Sharp, pointy things are an integral part of a day at 50 Dangerous Things camp - whether it's a whittled stick, a splinter or a knife. We've just taken delivery of a couple of new knives, for testing - they are Hultafors 'craftsman' knives with delicious brightly coloured handles (so we don't lose them in the undergrowth) and pronounced finger guards. One knife has a rounded 'safety' tip and one a lovely, pointy tip. Both are very sharp carbon steel and I am hoping that after a bit of testing, we'll be able to replace our rather elderly (albeit much loved) Opinel knives.
Learning how to use a knife safely, and finding out what a knife can do, is a crucial skill. When I'm working in schools and early years settings, we spend a deal of time exploring the 'benefit risk' approach to risk assessment, and I ask teachers think about what children would miss out on, if they didn't have the opportunity to experience particular risks. This idea of 'reverse risk assessment' was developed by our friends at Learning through Landscapes and is a helpful way of putting risk into perspective.
So - what would be the risks of not allowing children to play with sharp knives? Perhaps:
When they come across a knife, the child isn't aware that they can be very sharp, and that real 'outdoor' knives are not toys
The weight of a knife and the way it balances is unexpected, and it could therefore be dropped
The child doesn't appreciate that if they drop a knife, it could cause injury
Removing and replacing a knife in its sheath needs to be done carefully to avoid cuts
Children are unaware that working with a blunt knife is more dangerous than with a sharp knife
Children don't know to store knives securely to avoid accidental injury
Knives are great fun to use, but are not suitable for every cutting job; if they don't get to play with a knife, children won't learn that choosing the right tool for the job is essential.
We have relatively few knife injuries at 50DT; whittler injuries are much more common, and not just because we use them more frequently. By the time children use our knives, they have mastered whittling technique and can be trusted to remember they key rules when using our knives:
Ask before taking a knife - most of our resources (including whittlers) can be freely accessed by campers; knives are the exception.
Whittle / cut away from your body - most cuts at 50DT are caused when children whittle towards their body and whittle their own knuckle rather than the stick.
Keep your 'helping hand' well away from your 'working hand' in order to avoid accidental cuts, and to maintain fluidity and balance during the cutting motion.
Sit down so that your whole body is stable and you have space to work that won't interfere with other children.
Whittle / cut towards the ground and either between outspread legs or to one side of your body - this avoids any chance of the blade cutting into thighs.
Keep the knife sharp; discard blunt whittlers; frustration is the leading cause of knife cuts and happens when the tool won't cut through the material.
A leather glove for your helping hand is always available if needed.
The lovely Opinels have served us well; they are rounded tip knives, which fold and have a 'safety ring' to prevent the blade from folding in use. However, they've been sharpened many, many times and the rather fiddly folding mechanism needs regular WD40-ing. I've also found that the handles are not chunky enough to encourage a really strong grip in our older children. The Hultafors knives should address all of those issues, and the Opinels will continue to work well for our younger children, for as long as we can keep the blades sharp. It's also important that our campers use a variety of knives - partly so that they can develop an informed preference, but mostly so that they understand every knife feels different in the hand and must be respected.
Find out more about how we have developed our approach to risk in play:
Our original inspiration - the Fifty Dangerous Things website
Gever Tulley's absolutely brilliant TED talk - 5 Dangerous Things
The Health and Safety Executive's high level statement on risk in play
The Play Safety Forum / Play England's Managing Risk in Play Provision guide
The International School Grounds Alliance's Risk Declaration
The Free Range Kids movement in the USA