Thursday, September 23, 2010

If You Can Make A Box, You Can Make Anything

When you think about it, it's amazing how much of the man-made world is constructed from boxes.

Cabinets are essentially boxes, as are book shelves, drawers, foot lockers, storage containers, and pretty much everything else in which we "keep" our things things.

Tables are based on box construction, as are chairs and bed frames.

My sink is a kind of box, as is the fridge, stove, and microwave.

Our cars, buses and trains are based upon the concept of boxes.

Stairs, closets, nooks, rooms, and entire houses are boxes.

What could be a better thing than to teach preschoolers how to build their own rectangular prisms? With that skill under their belts, what couldn't they accomplish?

So it was with some small, rectangular plywood scraps, a supply of which we've been living off since Keira and Aiden's mom Lynn donated them several years ago, that we set to work. Now, I've been watching young children drive nails almost daily for the past 6 months and while most of them manage it quite well, fully driving a single nail can take a lot of time and effort, and successfully building a box was going to take a minimum of 12 nails. A few weeks ago, Dennis' dad Terry suggested that it might be fun to occasionally create a kind of woodworking "kit" construction project by having an adult precut wood and pre-drill holes, by way of speeding up the process for kids, too many of whom were giving up on or scaling down their original magnificent visions after encountering 10 minutes of working on a single nail. Since our wood scraps were already cut to a standard size, all I had to do was halve a few of them to serve as ends, then drill holes in the corners of the pieces where the nails would go. The kids would still need to do some real hammering, but it was with smaller nails than we'd been using, and into the sides of plywood, which I figured would give way to their 7 oz. hammers fairly easily.

I love the cooperative school model for a lot of reasons, but as a teacher, there is no greater luxury than to be able to provide ample adult support for complex projects like this. For most of the session there were at least two adults on their knees beside the work bench, and often 3, assisting 3-4 kids at a time in their efforts. We found that despite the pre-drilled holes it was still useful to start the nails for the kids, but after that they could do the rest.

I'd originally thought we could use our vices and clamps to hold the pieces in place as the kids hammered, but with all those adult hands available, we sped thing up by holding them ourselves.

Hammering nails is tricky business. There is a balance one must strike between power and accuracy. Not a single child began by erring on the side of power yesterday, which has been my experience throughout the time I've been doing woodworking with children. There is a knee jerk idea out there that putting a hammer into the hands of preschoolers is a recipe for mayhem, and maybe there is a rare kid who would just start smashing, but personally I've yet to encounter a child who didn't approach the task with focus and concentration. You'll notice, for instance, that many of them use a two-handed technique.

This is done to achieve accuracy, not power. In fact, more often than not, I find I need to encourage the kids to swing their hammers harder in order to get the nails to budge. This means a few more misses, including a few that caught my own fingers, but the direct hits were more successful.

This was no "drive-by" project. These 3 and 4 year-olds stayed focused and working for a good 5-15 minutes each in order finish their box. That's a long time to maintain concentration in a busy, noisy classroom, full of all kinds of potential distractions.

Not every child took the time, nor had the interest. Their day will come. But the ones who did were rightfully proud of their accomplishment.

Some of them painted their boxes, while others ran around gathering loose parts with which to fill them. And if you look carefully at this picture, you'll see something else we learned. You'll notice the nail in the lower left corner was bent before it was entirely driven. Instead of pulling it out and starting over, we just hammered it flat, using the "That'll hold" technique known to woodworkers around the globe.

And now that we can build a box, we're ready to join in the universal project of building the rest of the world.

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Barbara Zaborowski said...

When I started teaching, I certainly never would have given a child a hammer, being sure that it would be treated like a cardboard tube, which instantly becomes a weapon. But I am always impressed with the concentration the kids show to hammering. I have NEVER seen a hammer used as a weapon; I have never even heard it threatened. Now I give my 4s hammers, hack saws, and just got a brace and bit for them.

Glad to see the universal use of goggles. A flying nail is much more dangerous than a hammer in the hands of a preschooler.

Unknown said...

Love your next mission! Rebuilding the world.

Ruth Churchill Dower said...

This is fantastic stuff, Tom. Full of common sense, adventure, fun, children being in control of their learning, adults scaffolding this, etc., and yet often so rare in state-run schools. Please can you find the key to cloning your openness to great ideas and spread it around the world!

Play for Life said...

Like I've said to you before Tom, children thrive on doing real work and this is a perfect example of that. I reckon you could introduce your children to making geo boards like we did recently. They don't need to drive the nail all the way into the wood which is very appealing to those children who tire of the whole bang, bang, bang ... and the fun they had with those rubber bands was endless!
Donna :) :)

Teacher Tom said...

@Barbara . . . Thank you for noticing the eye protection, sister. It's like seat belts and bicycle helmets for us. No one questions it.

@Ruth . . . I've found that good teaching emerges out of experience combined with simply being who you are. There are as many styles of good teaching as there are teachers. If there is a key openness and great ideas, it is to fight against standardization, which seeks to take the individual out of teaching, making it not education at all, but rather indoctrination.

@Donna . . . We've been working on a giant one for several months, one nail at a time. One day it will be completed, I'm sure. =)

Noah said...

"And now that we can build a box, we're ready to join in the universal project of building the rest of the world."
can't think of a more inspirational note to end this post on - wow!