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Most adults would hesitate at the thought of young children handling a shovel, striking nails with a hammer or wielding a saw. Yet, more nurseries are beginning to swap plastic toys for real tools to reflect ‘real life’ situations and to enhance individual learning and development.
The movement has seen many nurseries across the country equip themselves with workbenches and carpenters’ tools, as young children are becoming more familiar with sharp edges and metal blades.
York House Nursery in County Durham introduced real tools into the nursery two years ago, enabling children as young as two-years-old to gain first-hand experiences holding and manipulating tools.
“Can you imagine digging in the garden with a plastic spade or cutting a cucumber with a plastic knife and the frustration it could cause?” said Barbara Corrigan, manager at York House Nursery.
“We introduced real tools with the initial idea of providing real life experiences for our children. Incorporating these into the nursery environment has made it more inviting for the children, which in turn, has made them more focused and motivated to learn,” she added.
Real tools enrich learning experiences
Advocates believe the ‘implementation of real tools’ in a nursery setting enriches children’s learning, enhances their motor skills and gives them confidence in their own abilities. Yet, critics worry that arming young children with heavy and sharp equipment can be overtly dangerous, posing a serious risk to their health and safety.
Kevin Harcombe, author of ‘Risky play’ believes the benefits of children using real tools are two-fold. The use of real tools in an early years setting promotes children’s self-regulation and self-control as the consequences of misusing the tools are also very personal and very real.
He said: “Most early years settings will have some plastic tools. This is fine, but how much more fun would real tools be? A real spade to dig with, a saw that actually cuts materials, a hand drill that makes holes, a hammer that’s weighty enough to knock real nails into real wood.
“The children can achieve something. If they only ever use light plastic tools, not only will the skill of using them not develop, when they get their hands on real tools later on they will not have the understanding of consequence to limit themselves.”
According to the early years practitioners at York House Nursery, introducing real tools into the nursery environment has improved a range of skills in young children, including: communication, co-ordination and fine and gross motor development.
Furthermore, the act of using real tools has also been found to support the healthy development of young children’s arm and hand muscles, which helps individuals to familiarise themselves with pre-writing tools, before they move into their first year of primary school.
Similarly, engaging with ‘real’ work, using real tools, often engages whole body movement. In this sense, Ms Corrigan believes the use of real tools intrinsically motivates boys and sustains their concentration for longer periods of time.
She explained: “An impact on all areas of development could be seen with all of our children, but interests peaked with our boys.
“We often found we could encourage them to write as they would have to make lists of the equipment they needed or draw construction designs, before we even got down to the tool work.”
’Risky play’ provides opportunities to explore boundaries
Although the use of real tools poses a danger to young children, the nursery ensure that children are supervised at all times and are supported in gaining the necessary knowledge and confidence to assess risks and dangers.
“At first, practitioners and parents were wary of the safety implications and unsure of how using real tools would benefit the children. It has been a long journey and taken a lot of time to educate both practitioners and parents, but they are now on board, understanding that the positives hugely outweigh the negatives and that safety is always our first priority.
“Our children feel very important and grown-up when using the tools, thriving on the responsibility. Yet, although our children were excited and eager to play with the equipment we knew we needed our children to understand they had to 'Be Safe and Feel Safe'. This soon became the nursery mantra,” Ms Corrigan added.
York House Nursery have taken many steps to accommodate the 'Be Safe and Feel Safe' approach. Boundaries have been put in place around the use of tools; children are told to keep to their own space, and protective clothing is worn at all times if the children want responsibility of using the tools.
Commenting on the implementation of a new risk assessment, Ms Corrigan said: “A new red, amber, green assessment has been introduced, with practitioners using the system to decide if the activity is high-risk, needing lots of supervision (red) or low-risk (green).
“Our children soon became knowledgeable about taking safe and controlled risks, what each tool could be used for (cause and effect) and became adept at solving problems.”
’Early years practitioners must manage associated risks’
According to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), early years practitioners and parents are required to teach children how to embrace and manage risk. It states that ‘providers must take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of children, staff and others on the premises’, and ‘take reasonable steps to ensure staff and children in their care are not exposed to risks’.
Commenting on the use of real tools in day nurseries, an Ofsted spokesperson said: “Ofsted is focused on outcomes. It is up to early years settings to decide how best to deliver the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) learning and development requirements – and make sure that young children can enjoy a safe environment in which they thrive.
“Early years managers must make sure they do this in a way that identifies and manages any risks to young children.”
Furthermore, Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), believes that ‘using real tools is still relatively uncommon in nurseries, yet more settings are using real objects, rather than smooth-edged, plastic simulations’.
She said: “It needs real, expert early years planning and supervision but it can be a very rich learning experience for children.
“All activities like this are on low adult-to-child ratio, normally 1-2 or 1-1, and closely supervised. Children are supported to spend time risk assessing for themselves and understanding boundaries and consequences.
“Through this, children start to understand how to use tools safely, reducing the risk, for example, of them exploring their parents’ tools without supervision. If they know how to use tools safely from an early age they can start to risk assess different activities and tools for themselves. This then helps them to gauge risk in other areas of their lives and learning.”
Plastic toys leave little room for imagination
As with any kind of pretend play, plastic toys provide children with an opportunity to emulate the adults in their lives through their interaction with the materials.
However, plastic tools can often leave little room for children to do anything substantial, meaningful, or realistic with and can diminish the opportunity to build new skills in relation to problem solving, critical thinking and responsibility.
According to Mr Harcombe, real tools are far more interesting to young children, offering them a sense of accomplishment and enthusiasm for constructing, building, engineering, and creating.
In a risk-averse society, it is important not to deny young children the opportunity to experiment with their surroundings using real tools.