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Tinkering 101 story image

Tinkering 101—Woodworking
in the elementary classroom

As a boy I loved to tinker, taking things apart and rebuilding them, just because I could. I feel fortunate that I had a pre-digital childhood, my hands on actual toys, not virtual ones. I played outside almost every day. I'd ride to my friend's house, we'd have an adventure or two and I'd ride home. If my bike was misbehaving, out to the garage I'd go. I'd grab my Dad's tools and start to tap here and turn there until a light bulb went on in my head. No Googling or YouTubing for tinkerers of my generation! I could bounce ideas off my like-minded friends and my Dad, who seemed born to fix things.

These early tinkering experiments, both failures and successes, led me to working on engines. I would take them apart just to look inside and figure out how the parts relied on each other to make the whole thing work. When I grew up, I became a journeyman automotive mechanic and, since I liked to teach others to fix things, I went on to teach woodwork, drafting, and automotive mechanics in high school.

I encouraged my own children to tinker too. My woodshop was their woodshop. They started handling screwdrivers at a very young age and were soon enough swinging hammers, developing the confidence to keep on trying, despite a few bruised fingers.

When my youngest son wanted to make a birthday gift for his friend we created a woodworking kit, cutting wooden pieces for a little truck and wrapping them in a brown paper lunch bag with nails, wood glue, and sandpaper. The success of that little kit started me thinking; my kids had access to a workspace with tools, they had my guidance, and they had the freedom to tinker. Many of their friends did not.

I took my first woodworking kits into my boys' classrooms, volunteering to teach the teachers. With their feedback, I learned what worked for both teachers and students, fine-tuned the classroom kits, and created workbooks. Eventually the parent advisory councils supported the purchase of the kits, the teachers (many had no experience with woodworking) were grateful for my guidance, and the kids were the big winners, taking home successful projects they built using their new skills.

When kids work with wood in a classroom setting, the atmosphere is electric; they explore tools, they touch the wood, they smell the wood, they anticipate what they can do and then they get down to business.

Because I still want to see all kids tinker, to hold tools and feel materials, to wonder how they go together and learn that they too can create, I developed a creative woodworking program, The Elementary Woodshop, that supports elementary teachers to deliver successful applied design, skills and technologies (ADST) experiences. I presented at the 2016 Provincial Intermediate and Middle Years Teachers' Association (MyPITA) and Career Education Society Conference conferences, sharing hands-on projects and a cross-curricular workbook with lessons in design, math, science, drafting, and drawing. The materials include an introduction to trade careers and Aboriginal perspectives and knowledge relating to the woodworking project.

I believe our job as teachers is to provide meaningful and successful experiences that just may alter the course of our students' future. About a year ago, I received a Facebook message from a young man who recognized me as one of his past teachers and went on to say, “well sir, it's because of that class that I ended up becoming a jet engine mechanic for Air Canada!”

Learn about The Elementary Woodshop at www.theelementarywoodshop.ca.  

By Peter Farkas, retired Vancouver Island technology education teacher
Reprinted from Teacher magazine, Volume 29, Number 2, May/June 2017