Materials / Properties of Objects / Wood

What are things made of? Exploring Wood and It’s Properties.

In previous posts, we invited you to explore with your child what things are made of. Exploring materials and their properties is fun, but also a basic step in understanding the world around us. The following activity focuses on wood as a material that things are made of, particularly things in our homes. Here are a number of informal learning opportunities you can do inside during the coming winter months.

Wood as a material is prevalent, but there are lots of variations in how it presents itself. Think of the varieties in types, how it is shaped, and even painted. As a material is can be obvious or hard to detect, thus presenting an interesting challenge to a child. Wood can also be transformed or its properties changed. Burning wood is an obvious example. Young children’s knowledge of materials is based on daily experiences, but this knowledge can readily be expanded on by following the easy suggestions below.

Wood is one of our most important natural resources. It is remarkable because it is to a large extent renewable, but it is not so abundant that we should use it carelessly. Reasons for recycling or conserving forests are lessons young children are ready for.




What things are made of wood?


Where does wood come from?


How does it get from a tree to the objects in our homes?




Are there different kinds of wood and what makes them different?


What are some of the properties of wood that make it a good material for building things?


Can wood be changed or transformed (think of changed by heat, water, pressure, or tools)?





Invite your child to find products made of wood. Wooden furniture is the obvious place to start.


Take a close look. What can you see that tells you that something is made of wood? A magnifying glass may help for looking at details. Wood, like other materials, is made up of different parts. When cut into lumber and then made into furniture or other household items, those parts are often visible as different patterns or interesting elements, so look for growth rings, knots, bark, or heartwood and sapwood which in the same tree trunk may appear as two different colors. See if you can find these elements. Suggest that your child draws or sketches what he sees.




Make up a scavenger hunt, finding wood products in your home. “Bring or show me something with wood in it.” Provide post-it notes that can be placed on wooden items that are too big to “bring” to you.  (If riding in the car or on a bus, you can play “I spy with my little eye…” looking for things made of wood)


Painted wood counts as wood material. It might also be worth discussing the various shapes that wood can be cut into. Notice moldings, mantels, or decorative elements in your home made of wood.


Different varieties of wood can smell different. If you have access to sawdust or wood chips (think cedar chips for hamsters or wood chips as ground cover) take a whiff. What does your child smell? This is particularly interesting if you have access to sawdust from different varieties of wood.




Products made from wood also include anything containing paper or cardboard. Toilet paper, paper towels, newspaper, and boxes are also all made from wood.




Design a second scavenger hunt that challenges your child to find paper products (book pages, envelopes, grocery bags, and paper napkins). Once these items are found, suggest that she feel them, smell them, and look at them. How are they alike or different? What makes them unique?


Try and find rotting wood and take a closer look. This could be on a house, such as a portion of a deck or area that gets wet and does not dry well. A dock or other wooden structure that is succumbing to the elements might also offer an opportunity to observe rot. Observe closely. This is another opportunity to use a magnifying glass. If wood is wet over a period of time, what happens to it?




If you can find an example of termites having eaten through wood, this too is fascinating to examine with a magnifying glass. If you live further north, look for damage caused by carpenter ants or wood worms.




Compare and Contrast

Compare wood products to things made of stone, glass, or metal. What are the noticeable differences (its color, how it feels, or the way it makes you feel)?


Wood products also come in different colors. Perhaps you can visit a hardware store and pick up a brochure with different wood colors and use these for sorting.  With crayons or paints try to replicate these colors. How many different kinds of wood, as determined by their color, can you find in your household?




Compare different paper or cardboard products. These too come in different colors, textures, and weights.




Measure and Experiment

Test the strength of wood planks or dowels. Dowel rods and planks can be purchased at your local hardware store. These are nice to have available and can be used in any number of different projects or as part of an imaginary play scenario. For this experiment, balance a smaller dowel rod (1/4” diameter) or thin plank (such as pieces of balsa wood) across two stacks of books. That is, put one end of the dowel rod on one stack and the other end on the second stack. You could also balance the ends of the dowel rod on the backs of two chairs, or two sawhorses if you have those available. If the wooden dowel rod or plank you are using is too thick your child will never be able to add sufficient weight to get a result.


If you are using a dowel rod you will need to rig something so that your child can hang a bucket or container from the dowel. A plastic bucket works well, but you need to ensure that the handle will not pull off. If using planks, you can place objects directly on the plank, but the weight will be distributed rather than concentrated in one area making it more difficult to test the strength of the wood.




Find some rocks and weigh them. Once their weight is known, start adding them to the bucket, keeping track of the amount of weight. The dowel rod or plank should start to bend and eventually if sufficient weight is added, it will break. How much weight was needed to break the dowel rod?


This experiment should demonstrate how strong the wood is, or how much weight it can withstand. You can repeat this experiment with different kinds of wood with the goal of determining which wood is stronger. If you repeat with different wood, then make sure the dowel rods are the same width and length for a legitimate comparison.


Balsa wood is also fun to have around for lots of projects and for building structures. It can be purchased at hobby stores or on-line (for example:




Build things with wooden toothpicks or popsicle sticks. Compare the strength of triangles, squares, and rectangles. Your child can create these shapes using glue, tape or gumdrops to hold the toothpicks or sticks together. You can test the relative strength of each shape by merely pressing down on the structure. Which shape seems less likely to fold or collapse when pressed upon?




Use sand paper on a block of wood. What happens? Try different grades of sand paper. Try to sand different types of wood.




Find different branches from different kinds of trees in your yard. These branches should all be about the same diameter and length. The branches should also be dry. Next, with adult supervision, light these on fire and record the length of time they take to burn. Which wood burns faster? Which burns the slowest. This experiment can also be repeated with blocks of different kinds of wood left over from other projects.




Create blocks of wood that are the same size but from different types of trees. Weigh these blocks and record their weight. Next, place these in containers and cover them with water. Remember, with the exception of ironwood, wood floats. So what can you do to submerge these blocks of wood?   Strategize with your child. After a specified period of time, weigh the blocks. Which gained weight, as compared to when measured as when dry? The added weight suggests the wood is absorbing water. If wood is absorbing water, is it a good choice for construction?


Take pieces of different kinds of wood. Place a nail in each and begin to hammer, counting the number of strokes it takes to hammer the nail all of the way into the block. Does this measurement suggest something about the hardness of the wood?




Make some recycled paper! Here are some sites that will provide instructions.







Elaborate and Glossary

Find a sample of petrified wood and explore it closely. Petrified wood is a fossil. A tree or tree-like plant transitioned over time into stone through a process called permineralization. Essentially all the organic material is replaced with minerals…So technically not wood any longer, but a transformed material. You can purchase pieces of petrified wood. These would make a great gift!





Explore artists who have worked in wood. Louise Nevelson is a particular inspiration for creating works of art from found pieces of wood!


Create your own wood blocks for creating print art. Here’s how:





Does your family recycle paper products? Does your child help? Here are some sites that maybe worth visiting to jump start this process or further family discussions of recycling.







Build and light a fire, make a cup of hot chocolate, have a seat close by and appreciate those logs that provide warmth.















Photos courtesy of Shutterstock


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