We’ve been studying Western expansion for a few months now, and the kids were fascinated by the Oregon Trail. I mean, whole families traveling thousands of miles in a covered wagon – how could you not want to know exactly how that worked? Because of that fascination, we decided to build our own pioneer wagon.
We started with wooden pallets donated by a local auto parts store. My Big Helper used hammers and crow bars to pry the boards off the pallet and to pull out the nails. We kept a bucket nearby to put the nails and scraps in and sorted the boards into nail-free piles as we removed them.
My Big Helper has used a hammer for a few projects before, but she found it difficult to remove the nails. We spent lots of time experimenting with angles and weight to determine how to maximize the force available. After playing around a bit, she was able to remove all of them on her own.
When we had a stack of nail-free boards, My Big Helper and My Little Man started to lay them out. They choose which boards would be used for which part of the wagon and arranged them in the driveway.
We used the thicker, pallet-edge pieces to support the sides and middle of the wagon bottom. The kids each took a side and nailed the boards into the supports. While that sounds easy, it was much harder than expected. We had some short nails that we could pound in fairly easily, but they were a little too short – we needed to use some longer nails to be sure that the wagon was sturdy. The longer ones were too long for some of the boards, though, which is why we used both sizes.
My Little Man found those nails especially challenging. The hammers were heavy for him to use with one hand, but who can hit a nail square on the head with two? If he didn’t hit the head squarely, then the whole nail bent. It became quite frustrating, but after experimenting with several hammers and practicing his swing, My Little Man was able to pound in several nails well.
Sawing the boards to the correct length with a hand saw wasn’t easy, either. My Big Helper got very frustrated during this process – it was the first time she lost her smile. After talking it over, she realized just how important it is to keep going even when you’re tired. She was able to compare this to how the pioneers might have felt way back on the Oregon Trail – and then I cut the rest of the boards with my jigsaw after she measured them for me.
The kids repeated the process they used for the bottom with the sides.
And soon it was time to assemble the undercarriage. The kids took lots of measurements, and then we went off to Lowe’s to buy some expensive nuts and washers.
We used a metal bar for the axle and used clamps to hold it in place. The kids figured out how to use the nuts and spacers to hold the wheels in place.
Since one of the bicycle tires we were using seemed a bit flat, the kids worked together to add air to the tire.
When our metal axle wasn’t strong enough, they took the wheels apart and added PVC pipe in an attempt to make it stronger.
Finally, it was time to sand the boards’ rough edges. There were many, since these were older pallet boards that had spent time outside – but our power sander took care of it quickly.
The kids used another old board and a hinge to make a wagon tongue, …
and then they tried it out.
The wagon looked great – but the axles weren’t strong enough to support the weight of the wagon. Despite our modifications, we decided that it just wasn’t ready to pull other kids in. The kids are determined to figure it out, though, and so work on the wagon continues.
Our efforts weren’t in vain, though. The kids learned myriads of lessons about measurement and weight and force and angles. They learned about levers and axles and hinges and tools.
I taught lessons with labs about simple machines years ago when I taught in public school, and my kids learned those lessons well; but nothing can take the place of authentic, purposeful learning. This project took days, but by the time we finished, the kids were more confident and were generating their own ideas and potential solutions to the problems we encountered.
I love homeschooling.
What projects do you do with your kids?
For more information about prairie wagons, check out these resources: