Skip to main content

Where children play with knives, and that’s a good thing

Leif, sitting out in the woods

In a country known for its innovative society and green lifestyle, Leif Christensen would also include a statement on child development in Denmark.  The associate professor of Outdoor Education for Pre-school Children at University College Lillebaelt, Denmark, notes the differences between Canadian and Danish approaches to children. 

He points to a playground at a daycare near UofGH and wonders why it’s so small, why the natural ground has been covered with gravel, why the play structures and the toys are made of plastic, why the climbing structures have rails.  He asks about the scheduled activities with strict time boundaries, and it’s evident that in his questioning is a kind of bewilderment, a mystification we all experience when confronted with a different culture.

Mr. Christensen’s perspective is grounded in what he calls the Scandinavian understanding of children’s culture.  He takes a deep breath as he tries to find the words to explain this succinctly.  He reaches for a piece of paper on which to draw, and says he’s used to working with his hands.

He outlines three intersecting circles.  “If this circle is nature, and this circle is handy craft, and this circle is technology, then somewhere in the middle where all three meet is what my research is focused on.”

He writes the name Arne Trageton above the circles, a Norwegian researcher, who showed that children’s construction games – constructing with concrete, with clay, sand, with wood – stimulate their social, linguistic and cognitive development. 

“Even though this knowledge exists, we do see a tendency, also in Scandinavia, that children from a very early age are taught using traditional scholastic methods,” he says.  “I wanted to recognize this research, but take it one step further.” 

He reaches for a clean piece of paper, and draws what looks like a saw.  “Children are often handed knives that can’t cut, hammers made of hollow plastic.  Tools that don’t work.  Imagine how frustrating that would be.  I wanted to make tools for children that they could then use to create whatever their imaginations might allow for.”

“I want to see if this will positively impact their development even more.  I believe it will.” 

In 2010, Leif Christensen started his research project.  He made functional, ergonomically correct tools for kindergarteners – whittle knives, two- and three-person saws.  “They’d be sharp, and they’d work,” he says.  Tools that are, in size and shape, suitable for five and six year-olds, that account for a child’s anatomy, muscle strength and coordination.  Tools, he says, that fit as well with children’s culture in Denmark as they do with the children themselves – and in particular, with a kind of education, more common in the Scandinavian country.

“Outdoor education is not only learning about nature,” he says.  “In Denmark, you find several outdoor kindergartens, located in the countryside, where the children mostly stay out all year.”

A new, though growing concept here in Canada.  Dr. Nikki Martyn is the program head of Early Childhood at UofGH:  “Denmark seems to have a very different perspective on children.  There is a willingness there to trust children to learn in the outdoors.  Trusting their common sense, trusting their abilities.  Which we look at differently, here in Canada.”

She continues:  “Here, we get anxious over children using a blunt knife to cut food at the age of two.  It wouldn’t happen.  But there – at the age of five and six, they whittle twigs and tend to fires with no adult supervision.  They whittle soapstone, they whittle wood, they sharpen their own knives.”

“Somehow, within Danish culture, it all makes sense,” Dr. Martyn concludes. 

Outdoor sites in Denmark can, naturally, look very different.  A site could be a very large outdoor playground that might include goats and hens.  It could be on the beach by the sea, or it could be an old farm with barns and open fields.  No plastic play structures or concrete terrain, that’s for certain.

Mr. Christensen:  “Days are typically unstructured, where children play in nature, climbing, swinging, exploring by themselves or with a pedagogue – what we call our teachers.  We don’t teach our children – we learn our children.”

He draws a picture of a small chair on the paper.  “This was a gift, given to me by a little girl.  It’s a mouse chair.”  Of course.  “This is what happens when you inspire children, when you allow for them to experiment, to develop.  Instead of giving them ready-made projects that need completion.”

He talks of the importance of what he calls the complete working process.  “When the children want to work with clay, we don’t go buy clay.  We’ll go out into nature and dig it up, put it in a bucket, stir in water, and create slip.  We’ll sift the stones from it, we’ll squeeze it into an old pair of jeans, tie up the legs, hang it, and let it dry.  The children will come feel it after a few days, note the texture, and decide for themselves whether it’s ready for use.” 

“Then they’ll make figurines from the clay, and we’ll burn them in primitive kilns.  A pit fire, of sorts, that gets as hot as a ceramic oven.”

Mr. Christensen is accustomed to answering questions about safety.  Once the children are introduced to the tools, he says, shown how to use them safely, they are able to assess the risks and use them properly.  There have been no accidents. 

“Philosophers dating back to Aristotle have talked about tacit knowledge, or working memory.  A kind of procedural memory that’s learned from working with your body.  This kind of work, we know, can impact brain development.”

Enough time has not yet passed for Mr. Christensen to assess the impact on children’s brain development – but his observations to date do give him hope. 

“I watched as three little boys tried out the saw.  It seemed they weren’t interested in cutting the wood – they wanted to make shavings.  They had to work together, in rhythm, to cut the wood.  They had to problem-solve in figuring out how to collect the shavings.  They found it very difficult.  Imagine how difficult that would be.  They’re improving their social skills, their ability to problem-solve, their gross motor skills, their sense of competency.”

“Another cardinal of Scandinavian pre-school education is participation on one’s own conditions and the possibility to decide by oneself when to participate.  This allows for a certain authenticity in the children’s activities.”

“Children should have the opportunity to choose for themselves how to learn.  They should be out in the physical world, to learn in a way that is natural for their age, that inspires their imaginations.” 

Early Childhood
More News