Building Skills by Building Things

September 5, 2020

I want to talk about learning by building.

Let’s start here:

I built a birdhouse.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve been steadily taking more of an interest in woodworking. I suppose that’s a bit of an understatement. Twelve months ago, I had never touched a circular saw; today, I’ve got a cozy workshop setup in my basement—various power saws, assorted hammers, a collection of drill bits, a couple sawhorses, clamps, speed squares, a power sander—you get the picture, I’m into it.

Most of the learning and tool-acquiring came about as I took on bigger and more involved projects. I started by building myself a workbench so that I could build more things. Then a huge storage shelf to add some organization to our cluttered basement. I installed doors on the three raw frames in the basement. I even built work desks for my wife and myself.

So after all this, clearly I would be able to knock out a birdhouse as effortlessly as, say, brushing my teeth, right? …Not right.

Of course, the birdhouse didn’t require tens of hours of planning or months of work. But even though it seemed like a simple enough project, I still found myself needing to give it my full attention and concentration for a few hours.

Practicing Concrete Skills

Okay, okay. We’ve established that I built a birdhouse. So what’s my point?

Through this seemingly insignificant project, I discovered what I’m sure will be a central tenet in all of the woodworking I do in my life:

When it comes to a new project that requires planning and building, there is no such thing as effortless.

And I’m absolutely thrilled at this discovery.

My point is that hands-on projects that require pre-planning are one of the richest and most demanding activities I can think of for developing and honing fundamental life skills.

When I took a step back after a building the birdhouse, I could see crystal clear moments where I practiced critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, spatial reasoning, math, motor skills and more.

So why is this relevant in a Board Game Barrister blog post? Because any and every type of planning and building will involve these same skills, whether you’re an architect designing a skyscraper, a Barrister building a birdhouse, or a kid working with popsicle sticks, building blocks or dominoes.

Side note: Building blocks don’t get enough credit as teaching tools. They come with their own inherent set of boundaries and parameters (no adhesion, pre-determined shapes and sizes, sturdy enough to make countless mistakes) and encourage the user to be creative and build within those boundaries. Simple and brilliant, really.

Young Learners Activity—Plan the Build

Make the most of your young learner’s next play building project. With a little extra structure, they’ll be developing and practicing invaluable skills—even if they don’t know it!

    Having a goal is key in encountering problems and finding solutions. If I start building a birdhouse, but I realize I don’t have any wood glue, so I decide to make something simpler—a cutting board, perhaps—well, I didn’t solve the problem I encountered, and the birds in my yard still have nowhere to live. So have your youngster decide on what they want to build and encourage them to stick to that goal. I want to build a cabin with a chimney coming out of the roof. I want a domino course that comes down the stairs and then turns on the TV.
    Have them plan out what they’ll build with paper and pencil (or something more permanent like crayon/marker if they’re feeling confident). Their plan doesn’t need to include every single detail, but it should outline at least the general structure of their project, as well as the elements and objects they’ll use to make it work.

    • Your role in this step should be to establish guideposts for their creativity. Keep them on track, and remind them of their goals. Don’t worry if their plans depart from the realm of possibility. They’ll discover this for themselves and adjust later in the project.
    Talk with them about what parts of their plan should happen first and last. Should we build the entire bottom of the block cabin first? Should we start with the trickiest parts of the domino line, or the easier bits?
    It’s time to get to building. Allow them to make changes as they go. If something doesn’t work the way they had planned it, let them problem solve to find a new solution. Feel free to ask questions to solve problems: Do you think all these other blocks will be able to balance on this one at the bottom? The dominoes might not be heavy enough to push the button on the TV remote—how else can we turn on the TV?
    Don’t forget to immortalize the project they put work into! Take a video of the dominoes toppling, get a nice photo of the block structure. Recording the finished product offers an opportunity to consider what they might do differently next time, but even more importantly, it helps them appreciate their work and remember the work and learning that went into the project.
    (I take pictures of all my woodworking projects, even though they’re all sitting in my house for me to see any time I want.)

If you’re in need of a good block set, I’m particularly fond of the 100 Wooden Blocks set from Melissa and Doug, and the U Build It Plus set from Begin Again.

And of course, we have to give a shoutout to Domino Rally. I’m convinced the urge to make domino courses will live on for eternity in every human soul.

Andy B

Andy B is our Master of Events and Online Wizardry, and that's why you see his picture at the bottom of most posts and events! You'll see him and his beard at all our locations, often with his nose at a computer, creating pages just like this one. His favorite games include The Grizzled, Guild Ball, Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle and Legend of the Five Rings.

Enjoy the article so far? Recommend it to your friends and peers.