Updated: September 2018
We all want our kids to help out: to clean up their messes, feed the cat, maybe gather the eggs. Life works more smoothly when they do, they get the satisfaction of contributing to the team effort, and us parents get some much needed help.
Getting them going with hand tools is a step toward their further involvement and satisfaction with being a contribution. Hand tool work also provides opportunities to work on physical coordination, strength, and the chance to feel the pleasure of working with one’s hands in direct contact with natural materials. And even if a particular task may not be safe for a child, they can likely still be close by, something that can’t be said for working with chainsaws, weed whackers, etc.
In all likelihood, your kids will want to use the tools they see you using. Both my kids, Anabelle is
7 9 and Teddy is 2.5 4.5, love (or would like) to use scissors, pruners, loppers, pruning saws, hatchets and all manner of garden hoes, weeders and kids shovels. Anabelle has used a draw knife and a bark spud, too.
It is up to each of us to know and observe our kids to make sure that the task is appropriate, but here are some guidelines and ideas that I have come up with to get you going.
Basic Ground Rules
- Tools with sheaths of some kind (most hatchets, saws, knives) are always carried with sheaths on. We only take them off once we get to where we are going and have decided what we are going to cut, and are set up to do so.
- No running with tools. Or said more accurately, always walk with tools.
- If we are walking short distances, the kids can carry things like scissors with tips down. Anabelle is good at remembering this, but Teddy is not always. If he forgets after I remind him once, I just carry it for him. He knows he will get it back when we arrive at our destination, and he usually has no problem with giving it to me.
- Always keep two hands on the tool. This applies to things like splitting chunks of wood (see below), using pruners and loppers, or using a pruning saw. If the job requires that one hand be placed on the object to-be-cut, then it probably isn’t a good job for a kid. (Again, age and ability may make for an exception to this one)
- Keeping the above guideline in mind, it follows that large loppers may actually be safer than smaller pruners. Loppers are too big to even try using with one hand, so there is little risk of little Johnny getting his hand near the blade while cutting.
Important note: Though this kind of work with kids is fun, I don’t mess around when it comes to them following the rules and obeying my supervision. I don’t get mad or punish the kids if they forget or get a little over zealous, but after one reminder I generally just give them another tool/task or change our activity all together.
My philosophy is essentially that privilege=responsibility, that the privilege of using tools requires their responsible use. The kids might not see it that way :), but they know that if they follow the rules, they get to use the tools they want and stay safe doing it. And if not, well then not.
Now that you have some basic guidelines for working with hand tools and kids, let’s look at what kinds of work we can do together.
Tasks and Techniques
- Chopping Wood. I like to chop wood, so go figure that the kids, especially Teddy, are keen on it too. To create a safe and satisfying chopping task, I cut rounds of douglas fir on the miter saw from poles 3-6″ in diameter. These end up being 2-4″ tall after I cut them. Teddy is able to cut these standing at a chopping block just like dad cuts kindling. This is challenging enough that he feels really good when he splits one, but not so difficult that he gets frustrated. We burn these little chunks in the wood stove, too.
Notes: The chopping block should be tall enough that the axe handle remains roughly horizontal as it contacts the chunk of wood (the same goes for mom and dad’s block). I keep the kids’ hatchet no sharper than it needs to be to cut these chunks, it is not razor sharp. Teddy usually uses a “Collins” brand hatchet from the hardware store. This is a super cheap axe that I wouldn’t recommend to an adult, but it is great for kids, and you won’t have to worry about it getting damaged.
- Woodlot Stuff. Playing in the woods can also mean doing some ecological services. Kids can use loppers or pruners to cut low branches on saplings while you use a pruning saw or axe to thin dense stands of saplings. You can mark trees that are OK to cut with flagging tape.
Teddy can’t use a pruning saw to cut a sapling, but with supervision Anabelle can. We have a very dense stand of cedar and fir saplings 2-4″ thick that we thinned together. Anabelle then used the saplings to make herself a “cottage” in the woods. I have also cut small trees and had the kids work on limbing them with loppers and pruners.
- Garden Stuff. It is rewarding to show kids the connection between the dirt, the work and then the meal. I have seen Anabelle so happy to announce that we are eating potatoes from our garden that she helped plant. Having a variety of short handled tools that the kids can mess around with (in designated areas!) is helpful.
Sometimes I will make furrows and let the kids drop in larger seeds like beets, beans or corn. I show them the spacing I would like, but don’t sweat it too much when they over plant. I’m going to thin anyway. Broadcasting cover crop seed is also fun and rewarding to see a thick stand of oats, peas or what have you.
Remember to take them back out and show them the results of their work. Harvesting is great and gives opportunities to dig, cut or pull depending on the crop. A great suggestion I got from a Joel Salatin CD (see below for link) is to make the task a game: Mark off a row of beans with flagging tape and see who can pick it the fastest, or hunt buttercups in the garden, throwing them over the fence like bombs….
Here is the link to Joel Salatin’s Audio on working with kids, highly recommended: Getting Your Hands Dirty: How to Teach Your Children to Love Work
I get a lot of satisfaction working with my kids, and I hope you do too. Above all, be creative, use your imagination (your kids will help you with this if you have forgotten :); and do your best to cultivate wonder and appreciation for mother nature as you cultivate your garden or woods. Finding the wonder and appreciation within yourself is the best place to start.
Tell me about your experiences working with your kids. Your comments are greatly appreciated.