On Monday, 4-year-old Sylvia was nailing bottle caps to a piece of wood while a couple parents looked on, one of them remarking, "Wow, she really knows what she's doing!"
We've been running our outdoor construction/tinkering station for about 10 months now, making an array of carpentry tools available to our 3 to 5-year-olds on a daily basis. Sylvia has been part of the experiment for 7 of those months, making her one of our most seasoned woodworkers. No one needs a study to convince them that practicing a skill leads to greater competency, but it's still exciting for a teacher when the anecdotal evidence comes in.
Putting real tools into the hands of preschoolers may not be an intuitive move on the part of some adults. I know that the first time my own 2-year-old picked up a hammer in the garage, I caught her seconds later wielding it within inches of the car, clearly taking aim at the fender while saying, "Hammer, hammer, hammer." Mistakes will happen. And what if they hurt themselves or, worse, someone else? It's a valid concern, but as I've pointed out before:
Tools are inherently dangerous, they all have a dark side, a potential for injury if misused, the basic kitchen knife being a classic example, but even a piece of paper can cut. A humble paper clip if inserted in an electrical outlet can have disastrous results. Sometimes we have to let children learn about that dark side through their experimentation, such as by hitting their fingers with an ill-aimed hammer or burning themselves with a glue gun in a moment of inattention. Sometimes we need to protect them, such as with the paper clip and the electrical outlet, because of the potential for grave injury or death. But most of the time we must accept that pain is part of the trade-off for benefitting from a tool's power . . .
This week we took the step of opening up the toolbox for the 2-year-olds, starting out with the ever-popular hammer.
The first thing they learned is that eye protection is necessary to take a spot at the workbench, a barrier to entry that was too high for a few of them. Some didn't even make it that far, choosing instead to stand a few feet back, observing. It will be interesting to see if their curiosity draws them closer next time.
One of the most common concerns I hear about putting hammers into the hands of young children is that they'll swing them too wildly, that they'll accidentally brain one of their friends. I've yet to see a child do anything close to that. Even the most high-spirited kids become focused when they're entrusted with these real tools. In fact, the biggest problem the kids have is that they don't swing their hammers hard enough. Their concentration is on accuracy, as it should be in the beginning, but as they start regularly hitting their target, I find myself spending most of my energy coaching, "Harder, harder."
Another worry is that young children are too emotional, that they'll get angry or frightened and use the hammer as a weapon. I suppose that could happen and that's why the adults must always be on the lookout for a child who is getting carried away by emotion. Our mantra is: "If you look mad or sad, you have to leave the workbench until you're not mad or sad any more." That said, in the 10 months we've been doing this we've not once asked a child to put down a tool due to emotion.
In reality, the biggest concern is loss of focus. It takes a lot of concentration
to drive nails, especially when dealing with safety glasses that want to slide
down your nose!
We had as many as 4 of the 2-year-olds hammering at once on Tuesday. I was struck, as I always am, by how cooly they concentrated on the task at hand. Most barely budged their nails, but a few, like Rex, demonstrated that their fathers have has been working with them in their own garages. We even let him have a go with the 1 lb. hammer, a much more efficient tool for driving nails.
Most of the kids at Woodland Park are with us for 3 years. I can't even begin to imagine how competent these kids will be by the time they're 5. It won't surprise me if they build their own kindergartens.
As humans we have being alone, we have talking face-to-face; for everything else we use tools. The more tools we know how to use, the more experience we have using them, the more the world opens up to us. It's really that simple.