Friday, January 07, 2011

Two-Year-Olds With Hammers

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.

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Barbara Zaborowski said...

I teach a class of four and five year olds, who have access everyday to our workbench. I have yet to see anyone threaten anyone else with a hammer or saw or screwdriver. We do have a problem with the rubber mallets that we use to crush cans; the kids sometimes need reminders not to raise the mallets up and behind their heads. (There might be someone behind them.) That's the extent of our problems!

Heather said...

I work at a preschool that has a mix of 2-5 year olds. Yes planning is tricky, trying to engage everyone at once. But that's besides the point. I started at the preschool about 2 months ago, and noticed that the carpentry bench was NEVER being used. I love carpentry, and the idea of letting children use real tools, so I've been getting the hammers out as regularly as I can. I'm off to buy some clamps today so that we can start introducing the saws and the hand drill.

My children are mostly still at the hammering in bottle caps stage. I"m curious to see if and when they will move onto the "wanting to make something real" stage.

Unknown said...

I love this idea and I love your statement at the end about the more tools children are exposed to and learn how to use the more the world opens up to us - it really is simple! This is good stuff, thanks so much for sharing!

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

Since I've realised that Edubloggers do this "Best Blog Post of the Year" award (ie a month ago) I'm on the silent hunt for poignant posts.

This one of them.

This post should be compulsory reading for every pre-school teacher/educator on the planet. And every aspiring teacher.

Thanks for writing this. I am so frustrated by visiting nurseries and pre-schools that are frightened to use tools. Yet this can be done in a responsible rather than reckless way as you point out here.

Until now, today was a bit of a Black Friday. Now I see light at the end of the tunnel (that has not been switched off for financial reasons).

Let the Children Play said...

It makes my heart sing to think of those little ones with all those years ahead of them working with real tools in a place that respects them and their abilities. Just imagine what they could be building for you!

Deb said...

I had the good fortune to interview a great science communicator, Karl Kruszelnicki. He said one of his role models was the man who taught him to sharpen a screwdriver, because tools are how we change the world so we need to be able to maintain our tools.

Jrothh said...

Hah! wonderful. I am totally committed to the idea that kids need exposure to real tools as it creates competency and confidence.


Wocket said...

I've just started using tools with my 2 year old. We found an old set of shelves during the annual kerbside collection for large items. We've put it on it's side and have been sanding it, getting the extra screws out and using a hammer and chisel (I hold the chisel as it's razor sharp). Yesterday we bought the wood to add extra shelves so that it can become a long shelf as she was part of the choosing process for the wood as well. I love seeing her become so involved in something so real world.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

Your image of the child is inspiring. "Two Year Olds with Hammers" challenges current discourse in our field that views children as vulnerable, needy, and unable. I should post some pics of our two year olds with ladders. This tool narration is great, but this isn't the first time I noticed you have an insipring image of the child, that you act upon. I check your blog often, and have started one too. It's important to get these ideas out.

YES..looking forward,

Susan Miller

RuthyToothy said...

As a 33 year old who can't hammer in a nail straight to save her life, who mangles the heads of screws trying to use a driver, etc etc, I SO wish I'd been exposed to even a fraction of the wonderful experiences you offer the children at your school! I now have a 15 month old son, and am trying to work out how I can do some of these things at home, especially given my own ineptitude! Thank you so much for your inspiration.

Taith Bedwen Arian said...

I love this. My two year old wanted to help me cut down cardboard with a utility knife. Her job was to stand outside of my safety circle and put the cardboard in the recycling box when I was done cutting each piece.

Now I want to know where we can get safety goggles for her.

Megan said...

I agree that it is super important to let the children work with real tools - unfortunately I have been hampered by the AZ health department, who are convinced that two year olds can't handle anything sharp. I had a wonderful sawing tool - it was a structure to hold the thin piece of wood in place so the child's fingers couldn't get even remotely close to the blade, yet they could saw the wood strips and then sand them and glue them together (they were too thin for nails). The lawsuit thing is the trick - the health department said we can use any tools that are specifically manufactured for 2-year-olds, so I'm thinking I need to go into business making tools for little ones!

Anonymous said...

What size/weight of hammers do you use?

Teacher Tom said...

@Anon . . . We start them out with 7 and 9 oz. hammers, until they have the basic skill down, but move them up to the 1 lb. hammer as soon as possible. Frankly, even adults find it challenging to drive nails with the smaller hammers and it can get frustrating when the progress is so slow. Instead of urging them to hammer harder and harder (which then reduces accuracy and increases risk) we give them the heavier tool so they can let the hammer do the work.

Anonymous said...

Hi Teacher Tom,

I know you don't always have time to edit your posts, as busy as you are, but I though you might want to change a slight portion of this post to be more gender-inclusive: "but a few, like Rex, demonstrated that their FATHER'S have has been working with them in their own garages." For me it was my mother who showed me the ways of a hammer, power tools, and the like (and insisted on safety while doing so). Perhaps "their parents" or "their folks" would work better.