, he really enjoys having someone secure a piece of wood firmly in a vice so that he can use a hand saw to cut it up. He also enjoys hammering. Quite early on we gave him a big chunk of wood with different sized nails partially hammered in. Fred also bought him a small hammer and kept it within Oliver’s reach. His hand-eye co-ordination is quite good now!”

The Philosophy

Make room for kids’ craft sessions in your own workspace. And if you don’t have a space yet, maybe now’s a good time to change that. Whatever the case, expect a kid-generated mess, though don’t let it go without comment. The main value of having kids in the workshop is the lessons it teaches them. Cleanliness and order are good ones to start with. Explain how to clean up after a work session and why. Demonstrate the value of good tools and how to maintain them. In fact, over maintain if you have to, just to make a point. Oil pliers, keep screwdrivers clean, protect saw teeth with plastic guards, and teach kids to keep an organized toolbox.

While it’s important to set safety limits on the type of tools that can be used, small cuts and scrapes aren’t the end of the world. Don’t sanitize the building process to the point where it’s completely free of every conceivable danger. Working with your hands involves risk. That’s true for all of us. Define the risk, explain how to work safely, monitor kids’ performance, make them where safety equipment, then get the band-aids ready. “Oliver has gleaned a few good cuts and scrapes through his learning curve”, explains Carla, “but nothing serious enough to require stitches or medical attention other than some cleaning and love from mama or papa.”

Teaching kids to enjoy the process of working with real tools fell out of favour decades ago. And that’s too bad, especially when you consider how many adults are now working at a desk when they really might prefer the good money and practical challenge of something more hands-on. And how many times have you heard about the shortage of skilled trade workers in Canada, yet wonder why this old lament never seems to go away? The problem is a cultural bias that directs young people into the trades only as a last resort, after academic pursuits have been abandoned. I hope it’s not too much to expect that pleasant, childhood experiences with tools might help change the second-class rating of manual skills. Perhaps I’m dreaming. But even if I am, mixing kids and tools is still worthwhile because it’s so much fun. And that’s reason enough for me.

Since teaching the value of organization is one of the most important workshop lessons, always start your kids’ education with a toolbox. All-metal models are worth buying, as are plastic ones with metal hinge pins and clasps. Avoid inexpensive plastic boxes, especially the ones with pinless hinges that are simply flexible pieces of plastic. These are destined to fail and they do, devastating the hearts of little owners in the process. How would you feel if the door of your brand new car broke off in the driveway? That’s the equivalent of toolbox lid failure in the eyes of a kid. Remember, you’re building confidence as well as the start of a lifelong tool collection. Only buy items capable of proving that durability is real.

As for tools, you’ll need two kinds: those that kids can have and use right away without help, and those that they technically own but only get to use with your help. Unrestricted tools include a small hammer (5 oz. is good for smaller children; . 8 oz for kids over 7 years old) and some screwdrivers. Square-tipped Robertson drivers are best since they’re easiest to keep engaged in screw heads. Get the kind with the easy-to-grab, rubber grips. Stubby-handled models are best for children under 5 years old. Don’t bother with slot or Phillips screwdrivers until your kids have a real need for them. These tip designs demand more skill to use, with no corresponding benefit as far as a teaching tool. Add some stout carpenter’s pencils, an adjustable wrench and a few small spring clamps to the collection as gift-giving occasions arise. Safety glasses and ear muffs (available in child sizes) should be added to the tool collection before any need for them actually arises. Make health and safety a visible part of the discipline of manual labour.

Restricted tools include a small Japanese hand saw (get some plastic guards to protect the teeth), a utility knife with retractable blade (the kind that takes 3/4-inch wide blades is best in my book) and a 12-foot tape measure. The sharp edges of any metal tape measure can cause cuts if it’s retracted against skin. Keep this tool in the restricted class until kids become experienced 8 or 9 year old apprentices. One of the best tools you can get for children to shape wood with is a spokeshave. It allows ribbons of wood to be removed from a chunk of lumber in a satisfying way, yet the blade is almost completely enclosed.

Workshop supplies are at least as important as tools, and the popular ones at our house include three kinds of tape (electrical, masking and duct); carpenter’s glue; 5 minute epoxy (for kids older than 10); 2 inch finishing nails; assorted lengths of #10 Robertson wood screws; and lengths of dowel (1/4-inch to 1-inch in diameter). If you don’t have your own workshop that generates wood scraps, consider buying a bundle of cedar shingles. They’re soft, thin and can be used by kids for small buildings, decorative plaques, boxes and countless other things.

Although I don’t believe in letting kids do whatever they want as they grow up, I have found that the best workshop lessons happen when youngsters tap into their own vein of enthusiasm to make items that address their personal needs. What do your kids wish they owned? Instead of buying things, let their needs fuel project activities. Popular building campaigns at our house have included a Game Boy lamp, wooden light sabers, ballet toe shoes made of electrical tape, a wood-and-stone toad house for the garden, boomerangs, archery bows, a bicycle carrier made from a plastic ice cream container, a duct tape tool belt, and a wooden treasure box. Your job as workshop parent isn’t so much to suggest a project as to be technical adviser and tutor when ideas start flooding in. And believe me, they will.

Posted on November 19th, 2010

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