A few weeks ago, I read an article about an unusual bird in New Zealand. It featured a kea, a species of parrot that inhabits the higher, colder, alpine regions of the country. Visitors to New Zealand are warned not to feed any kea that visit picnic areas, and to be mindful of the kea’s propensity for using its powerful, hooked beak to shred windshield wiper blades, tires, and any rubberized trim on a car.
Fortunately, my encounters with the New Zealand kea were at a safe distance from those fearsome beaks. But Bruce, the kea featured in the article I read, was unusual in that he was missing part of his beak. He had learned to use other objects such as stones in the essential task of grooming his feathers, or preening. The use of tools by birds and other animals has been well-documented, but kea had never been observed using tools before, which meant that Bruce was demonstrating the ability to solve a unique problem in response to his physical condition.
Research shows that our brains may perceive objects that we touch as an actual physical extension of our bodies. Other studies demonstrate an evolutionary link between language development and tool use. In any case, my many years of teaching science have taught me that there is almost nothing that motivates children like opportunities to use tools. Whether digging, constructing (and deconstructing), launching, spinning, lifting…, if there isn’t a tool that has been invented to accomplish a desired goal, children often figure out a way to create and use it. The process may work in reverse as well. A child finds an interesting object and begins to test out its capabilities. Is it good for hammering? Sharpening? Connecting other objects? Splitting them in half?
We saw this passion for tools throughout the summer at Camp Jemicy, where the younger kids were taught how to use chisels and mallets to carve designs in logs. Those campers who are now attending school at Jemicy cheered as if greeting old friends when they saw the gleam of the new chisels that we acquired, and then promptly put them to use.
Some of the first science lessons for the JE community this fall involved simple machines: wedge, ramp, lever, wheel and axle, pulley, and screw. Each of these was introduced with hand movements, names, and games, so that students would develop muscle memory of the shape, action, and language associated with the machine. Our first project was building toolboxes while identifying the tools used in their construction: saws, sandpaper, screws and screwdrivers.
Challenges followed: lifting a classmate with a shovel, using a stick as a launching lever, racing cars down a ramp, lifting buckets of water using pulleys.
The transition of these concepts from classroom to fort play area was instantaneous.
Kea use their beaks to shred human-made items not necessarily in a search for food or from some destructive urge, but because they are what is known as an “open-program” species. The flexible behavior of such animals “has less to do with the ability to learn than with the animal’s orientation toward learning. Such individuals actively seek out opportunities for acquiring new skills and making use of novel materials…. [The] environment presents a set of continually changing circumstances – a situation in which play should evolve in its most striking form.”* This sounds a lot like the human children I know.
In 1964, Abraham Kaplan declared, “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” While this, too, is true of many children, it implies that we need to help diversify the toolkits that they are equipped with. Given the “open-program” nature of childhood, the more opportunities kids have to discover, create, play with, and pursue their affinity for diverse tools, the more options they will recognize for future action.
*(Kea, Bird of Paradox: The Evolution and Behavior of a New Zealand Parrot, by Judy Diamond and Alan B. Bond)