Kids, knives, and creation care

By Rusty Pritchard

Kids need knives.
I still get a laugh when my family goes to a sit-down restaurant, to see servers putting out silverware and carefully making sure that the table knives don’t go anywhere near my kids. This at ages up to nine…!

Those servers would have been shocked to see my six and nine year-old boys at home, sitting on the back deck, whittling away for hours, making their own bows, arrows, and spears, and eventually making even elaborate little boats and toys.

I’ve been on camping trips with other families whose own kids were kept far from knives. Their children were warned not to interact with nature.

“Don’t go off the path.”
“Don’t play with the fire.”
“Don’t pick up insects.”
“Stay away from snakes.”
“Watch out for poison ivy.”
“Don’t play with knives.”

My own kids were of course the ones catching snakes, licking slugs, picking up bugs, climbing trees, leaving the path, carving things, and getting the other kids into trouble. They (mostly) don’t get poison ivy, because they know what it looks like. They don’t pick up poisonous snakes because they know what they look like. They know that Florida green anoles (lizards) will bite your earlobes and hang on until you take them off, making great temporary clip-on earrings. They have a lot of fun. Unsupervised fun, for the most part, which is what kids lack these days, according to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and the person who coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder.”

Why the worried parents? Many are themselves uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the outdoors, find camping to be a genuine novelty, and spent more time in malls than outdoors as a child. But I think less is personality and more is culture.

It’s the culture of childproofing and child safety run amok. These parents seem to have the belief that their main responsibility is to deliver their children to college having never been injured in childhood in any way. Of course children seem to have the opposite goal, but without ever encountering danger, they never learn how to handle themselves in the face of it.

It’s also the “Take only pictures; leave only footprints” culture, carried almost to its logical conclusion. Nature is a museum (a dangerous museum), and combining people with nature is a recipe for someone to get hurt, either nature or the intruding human. What we really need is more people in creation, learning to love it and use it and protect it.

Kids need knives. They are one of the most supremely useful tools for interacting with creation. They’re an important part of moral and creative development. And they let kids harvest their own raw materials and modify them for creative play.

loose-parts-being-assembledRichard Louv writes about the theory of “loose parts” that has begun to influence child-play experts and landscape architects. The originator of the theory is a well-known British artist named Ben Nicholson, who died in 1990. Nicholson contended that: “in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” Playing with “loose parts” is far different than the scripted play that goes along with so many modern toys with commercial movie and cartoon tie-ins. Up and down the toy aisles of Target and Wal-mart you don’t find much in the way of raw materials. You find products that require you to buy accessories designed to go with them, which are hard to incorporate with toys in other product lines.

Loose-parts play is open-ended; requiring far more creativity and imagination, and developing far more skill and competence, than most modern plastic toys allow (and certainly more than is found in computer games). As Louv writes: “a typical list of loose parts for a natural play area might include water, trees, bushes, flowers, and long grasses, a pond and the creatures in it, along with other living things, sand (best if it can be mixed with water), places to sit in, on, under; structures that offer privacy and views. Go beyond that play area, to woods, fields, and streams, and the parts become looser and even more potent to the imagination.”

Having and knowing how to use a knife gives kids power to transform materials in useful ways. We designate certain weedy shrubs and fast-growing trees in the wilder areas of our small urban yard as permitted source materials for the kids, and keep them around for just that purpose. They learn to use it responsibly. They know there are consequences to their actions with a knife, for nature as well as for their fingers! And they know that their tool needs care, sharpening, and protection from misuse. They also become firm believers in private property when their brother tries to poach their prized possession.

We started the boys off making soap carvings at ages three and four, on Ivory soap, with “knives and chisels” I whittled out of wooden popsicle sticks. They loved it. We started letting them whittle with a knife, under close supervision, seated with a parent and with no other kids around, when they were about four-and-a-half. The rule was that if anyone else approached, they put down the knife.

The best starting “real” knife is a fixed blade knife with a wooden handle and short sharp blade (like the Murphy knife; all the knives mentioned here are available from the Flourish store). At age six they got their own folding-blade pocketknife. Some people like lock-back blades (like the Victorinox Sentinel, a great knife), and we got one for our first son, but I seriously don’t think it’s necessary. The French-made Opinel is beautiful (and cheap), has a single folding blade that sharpens really well and has a lovely pearwood handle—my nine-year old loves this knife. My six year old has never folded the blade onto his fingers (yet).

To see the knives mentioned above, along with soap carving kits and woodcarving kits, go to the Flourish store and in the “Browse by Category” section on the right click on “Children and the Outdoors” and then on the subcategory “Knives and Whittling.” And you must learn to sharpen well! Whether you have kids or not, you should get a strop, a good knife, and the “Little Book of Whittling.”

Originally posted on

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