Tools And Kids

Build life skills while having fun making stuff.

Tools And Kids

Photo: Daniel Hunter


Canada’s ToolGirl Mag Ruffman believes that kids are born handy. Forget for a moment all the spilt milk and juice you’ve had to clean up.

“Kids have to be handy,” explains Ruffman. “Why do you think they love to build forts? They’re playing out a basic survival instinct.”

Like many kids, Ruffman grew up making forts. “I made tree forts, and forts out of fall leaves. I even made a fort out of sod dug up from the field, with a plywood roof.” Ruffman didn’t stop there. She went on make a career out of building things, mastering every tool imaginable along the way.

Ruffman has seen firsthand how quickly and eagerly kids take to working with tools and building things. And it doesn’t surprise her. “Humans are inventive. We’re tool makers!” She encourages parents to nurture this natural drive in kids. Using tools its not only fun, it also fosters confidence and creativity. And that’s a great thing from everybody’s perspective.

In some homes, the skills involved in using tools for building are passed from generation to generation. Dick Ridgeway, a grandfather of three, grew up using tools. “My dad was a very handy person. He even built our house. My brother and I picked up skills from watching and helping, to the point where my dad would go to work and leave my brother and me jobs to do on the house.”

Ridgeway’s passed some of those skills onto his grandson Cole, now 16. The process began when Cole was just 14 months old. While working on a deck, says Ridgeway, “Cole stuck with me the whole time. He was fascinated by the cordless drill. I had a basket full of screws, and Cole would hand me screws as I needed them.”

As the years went by, Cole continued as his grandfather’s helpmate. “In time,” says Ridgeway, “Cole got to be pretty good with a hammer, which is a fundamental skill that a lot of kids don’t really pick up.”

When Cole was 8 or 9, the two decided to build some bat houses – a project that allowed Cole to combine handiwork with another growing interest – art. “There was a lot of sawing and nailing, which he could do pretty well,” says Ridgeway. “After we had assembled them, he spent time on my drafting table drawing a pair of elaborate batwings that he could trace onto a piece of wood. Then he used a jigsaw to cut out the bat wings, painted them, and attached them to the bat houses.”

Projects like this are a creative way for parents or grandparents to teach kids tool and building skills, says Ruffman. The only problem is, “Many of today’s parents are in a position where they don’t have many skills, either.” That’s one of the reasons behind Ruffman’s latest endeavour – producing a series of how-to videos with Lowe’s Canada for building projects “that help both adult and child learn together,” says Ruffman. “They’re for absolute beginners.”

From watching the videos and downloading instructions, parents and kids can work on up to 15 different projects, anything from a step stool to a drawing table. “The youngest child in our videos was 2 3/4 years old,” says Ruffman, “and she was so on it. ‘Give me that. Let me do it.’” Being able to watch young minds work through the projects, injecting their own creativity along the way, has been “a huge gift,” says Ruffman.

And what do the kids get out of it? “Pure empowerment,” says Ruffman. “They are so focused and engaged, you get caught in their jet stream.” When a project is complete, Ruffman says, “They have such pride. They think everything they do is gorgeous. And it is.”

Safety is critical of course while working on building projects with kids. But with a few ground rules (see sidebar), most kids are good to go.

When she began making her videos, say Ruffman, “I did all of the cutting and most of the screwing. As we went on, the kids would ask, ‘Can I try that?’ They would pick it up so naturally that I started more and more to let them try if they ask.”

For parents and grandparents, the chance to build something with kids has a special benefit. Dick Ridgeway puts it simply: “Working on projects with Cole was a nice way for us to spend time together.”

Building life skills too

The use of tools for building has many benefits for kids. While working companionably with parents, kids are also learning and practicing a series of skills that will help them navigate through childhood and adulthood.

Joe Irvin, a parent and a construction technology teacher at Almonte District High School in Ottawa, says the Grade 12 kids who graduate from his class are far different from their first days in Grade 9. “Above all, they’re more confident. They’ve learned how to work safely and skillfully with a range of tools, design projects from scratch, and make them with their own hands.”

Ruffman has witnessed the same progression in miniature with the younger kids who populate her videos. “When they finish a project, their faces are rapt. They’re enthralled.”

Confidence and a sense of accomplishment may be the most visible outcomes, but research shows kids benefit in many other ways. Using tools:
improves dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and small and large muscle control.
sharpens math skills. “Tape measures are a great way to teach young kids about numbers,” says Irvin. “And later on, fractions.”
enhances problem-solving. “Working on projects is all about puzzle-solving and problem-solving,” says Ruffman. “If something goes wrong, you have to get creative and try another approach.”
promotes patience and attention to detail. “With some kids,” says Irvin, “the biggest challenge is getting them to slow down, to take an extra minute to figure something out rather than go at it full bore.”
allows them to express creativity. The conceptualizing and designing can be as much fun as the making.

Helping your child learn how to work with tools may not always go smoothly, and the results may not always match expectations, but “what’s really rewarding for me,” says Irvin, “is watching someone begin to recognize their abilities and grow. It’s like seeing a light go on, and then burn a little brighter each time they learn something new.”

Safety First

When working on building projects together, make sure your kids respect tools and work safely.

♦ Teach kids all about the tools they are using. What is it used for? What shouldn’t it be used for? Show them how to check for wear or damage before use – broken tools can cause injuries.
♦ Make sure they wear safety gear. Long pants, closed-toe shoes, work gloves and safety goggles are essential.
♦ Show them how to use the tool safely. How to hold it, turn it, apply it, protect fingers, hands, etc. Point out what could go wrong, and how to avoid it.
♦ Teach them to clean up and stow away tools properly. Project leftovers and tools that are left sitting around can lead to injuries.

Tips for a Successful Projects

1. Set realistic expectations, starting with how much time you’ll need. “TV shows demonstrate in 22 minutes how to build an entire deck,” notes Mag Ruffman. “Life’s not like that.” Joe Irvin agrees: “When my son Joey was helping me put up siding on our house, I wasn’t watching the clock. I just wanted to enjoy it.”

2. Involve other family members. “Jack, my 12-year-old, wanted to build an outdoor game that involved constructing some boxes,” explains  Irvin, “so Joey, my 15-year-old, taught him how to use the mitre saw. I just stood back and monitored what they were doing. It was fun for me to watch the two of them.”

3. If your child displays a natural interest in certain tools or activities, foster it. “Some kids get fired up with projects,” says Irvin.”So find projects you can take on together, or encourage your child to take on projects of their own.” If your child’s not keen, it might be from lack of confidence. Spend some time going over what’s involved and how to do it until they feel comfortable.

4. Define what success will look like. Is it finishing the task? Having fun? Having your child learn something new? Just spending time together?

5. Create the right ambiance. “I aim for cooperative calmness,” says Mag Ruffman. “We don’t rush. Chaos and fatigue create tension and cause injuries.”

6. Step back if you can. With Ruffman’s young co-workers, she starts by explaining what has to be done, and then shows them what the finished project could look like. “If the project calls for a tool they’re too young to use, then I do that part,” says Ruffman. “After that, I only help when I’m asked. Or if they’re about to do something unsafe.”

7. Don’t worry if someone messes up. “When the video camera’s rolling,” says Ruffman, “we let all the mistakes play. It’s the nature of creating.”

8. Don’t aim for a perfect outcome. “What I find with the children I’ve been working with is that they don’t expect anything to be perfect, and they don’t have any judgments about performance,” says Ruffman. “Think of yourself as a proud witness to somebody else’s creativity.”

Author: Scott Williams

Scott Williams is a freelance writer and editor who spends way too much time in the tool sections of hardware stores.

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