When we think of typical activities for preschoolers that help support their development across multiple domains, what first comes to mind are manipulating playdough, cutting, gluing, climbing, running, and puzzles.
But let’s walk that back some and consider, instead, having children engage in authentic activities. How about working with hammers, nails, saws, and hand drills? Um… Excuse me? Yes, encouraging children to play with traditional carpentry tools can enhance their learning experience and create excitement about learning.
Using real tools provides real-life experiences that plastic, miniature substitutes could never do. Although the idea of heavy tools and sharp edges may initially seem like a bad idea that could pose unnecessary dangers, with careful foresight, planning, and supervision, tools can be an amazing addition to the preschool classroom.
Children’s natural tendency is to MAKE – they are creative and artistic beings after all. Having tools provides children with the opportunity to bring their ideas to life, but, more than that, it’s an opportunity to create in a way they would usually not have the ability to in their classrooms. The added element of risk and novelty makes it an exciting and alluring task for children, too.
Providing these types of real experiences may seem to be novel and trendy right now, but I had a functioning workbench years ago when I was teaching my own class of preschoolers. Sure, parents may be a little skeptical at first, but when they see first-hand how this is thoughtfully implemented and realize that safety is always the first priority, they are usually all on board with it.
OK, so what does “thoughtfully implement” look like? It’s a process that, yes, takes time, but it is necessary if things are to go smoothly, safely, and provide the most benefits.
First, before using tools, there has to be some discussion with the children about the names of the tools, what they’re used for, how to hold them, and how to manipulate them. Then, the children should be given the opportunity to explore one tool at a time- first in a group situation… a kind of “Show & Tell,” where the particular tool is carefully passed around from one child to the next to be examined with hands and eyes, and ears. They are being taught respect for the tools in this manner.
Next, that tool will be introduced to the workbench station, under close supervision. Ideally, the workbench would have enough tabletop space for 2-3 children to participate and have adequate personal space. There would be duplicates of that tool for each child. The children would be introduced to protective gear, such as googles and work gloves, and instructed on when these would be required.
When all of the children have had a week’s worth of hands-on experience with this first tool, the teachers can introduce a second one. During the second tool’s week-long introduction, both tools can be used at the workbench.
The teachers can introduce as many tools as they like, using this sequence. But, it would be a good idea to have no more than 3 different tools available at the same time, so the children would not become overwhelmed with choices… which often causes issues. There would also be duplicates of each tool, so none of the children at the workbench would have to wait to use them.
As part of the “thoughtful implementation,” natural consequences will need to be discussed. For example, if a tool is carried away from the workbench, if it is handled too close to another child, or if the tool is deliberately misused and the teachers have given more than 2 reminders, there will be consequences. And, as with all rules, the best compliance comes when the participants help to come up with the consequences!
Surveys were conducted among preschool programs in Great Britain that have been encouraging play with traditional carpentry tools for two years or more. The results were published in “Tomorrow’s Guide,” a child care information and industry database in the UK. Among the real tool benefits reported were increased communication among the children, longer concentration and focus, a sense of responsibility and pride, motivation to learn, and increased self-esteem. These child care programs also saw the use of these heavier tools helping to develop strength in the children’s hands and arms that would benefit them when learning to use writing instruments.
These programs reported very few, if any, accidents while using the tools and attributed this to being well prepared for the activities. The teachers said the children were well-supervised during the tool play, were instructed to play within their own space, and even taught how to conduct a risk assessment of the activities they were about to engage in.
Letting children use real tools may seem to be risky play and I suppose it is, if compared to handling plastic hammers and rubber screwdrivers. But, when teachers take the time to adequately instruct and prepare children to handle real tools, the benefits really outweigh any risks involved. It’s just a matter of some real fun!