Woodwork in the early years - too risky?

Updated: Jan 31, 2019

Woodwork provides a plethora of learning benefits for early years’ children. Every area of development is encompassed - playing and exploring, active learning, creating and critical thinking as well as all seven areas of learning in the EYFS framework. Woodwork is an activity that children really enjoy which means they focus on it for longer periods of time than they might for other activities. Their confidence grows as they take pride in their achievements and they feel empowered by being trusted with real tools instead of the usual plastic replicas. However in spite of the significant benefits to children, as adults in loco parentis, we might fear the risks of bringing woodwork to our early years settings.

Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, said at the Nursery World business summit that she was ‘worried about the culture of risk aversion’. She added, ‘While risk should be taken seriously, children need to be able to discover the world, and their natural instincts to discover and explore should not be stifled in risk-free environments’.


It is generally accepted that today’s children don’t engage in risky play as much as earlier generations because of health and safety concerns, but what are they missing out on?


‘Children and young people themselves recognise that ‘you can’t make everything safe’ and that a balance is needed between risks and fun. Children recognise that knowing about risks and how to manage them is an essential part of growing up… Through play, children are able to learn about risks and use their own initiative. If children and young people are not allowed to explore and learn through playing and take part in positive activities, they will not learn how to judge risks and manage them for themselves. These skills learnt through play and other activities can act as a powerful form of prevention in other situations where children and young people are at risk.’ (Play England, 2007)


Susa and Benedict in Ball, 2001 state that ‘…risk taking is considered to have further benefits, which contribute to the development of desirable personality traits, including creativity.’ Gill 2007 further argues that, ‘By providing the opportunities for children to manage their own risks in a controlled environment, they will learn vital life skills needed for adulthood, and gain the experience needed to face the unpredictable nature of the world.’


Children must engage in risky play, but equally we must protect them from serious harm. How can we achieve that balance?


Let’s look at ways to manage woodwork risks in your early years setting.


Adult to child ratios


When children first learn to use tools the ratio of adults to children must be 1:3 and 1:1 for sawing. The adult must stand in front of the sawing area to stop other children getting too close. Once children can use tools safely supervision can be reduced but staff must remain vigilant even though they are not stationed at the work bench. The role of the adult at that stage is to ‘teach in the moment’ by modelling a new skill when the need arises.


Clear rules - zero tolerance


Make sure children know and understand the safety rules. There must be zero tolerance of dangerous behaviour. Children will be keen to follow the rules as they won’t want to miss out. They will understand that misuse of a hammer or a saw can do harm and they will treat tools with respect for the safety of themselves and others.


Look after eyes


Do not cut MDF wood near children due to excessive dust. Children must wear eye protection at all times due to the risk of flying nails and sawdust. Pete Moorhouse (Woodwork in the Early Years) recommends safety glasses over goggles as they are easier for young children to take on and off and are more comfortable to wear.


Use tools correctly


Make sure both adults and children know how to use tools properly - send staff on a training day. Pressing too hard with a saw is a common mistake, and wood must always be clamped when being sawn. Avoid woods that are hard to saw like hardwoods and plywood. When hammering, hammer very gently whilst holding the nail in place and when it is secure move fingers before hammering harder.


Buy suitable tools


Make sure tools are a high standard and well maintained. It is worth paying more for saw blades, for example, to make sure they are very taut and do not snap.


Safety check wood


Make sure there are no splinters, and remove any nails that stick out. Children can be taught to use sandpaper to smooth splintery wood.


Watch for trip hazards


Make sure the floor area is clear and the workbench is set out in an area free from distractions.


Keep woodwork out all the time


If woodwork is out all the time there won’t be crazy rushes of children all wanting a turn at once which makes it easier to enforce the ‘two children at a bench’ rule.


First Aid


Know where to find a qualified first aider and have a first aid box to hand. But remember, when woodworking with children in the early years, the worst accident you’re likely to see is a hammered finger or a small cut to the hand.


Related articles


Play Day http://www.playday.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/risk_and_play___a_literature_review___summary.pdf


Play Safety Forum http://www.playengland.org.uk/media/172644/managing-risk-in-play-provision.pdf


The Benefits of Risky Play, Somerset County Council file:///C:/Users/cfhew/Downloads/The%20Benefits%20of%20Risky%20Play.pdf


Woodwork in the Early Years by Pete Moorhouse https://cdn-communityplaythings-uk.azureedge.net/-/media/files/cpuk/library/training-resource/woodworking-booklet-early-ed.pdf?d=20181009T155932Z

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