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Little kids can use sharp tools

GIVING KIDS THE opportunity for supervised use of tools is a great sensory activity that allows them to use their hands. But this requires one-on-one time with a focused adult in a safe area. 

We all know what happens if we give a mouse a cookie or what happens when we give a pigeon a bus. But what happens if we give a preschooler a sharp hatchet? Nothing but disaster… right?

Letting small children use sharp or supposedly “dangerous” hand tools isn’t anything new, and not something I invented. At first glance many would see it as crazy, dangerous or even negligent. I would argue that, with close supervision and instruction, it is exactly what many young kids need, and there’s a method to the madness.

I am in my third term of service with the Willowell Foundation as an AmeriCorps member, giving back to the folks that gave me an awesome high school education, and sharing my passion for the outdoors with local youth. In the years I’ve spent there, most of my service has been at Wren’s Nest Forest Preschool, which serves kids ages 3-5 and emphasizes nature based exploration and hands-on learning, much like Willowell’s other programs. 

My service has given me a venue to teach young children to use sharp bushcraft tools like knives, saws, axes, hatchets, machetes, pruners and hand drills, as well as fire lighting methods like lighters, matches and ferrocerium rods. As adults, we naturally want to keep these tiny bundles of chaos safe, but sometimes overdo it. I believe that the novelty of using a tool can be exciting and empowering for young children, and it gives them a huge sense of agency and awareness of their own safety. Small children are far more competent and capable than many people give them credit for, and using tools is one way of helping children explore their potential.

This doesn’t mean you should let your 11-month-old infant run a chainsaw. When using tools with kids, an adult needs to take into account the developmental levels of the children, and the type of tool being used. Using tools that are proportionally appropriate, if not outright designed for children, will make things far less frustrating for them. At first I gave them an adult size forest ax to split wood. Not only was it too heavy for some of them, and most simply didn’t have the upper body strength to use it effectively. Over time, I scaled down the tools I had them use, and now they are having a much easier time with an old Boy Scout hatchet, or simply using a knife to baton firewood into kindling.

There is no such thing as being overkill with safety, and this requires one-on-one time with a focused adult in a safe area. I like to follow a certain protocol every time I hand a tool to one of the kids: They have to create a safety circle and announce to everyone they’re using a sharp tool. There is zero room for mistakes, and an adult supervising needs to be watching the child, stepping in as necessary to adjust posture or hold the tool with the child while they work. Situational awareness helps make sure no one else enters the work zone. It is essential teachers who want to undertake this should be caught up on their first aid, and I strongly advocate for carrying medical supplies on your person and knowing how to deal with an injury should one arise. 

Finally, tool use is a great sensory activity that allows kids to use their hands. The repetitive motions, using one’s muscles, the texture of wood, and the sound of sawing or chopping will satisfy many children’s urge for something tangible. Even the act of making a mess can be fun enough. When I asked a student of mine why he liked using tools so much, he simply replied “I like the sawdust.”

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Writer’s note: Many thanks to my fellow educators and the parents at Wren’s Nest Forest Preschool for support and photos, Jon Turner for the use of his farm as our classroom, and the neighbors for the use of their forests. Also, to Su White of the nearby Quarry Hill Preschool for her additional photos.

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