Zealously at work. Manual crafts communicate elementary laws of physics

Reinhold Öxler, Ning Huang

Manual crafts and physics

Physics lessons, starting with manual things, are very accessible for children because manual crafts are connected with getting hold of something, grasping it, a natural way of acquiring something of the material world. Many examples in physics lessons can be explained using the manual crafts, for example how to make fire.

In Chinese mythology human beings first made fire using wood. It was Suiren who is said to have discovered fire as he was drilling wood. Suiren corresponds to Hermes in Greek mythology.

Apparently it was the Shangdingdong people in northern China who had mastered the technique of making fire as long as 18,000 years ago. By telling such myths we can familiarise pupils with prehistoric times – with how civilisation began and the people of the time made fire.

Starting with the phenomenon in physics

The physics lessons which start in class 6 start with natural phenomena and seeks to achieve that the pupils can experience the respective phenomena with their soul and spirit in a pictorial way. According to the curriculum, thermodynamics, optics, acoustics, magnetism and electricity are dealt with in class 6. When people ask: “How can we do heat?”, crafts can support physics lessons very well through the link with practical examples and experiments; for example through fire in forging or the friction which occurs when we drill wood.  

The pupils have a direct experience and observation of the phenomena.

Experiment: drilling wood

Material: the shaft is made of pine and the board of lime. A mast with a ship’s flag is to be attached to the wooden board.

Two pupils prepare the rope on the shaft (bow drill). One pupil holds the wooden shaft and turns it vigorously with downward pressure; the other holds the wooden board. After a several attempts smoke begins to develop as a result of the friction. The charcoal which is created in the drill hole ignites by itself through the heat from the friction. The only condition is that enough oxygen-containing air is fanned over it.

In generating heat through drilling into the wood, they experience the connection between movement and heat. The heat from the friction is an archetypal phenomenon. Starting a fire with our own hands and a basic tool is an unforgettable experience for everyone. Thermodynamics in physics can refer back to a concrete sensory experience. This simple experiment delights pupils to such an extent that they will repeat it each day for weeks on end. They refine it with a “fiery” enthusiasm and increase the speed at which they can do it considerably, so that a flame lights up within seconds.

About the authors: Reinhold Öxler is a woodwork teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Free Waldorf School in Stuttgart and a member of the woodwork teachers’ working group in the German Waldorf Schools Association; he and Ning Huang teach at the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) Stuttgart.