Risky tools

It is time for aftercare.  The youngest kids rush outside for an hour of play, but I have a small group bouncing with excitement whose turn it is to whittle.  I hand each of these 7-9 year olds a utility knife with a retractable razor blade.  They don safety glasses and sit along the edge of the stone patio, carefully and patiently slicing slivers and chips off sticks that they have collected from the woods. I sit with them, sometimes whittling a piece of wood myself.  They are quiet, concentrating on their work with an intensity that I rarely see in any other activity.  Finally a boy says, “This is so relaxing.” The others nod in agreement but don’t look up.  They spend the full hour there, getting up only to find a new stick.  A teacher asks what they are making, and they take some time to think about this, examining the now very sharp tips on their sticks.  They know that certain responses may be unacceptable here in school.  “A trash picker-upper,” says one of the girls, demonstrating. “A spear?” asks one of the boys cautiously, examining his stick. “Yes, a spear for target practice,” he announces.  The others chime in, “Yeah, an arrow for target practice.” “A knife to practice throwing at a target.”  Another boy holds up several pale peeled sticks: “These are wands.” He demonstrates with an incantation. The first boy has continued working during this commentary, but finally says, “I’m just enjoying whittling.”knives1

A primary goal of My Fulbright project is to create a toolkit – a meaningful collection of objects that enhance our knowledge and support for sustaining biodiversity.The thought of energetic 8 year olds using razor blades might concern some people.  The same goes for saws, drills, and matches –  more tools that my students use under supervision. My philosophy of giving kids “dangerous” tools is that if they have the desire to learn to use them correctly, they will  gain competence that will serve them for a lifetime.  I don’t regard this use as “playing with knives;” rather, it is a child’s form of work, with as much meaning as learning to use a ball, a ladder, a pencil, or any other tool. Just as important is the confidence and trust in them that I have.  Learning to handle tools competently means that you have experiential knowledge of the hazards of using them unwisely.  Not that I wish for any of my students to hurt themselves to learn a lesson – of course not.  But, just like acquiring the balance and sense of motion required to ride a bike – and hoping that you will never suffer a crash – gaining the trust and dexterity to use a tool like a knife gives you confidence to handle all sorts of things.

In my biodiversity backpack, I would include a pocketknife.  I still remember the one that I was given at eight years old, and how it fit in my hand.  At the time, it went everywhere with me, including into the woods, where I fashioned bows and arrows and dug open rotting logs to see what was inside. Now, I use a pocketknife to collect fungi or part of a plant for identification.  Sometimes, as I walk the woods paths during recess, I cut away bittersweet or honeysuckle vines that encircle young trees. But mostly, I just like having it along, this tool that feels like a natural extension of my hand.

For another perspective: http://trackersearth.com/blog/kids-should-play-with-knives/


Finding and sampling wild edibles at school is something I’m willing to bet very few schools would allow, let alone encourage.  I can’t recall exactly how I got started teaching kids about sour grass (oxalis), making acorn pancakes and dandelion fritters, and collecting wineberries; it seems like it was always a part of being and learning outdoors.  Actually, they introduced me to wild onions, coming back from recess happily reeking. I didn’t grow up doing this, I am fairly certain.  Though I spent a great deal of time playing in woods and fields, my palate was not adventurous.  But when I started teaching science, I came across  several foraging books that intrigued me, and I began to experiment myself with safe, easily recognized plants. Kids quickly became curious, and when I was confident of my ID’s, I let them try sour grass (“no more than three hearts”), shell and nibble on an acorn, and eat garlic mustard and plantain leaves. Sometimes, the taste would make them spit with disgust (an acorn’s tannic acid, or a spicebush berry’s powerful flavor).  Along the way, I provided cautions regarding hazards: location (“Stay away from mowed areas, roads and paths) and plants to avoid (poison ivy, pokeweed, most berries). I was amazed at their accuracy in quickly distinguishing edible and poisonous species.

That spring day when, much to my astonishment, I found a morel mushroom growing in the Jemicy woods, I knew that10258374_661305690613599_6396863428621363374_o I would have to draw a line between the kingdoms of plants and fungi in terms of eating wild foods with kids. Mushrooms demand a different order of attention and respect. The kids could see my excitement, and my concern, and seemed unfazed when I explained that they would be unable to eat these – unless their parents requested that they bring some home for them to prepare – but that they held great value for me. For the kids, the pleasure was in the hunt, and the delight of discovering another “brain on a stick” hiding on the hillside.  They guarded the site and warned away anyone who seemed likely to trample chickensthe mushrooms.
This same protective attitude emerged the next fall when we found a dead log near the stream sprouting a wealth of bright orange sulphur shelf mushrooms: chicken-of-the-woods.  Again, I exclaimed over this bounty, and the kids seemed both curious and glad that I would be able to enjoy them. I hope that they will bring this enthusiastic attention to fungi along into their own adulthoods.

When we take hikes specifically to search for plants, “Is it edible?” is almost always the first question asked.  Curiosity about which wild plants can be safely eaten would seem to be an inherent trait, essential to survival. It also powerfully supports the notion that every plant can be regarded as affording some sort of human action, further stimulating the desire to know, to learn, to recognize what that affordance might be.