Knives and Fires at Preschool? Yes, It’s a Good Thing.

play with fireDo you let your kids play with fire?

For most Americans, child safety means keeping kids far away from anything sharper than a nerf ball.

However, you might be surprised to learn that not all countries treat their children like delicate flowers if they’re under the age of ten (or twenty).

For example, the children who attend this “forest kindergarten” in Germany, spend the entire day outside in all types of weather conditions–even during snow.

They are encouraged to explore the forest, and they use real tools like rope, fire, knives and saws to build and create whatever their imaginations can come up with.

Forest schools are not a new concept in Sweden and other parts of Europe, but they’re just now gaining interest in other parts of the world, including America.

In forest schools, there’s an emphasis on free play, minimal adult guidance, and unstructured time in nature. If it’s cold or wet outside, kids wear extra layers and some galoshes, and they just keep playing (err, I mean learning).

They are supervised, but not “hoverparented”. Kids in forest schools are encouraged to solve problems on their own, or in collaboration with other children. Adults are there to provide guidance and safety, but they do not aim to intervene or direct the children’s activities.

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Children are not given kid-safe (read: useless) tools; instead, they learn to use and respect things like knives and saws, while simply doing the things they are interested in. The forest is an excellent setting for this type of unfettered exploration of the natural world. A growing body of child development experts agree that it’s beneficial to let kids have more opportunities to do things that seem “dangerous”.

Gever Tulley, founder of The Tinkering School, says that playing with so-called dangerous things “enables young kids to become more adept, resourceful, creative and even safer while doing what kids naturally like to do: explore the world around them.” He says that when young children are trusted to work with real adult tools, it helps them improve their critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, and fine motor skills. For example, if children are never given the opportunity to use a sharp knife, they will not develop a proper sense of caution, nor the awareness of what a sharp knife can do.

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When my children express curiosity about fire, I let them experiment with it in a safe environment (in my presence). I offer them information and guidance, and while I’m ready to intervene if necessary–it’s usually not needed. Kids quickly learn the finer points of fire safety while they are keen to immerse themselves in the experience!

Personally, I think that today’s children will be better served if we as parents can keep our own fears in check, and let them explore the world around them more fully. Guidance doesn’t have to be oppressive or structured–and the increasing success of forest schools is proof positive of that. What do you think? Would you send your kids to a forest school that lets them use fire and knives?

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