“So they just play all day?”
Every educator working in a play-based student directed environment has heard a potential parent speak these words during a tour. With the current educational status quo, concerns about school readiness are cropping up earlier and earlier in children’s lives. Some private kindergartens in our nation require five year-olds to have familiarity with cursive writing.
Thinking back to my childhood, I didn’t even attend preschool. I spent my years as a tiny babe in a franchise daycare environment with no academic focus of any kind. When I transitioned into public kindergarten, I couldn’t write or spell a lick to save my little life. I have a very vivid memory of trying to sound out the word “of,” and finally concluding that it must be spelled with an O and a V. In under two decades, our expectations for young children have shifted dramatically.
But the truth of the matter is every program can be “academically focused” as long as it encourages mutual respect and cooperation between students and teachers.
Trusting that students are capable of directing their own learning journey means believing that they have the ability to comprehend the deeper significance of that journey. Excessive rote learning does the opposite; it makes the assumption that there are things students just need to learn, whether or not they understand why that content is important.
Our job as educators is to listen to the students and let them choose what they want to learn. Once they decide, all we have to do is use that content as a filter to incorporate the academic lessons we deem relevant or essential to each student.
For the past year, wood has been that filter for our students. In my opinion, it is the ultimate transformative part. It comes in almost limitless variation of color, shape, size, texture, and even smell, and it can be used in myriad ways. Its versatility can be harnessed to pique the interest of any student regardless of age, gender, or ability.
Woodworking encourages the development of critical thinking skills. To succeed in their endeavors, students need to set goals, create a plan, and mindfully select their materials. Every child has different goals, which means every child approaches a piece of wood differently. Additionally, each piece of wood behaves differently based on its age, freshness, type, and size. One student given a piece of red cedar may make it her priority to restore the wonderful smell within, while another student may turn his focus to deepening the crimson color he finds beneath the bark. In a way, carpentry is an exercise in using tools to reconcile the personality of the artisan with the personality of the wood. To do so, students need to possess an intimate knowledge of their tools, the wood, and themselves.
Carpentry tools are powerful learning materials in and of themselves. By encouraging children to use real tools, teachers can enable students to freely provide themselves with limitless opportunities for academic learning. Rulers, measuring tapes, rubber mallets, saws, peelers, and chisels are all physical manifestations of the power of mathematics and physics. Through the use of tools, children learn to codify a chaotic world in terms of standard and non-standard units. Students also gain the satisfaction that comes from using their own two hands to transform the world around them. Both experiences cultivate an intense sense of personal confidence and motivate young learners to interact with their learning environment with a greater sense of curiosity.
Through the process of understanding tools, children learn about simple machines, an essential lesson of elementary physics. Given the opportunity, children can use their critical thinking to determine that what is really splitting the wood isn’t the axe at all, but the shape of the axe. A wedge-shaped rock and a rubber mallet can be used to the exact same effect. Our students have on many occasions used spare wood scraps to construct see-saws capable of supporting the weight of two to three children on each end, simply because they understand balance in terms of equal applications of force. The study of basic tools quickly turns into the study of anthropology and human history, bringing with it complex discussions of how people have used tools throughout time.
The use of tools also helps students associate academically important subject matter with powerful positive emotions. A child measuring a line on a piece of paper is measuring because measuring is what is expected of them. A child measuring a log to create a set of blocks that they and their peers will use in their own classroom will remember that experience every time they pick up a block for the rest of their formative years. Students learn to love measuring not because it is useful (which it is), but because it reminds them of how they felt when they finished that set of blocks. Accurate measuring therefore becomes a source of pride. Smiles, tears, and sweat are the mortar that holds academic lessons together.
The study of trees is an obvious place to start for students to gain insight into advanced academic disciplines like geology, biology, botany, entomology, chemistry, and behavioral ecology. Although they are separate fields of study, the boundaries between them become seamlessly blended for students learning in a natural environment. Trees provide for us by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen; for the Tennessee native Eastern Grey Squirrel by giving her a home and a granary; and for the Peliated Woodpecker by giving him a place to hunt and the sustenance they need to survive. As an integral part of most ecosystems, trees hold the key to interdisciplinary investigation. Studying trees means learning not merely about the trees themselves, but also the animals and bugs within them, the soil beneath them, and the minerals and nutrients that comprise them.
Make no mistake, the purpose of this article is not to convince educators to include carpentry in their day-to-day lesson plans. This article is an invitation to slow down, listen to the students, and find a way to channel their interests toward preparing them for the next stage in their academic journey. It is an illustration of a powerful alternative to the more traditional methods of rote learning that have been ubiquitous for so long in school readiness curricula.
Find your “carpentry” and use it to create powerful learning moments that your students will remember for years to come. Make sure adding simple integers brings a smile to their tiny lips because it reminds them of the time they got covered in sap from counting a hundred pine cones. Make sure lessons of state geography prompt a retelling of the time a red-tailed hawk flew over their lunch table, or the time a black-capped chickadee landed on a branch right over their hammock. Do everything within your power to assure that each and every tidbit they learn is paired with an experience so impactful that their childhood memories and academic lessons become indistinguishable from one another.
In other words, teaching students academic subject matter is not an obligation, it is a privilege. Reading, writing, physics, mathematics, biology, geology, and botany aren’t abstract pieces of information children need to learn as they move up the educational ladder. They are living, breathing pieces of our everyday lives. As educators we have the power to make academic learning visible through whatever lens our students desire.
The key to school readiness is simple: ignite children’s passion, and let it burn.