When we think of tools and children, many of our minds go straight to those chunky tool kits complete with plastic saw, screwdriver, wrench, and hammer. And there's no judgment here if you own one of these or use them in your classrooms. What kid wouldn't want to play with shiny, colorful models of the tools they see their parents and tv show characters using to help solve problems. Children love to pick up these toys and play pretend. Maybe grab the play hammer and bang on the closest object to them and say "I fixed it!" This type of imaginative play is certainly beneficial to help children build vocabulary and learn about the world around them. (And not to mention have fun!)
I promise you that given the choice between that plastic set and a real set of tools a child will ALWAYS choose the set of real tools. This is because children look at adults as role models and seeing us use these everyday tools for a purpose is inspiring to them. Additionally, when we hand them a real tool they understand we think of them as capable beings that can be trusted with something so sophisticated. Not a toy but a real tool. This gives them a sense of pride, intention, and responsibility.
The truth is, real tools provide physical and cognitive learning opportunities that their plastic counterparts just can't match. They are intricate puzzles that take time and concentration to master. And when a child inevitably does learn to use a tool effectively, you will see a sense of accomplishment that can inspire the next generation of constructors and engineers.
So how can you start incorporating tools into your classroom or child's day?
Start with teaching a basic understanding of tools. Webster defines a tool as: a handheld device that aids in accomplishing a task. In simpler terms you can say a tool is an object you can hold that helps you do something. It seems pretty basic, but getting children to think from square one can be helpful when they are learning how to categorize a tool.
If you ask children to give you an examples tools they will likely say the items found in those generic plastic tool kits from the top of this article. (Hammer, screw driver, saw, drill) But if we look closer at tools, it's likely those are some of the least items we use in our everyday life. I have created a list of kid friendly tools (below) that are generally accessible and safe for kids to use.
When providing the opportunity for children to use real tools we need to make sure safety is always the number one priority. You can do this by making your expectations of using tools in a safe and intentional way very clear from the start. In the case of something like scissors, hammers, or dull knives children should know they could seriously hurt someone or themselves if they do not use them appropriately. You will need to show children how to use any tool but these three in particular (and any similar ones you can think of) need to be modeled showing attentiveness, care, and even a bit of caution.
Here is how we defined the set of tools in preschool terms for our classroom:
Sifter - a tool used to separate one material from another. They help strain rocks from sand or smooth out baking ingredients like flour.
Funnel - a tool used to guide a liquid into a small opening. They help prevent spills when pouring one liquid into another container.
Shovel - a tool used to dig or move materials from one spot to another. You can dig a hole in the ground or sandbox or move snow, dirt, and other small materials from one place to another.
Hammer - a tool with a heavy head used to help with construction of something. You can use a hammer to get nails in/out of wood or break things.
Tongs - a tool used to pick up small objects and put them somewhere new. You can pick up something you would rather not touch.
Pipette - a tool used to move and measure liquids. You mix different colors of water or move a liquid into a new container.
Knife - a tool with a handle and a blade used to cut things. You can cut food like fruits and vegetables with knives.
Magnifying Glass - a tool with a lens that helps you see things bigger. You can use one to look closely at small details.
Scissors - a tool with two blades that helps you cut things. You can cut paper, string, and other thin materials.
Measuring Cup - a tool used to measure out liquids or ingredients. You can also use them to scoop materials into containers or bowls.
And remember, just because learning subject seems to be focused on motor skills and cognitive development, you can always find ways to incorporate math, language, and science into your learning invitations. Talk about the tools and their descriptions. Are they smooth, sharp, shiny, rough, heavy, hard, bumpy? Discussions like these can open up thousands of new words to young children learning about the world around them.
We've included a few resources at the bottom of this article for anyone who wants to implement a tool study in their home or classroom. We know they aren't flashy and colorful but we also know how important it is to save the ink in your printers. Here are some previews: