Should we let toddlers play with saws and knives?

Last week, I stumbled on a beautiful and moving picture of young children learning. It’s a fragment of a silent 1928 film from the Harold E. Jones Child Study Center in Berkeley, Calif., founded by a pioneer in early childhood education. The children would be in their 90s now. But in that long-distant idyll, in their flapper bobs and old-fashioned smocks, they play (cautiously) with a duck and a rabbit, splash through a paddling pool, dig in a sandbox, sing and squabble.

Suddenly, I had a shock. A teacher sawed a board in half, and a boy, surely no older than 5, imitated him with his own saw, while a small girl hammered in nails. What were the teachers thinking? Why didn’t somebody stop them?

My 21st-century reaction reflects a very recent change in the way that we think about children, risk and learning. In a recent paper titled “Playing with Knives” in the journal Child Development, the anthropologist David Lancy analyzed how young children learn across different cultures. He compiled a database of anthropologists’ observations of parents and children, covering over 100 preindustrial societies, from the Dusan in Borneo to the Pirahã in the Amazon and the Aka in Africa. Then Dr. Lancy looked for commonalities in what children and adults did and said.

In recent years, the psychologist Joseph Henrich and colleagues have used the acronym WEIRD—that is, Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic—to describe the strange subset of humans who have been the subject of almost all psychological studies. Dr. Lancy’s paper makes the WEIRDness of our modern attitudes toward children, for good or ill, especially vivid.

He found some striking similarities in the preindustrial societies that he analyzed. Adults take it for granted that young children are independently motivated to learn and that they do so by observing adults and playing with the tools that adults use—like knives and saws. There is very little explicit teaching.

And children do, in fact, become competent surprisingly early. Among the Maniq hunter-gatherers in Thailand, 4-year-olds skin and gut small animals without mishap. In other cultures, 3- to 5-year-olds successfully use a hoe, fishing gear, blowpipe, bow and arrow, digging stick and mortar and pestle.

The anthropologists were startled to see parents allow and even encourage their children to use sharp tools. When a Pirahã toddler played with a sharp 9-inch knife and dropped it on the ground, his mother, without interrupting her conversation, reached over and gave it back to him. Dr. Lancy concludes: “Self-initiated learners can be seen as a source for both the endurance of culture and of change in cultural patterns and practices.”

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