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Monday, July 29, 2013

Real tools for kids: dangerous or respectful?

When my son turned seven, a friend of mine gave him a gift that he treasured for many years. Even now, twenty years later, he still has one part of the set in the kitchen drawer in his marital home.

The present was a set of half a dozen Victorinox kitchen knives.

Are you horrified?

Victorinox is the company that makes Swiss army knives. These things are wickedly sharp. I once cut my finger to the bone mishandling one of their pocket knives. Perhaps you're wondering what on earth my friend was thinking, putting such dangerous tools into the hands of such a young child.

But you know, every chef will tell you that the really dangerous knife is the one with the dull edge (how many of you have cut yourself trying to slice a tomato with a blunt knife?). And my friend knew some important facts about my young son:

1. He was already an avid cook.

2. He was not the least bit interested in hurting himself.

You know, I don't think he ever cut himself with those knives- certainly not as a child- and he never left them lying around. They were treated with great care and respect.

He was careful, because he knew they could hurt him badly if he wasn't.

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Axelsson

He was respectful and always put them away in their box- both to keep them sharp, and to keep them where he'd be able to find them. He knew they allowed him to do the creative work in the kitchen that he really wanted to do, and he was prepared to plan ahead to make sure that kept happening. (There was absolute hell to pay some seven or eight years later when one of the set disappeared after a party at our house. I heard about it for weeks.)

Now, let me tell you that this was a child who was disinclined to neatness and putting things away! His room was always absolute chaos- toys from one end to the other, Lego and train track and heaven knows what else all mixed up and all over the floor. But those knives- that was a totally different story. 

These are tools, but they're not real. They wouldn't have had
any respect shown for them from my child, no matter what
age he was. They would have been strewn all over the floor.

A two-year-old might be given the plastic toys in the previous
photo- but here's a two-year-old using a real hammer with
perfect competence. Photo courtesy Suzanne Axelsson.

WHY? Why did my son have a different attitude to the knives?

I suspect that the difference was that he was given a real set of tools. My friend had shown him great respect by trusting him to use those knives carefully and for the intended purpose, and he rose to the occasion.

Also, she knew him well, even though they saw each other rarely. She had managed to create a relationship with him in a very short span of time- and because she understood his interests, she chose the right real tool to give him. She showed real respect for him by doing this. 

So what's my point? What can we learn from this story?


We can learn that respecting children's abilities can create respectful behaviour in children.

We can learn that giving children real tools can be a game-changer, with long-term impact.

We can learn that relationship is the basis of knowing what a child wants to work with, and the key to them doing it safely; remember, play is the work of childhood.


Many adults are frightened by the thought of allowing children to use real tools- particularly those who look after groups of other people's children. 

"What if they hurt themselves?", they say. "I can't have my eye on them every minute. What if they hurt someone else? There are so many children with impulse control issues! It's too dangerous!"

Let me deal with those points, and show you HOW we can make using real tools in the classroom safe. (Parents can easily adapt these methods to use with their own young children.)

1. Children will not set out to hurt themselves, and they are unlikely to hurt anyone else if the preparation is adequate.

If children hurt themselves when using real tools, then the problem is either:

(a) that these children weren't interested in using them the right way (ie, it was the wrong type of tool to give to those children) 


(b) that the preparation by the adult was inadequate.

I am absolutely not recommending that we place razor-sharp knives in the hands of a room full of four-year-olds. However, a four-year-old is completely capable of having a turn of using a sharp knife to cut a birthday cake, for example, if the exercise is preceded by some sensible preparation. (In fact, many much younger children can do this given the right preparation.)

So how do you prepare children to use real tools?

I often start with story books which show a particular tool being used. This is a 'seed' for discussion, and that lets you find out whether the child or children are interested in using that tool. (What child isn't interested in cutting a birthday cake?!)

The next step is to open up a discussion about safety. I might say, "You seem pretty interested in using a sharp knife to cut something. Would you like to try?" (And wait for the response- no prizes for guessing what most 4-year-olds would say!)

And then I might continue,"But sharp knives can be dangerous. Has anyone here ever cut themselves? It hurts, doesn't it!! Do you think we need some safety rules? What rules do you think we should make?"

Remember- children are MUCH better at observing rules if they've had input into making the rules.

I would, of course, provoke responses about matters they hadn't raised. "Do you think it's safe to grab a sharp knife? Do we need a rule about that?" You have to think this whole process through before you start- I'd make my own little list of important points to cover in advance.

And finally, "What shall we do if someone breaks a rule?"

I'd write down the rules and consequences that all the children agreed on. I'd try to write it in positive language- for example, "only hit nails" would be a positive rule for hammers, and "only hold the handle" for knives- but it's actually more important to be faithful to what the kids say. I'd use their words wherever possible.

No, they probably can't read the rules at age four, but in a class situation I'd write them down as a poster and put them up on the wall. That is a literary learning experience! I'd milk it for all it was worth! I'd read it back to them, pointing to the words- their words.

And then, when the real tool came into the room, the groundwork would be done. The rules would be there in black and white, everyone would have had a part in agreeing to them, and we would all know what was going to happen if anyone did anything silly.

Once children have made their own rules by mutual consent, they are wonderful at policing them. You probably won't have to open your mouth.

2. Children with impulse control issues need you to do extra work on relationship and supervision. Then, refer to point 1.

We all know that children with impulse control issues need extra supervision and extra one-to-one attention. The fact is that these children can hurt others with seemingly harmless items- I've seen a child hit a peer with a simple wooden block so hard the peer had to be taken to the hospital for stitches. We have to supervise these children closely all the time. 

That is not an excuse to deny all the other children access to real tools.

But it does mean that we have to think harder about our preparation. 

We may need to find a quiet area, make good eye contact (unless there is an issue with autism) and discuss again with this child, calmly but enthusiastically, what has been decided by the whole class. 

We may need to make a point of asking this particular child (or these children!) what they think of each rule while the class is making them, and we may need to ensure they give an individual response about each consequence. "Do you think that's fair, Brett?" (We need to ask a few kids each time, especially anyone who's not paying close attention!- singling out the child we feel might have a problem with the activity is not constructive.)


Having a child with very severe uncontrolled behaviour in our room will usually mean having an additional staff member present for some hours of the day. Those hours are the time to use real tools, with directions for the extra staff member to concentrate solely on helping this child to succeed

(Note: those words are important. If you start with a negative mind set, a negative outcome is likely. Children read and respond to atmosphere.)

You might be surprised at how well a child like this responds to a 'real' activity- children with Aspergers, in particular, are often adept with real tools and might find themselves leading the class rather than feeling isolated!

All children are good at something. For some, using real tools
might be a breakthrough moment which gives them a real sense
of competence. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Axelsson.
And of course you don't have to start with a sharp knife, if that terrifies you out of your wits. You can start with a screwdriver and an old, non-functional piece of electronic equipment- "What do you think is inside this CD player?"- or toys which are past their use-by date. You can start with some soft pieces of wood, some small but REAL hammers and some sharp nails (a plastic comb can be used to hold the nails in place while children learn to strike the nail head; a magnet in an old stocking leg from panty hose can be used to pick up stray nails from the floor afterwards). You can start with any real tool your kids show interest in, as long as you've thought it through and prepared the class.


I'm singing the same song I always sing, aren't I? Respect, relationship, reflection. 

Children are capable beings, and if we respect their capabilities we will very often be amazed by what they can do. Offering them real tools is a way we can show this respect.

Children are people just like us, and they like and need to be part of a healthy, respectful relationship. They like to be involved in decisions that affect them. Involving them in making and keeping safety rules is a way we can enhance this relationship, as well as looking after their welfare and helping them develop risk assessment skills.

Teachers need to reflect if their planned activities are to succeed. Reflect on the children's interests and likely behavioural problems before you start- then plan and prepare, and you'll find that real tools can be a very positive contribution to your educational programme.