A recent Food for Thought article that aired on NPR explored the seemingly counterintuitive notion of letting toddlers play with knives. Sujata Gupta, the author and mother of a 3-year-old, writes, “Both my mother and mother-in-law recoiled when I suggested letting my son try his hand at chopping. Yet research, and the experience of educators, suggest that parents such as me would be wise to hand a tot a knife.”
That “recoil” is understandable, given that maternal instincts are to protect, not arm our children with implements of self-destruction. But, as Gupta discovers, allowing small children to wield real tools is a means of attaining self-efficacy, something that kids these days urgently need.
It may come as no surprise to TNCS parents that The New Century School has always operated according to this principle. TNCS primary classrooms follow the classic Montessori curriculum, a huge part of which is fostering independence, even in the very young. The Montessori philosophy is based on the observation that children learn by doing. They crave hands-on experiences, which is also a form of “play.” (In this sense, there’s a profound difference between “playing with knives” and “playing” with knives. The former is an invitation to accidents; the latter is an absorptive lesson in proper use.)
Of course, TNCS students are not handed honorary steak knives on matriculation. Step by step and through practice with preliminary “works,” they earn the privilege of using knives in the classroom for helping with food preparation in the Practical Life mode of the curriculum. Says TNCS primary teacher Martellies Warren: “I trust students with real tools once they show that they can be responsible individuals in other areas of the curriculum—such as if they have mastered or are working toward mastery in the art of using materials with care, working with materials from start to finish, working independently, caring for the classroom environment, and just overall being gentle and empathetic toward others.”
Catherine Lawson, TNCS’s most senior Montessori teacher, agrees. “Children want to do activities that include using knives; however, they know that they have to show that they are focused and responsible.” Once students have shown this level of consistency, says Mr. Warren, “they are allowed to use such tools as knives, hammers, graters, and peelers to prepare real food as well as serve themselves and each other.”
TNCS primary teacher Maria Mosby describes her process this way: “We use knives for spreading first (hummus, cream cheese, sunflower seed butter). The kids love to practice spreading butter on their bread at lunch time, and it’s a great opportunity to help out and practice at home with toast or sandwiches.”
Once the children demonstrate responsible spreading, they can move on to slicing, starting with softer foods and progressing to firmer fruits and vegetables. “We always stay nearby, but trust that the children are capable,” said Ms. Mosby.
And that, says Mr. Warren, encapsulates the “spirit and uniqueness of the Montessori philosophy!” He says that this type of “honor system” stems from Maria Montessori’s belief that the child should self-direct. “I often tell parents to ‘let go and trust’ their little individuals. In my experience this has been one of the most challenging task for parents to do.”
Letting go and trusting might come more easily if parents knew just how successful this model is for cultivating that self-efficacy mentioned above. Ms. Mosby offers this explanation: “I have never been let down. I think it’s the fact that the students know they are using real tools that makes such a difference. They don’t use them as weapons. They are very careful and know that tools used improperly can be harmful.”
So, as Gupta says, “Go ahead and give your toddler a kitchen knife.” You might just get breakfast in bed from your aspiring cheflets.