Real Tools for Kids

AnnMarie Thomas

Making Makers Column from MAKE Volume 29
Recently, while looking online for woodworking tools appropriately sized for my preschool daughter, I came across some construction sets geared toward children. Thinking fondly of the sets I had when I was little, I looked closely to see if I could find one suited for my kids.  

I was intrigued by one kit that promised “real” construction play. While the kits that I played with in elementary school typically included glue, nails, and a rough picture of something I could build with a hammer and maybe a saw, this kit included foam “wood,” plastic tools, and plastic nails. The promotional materials stressed that these are “real materials” and “real tools.” Real: yes. Realistic: no.

The really surprising thing was that this toy is labeled for children ages 6+ and, on Amazon, has a manufacturer’s recommended age range of 6–15. Minutes earlier I’d been confidently pricing hand drills and hammers. Now this toy seemed to be telling me I should wait on those tools until my daughter reaches middle school. So how old is old enough to hand kids real tools? 

Making objects is similar to making music. We would think it outrageous to wait until a student reaches university to give them their first non-toy musical instrument. However, many students reach their first year of college without much experience with tools. I recently spoke to an engineering professor who mentioned that when he asked a class of 35 first-year engineering students how many had used a drill press before, not a single hand went up. How many had taken apart one of their toys when they were younger? Again, not a single student raised a hand. And that’s in a roomful of future engineers.

The more I research children and tool use, the more I notice how things have changed. Kids were once trusted with real, metal tools.In the early 20th century, it was common for elementary schools to teach manual training. In 1900, Frank Ball, a teacher at the University Elementary School in Chicago, wrote, “At the present time no thoroughly equipped school is complete without its department of manual training or construction work.” A book written in 1964 by John Feirer and John Lindbeck, of the Industrial Education Department at Western Michigan University, talks about outfitting elementary school shops and advises that the tools should be maintained well, since “the sharp, well-cared-for tool is safe, easy and fun to use.” Very rarely these days do we hear “fun,” “sharp,” and “elementary school” in the same conversation.  

As a parent and a teacher, I understand the fear of injuries, and suspect it’s one of the reasons behind the decline in kids gaining hands-on skills. When it comes to tools, our risk aversion is causing more harm than good. The promotional video for the abovementioned “real” construction set showed how safe the tools are by having a child saw his hand with no injury. My 16-month-old daughter has plastic tools for now, but I’ll definitely correct her if I see her sawing her arm. We don’t do that with real tools, so I wouldn’t want her to do it with her plastic tools.
Combine an eager child, real tools and materials, appropriate training, and supervision, and you’ll be surprised by the results. More importantly, you’ll see a young maker who is gaining a useful skill and confidence in her ability to bring ideas to life.

AnnMarie Thomas teaches in the engineering and engineering education programs at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. She’s also the mother of two young makers.

This column first appeared in MAKE Volume 29, on page 27.

From the pages of MAKE Volume 29:

We have the technology (to quote The Six Million Dollar Man), but commercial tools for exploring, assisting, and augmenting our bodies really can approach a price tag of $6 million. Medical and assistive tech manufacturers must pay not just for R&D, but for expensive clinical trials, regulatory compliance, and liability — and doesn’t help with low pricing that these devices are typically paid for through insurance, rather than purchased directly. But many gadgets that restore people’s abilities or enable new “superpowers” are surprisingly easy to make, and for tiny fractions of the costs of off-the-shelf equivalents. MAKE Volume 29, the “DIY Superhuman” issue, explains how.


60 thoughts on “Real Tools for Kids

  1. Catastrophic says:

    Forget Elementary School, when was the last time you heard about a High School shop class? If the concern is over younger kids using tools at school, what’s the excuse for not teaching high school students?

    I just looked up a typical high school course schedule for the US, math, english, science, history, and electives that include Sociology and something called “Consumer Skills”…

    All important stuff, to be sure – except for maybe the consumer skills… not so sure about that one. But the point is that none of them are hands on at all, maybe a bit of dissection in biology and a few balls down inclined planes for physics, but the rest are all theoretical or conceptual. There seems to be very little building, making, or getting your hands dirty on display in the current US education system, even less than I suspected.

  2. adam says:

    If someone I knew gave their kid this, I would break in at night and swap it out.

  3. Ben says:

    My kids are 6 and 8. They are both competent solderers with multiple personally completed solder kits to their names (RadioShack rocks!). They have their own (small) wood chisels, correctly sized hammers, screwdriver sets, sanding blocks. They don’t know it yet, but there’s a full set of small-sized sockets/ratchets and pliers waiting for them in the coming months (Harbor Freight is also great for inexpensive tools). They are both competent and safe with a hot glue gun, and require only a small amount of supervision with it now. They also have their own safety gear: shop aprons, work gloves, safety glasses (multiple sets) and even real, but small, construction hardhats.

    My youngest has had the opportunity to run a small manual metal lathe and a CNC metal mill at a friends’ house. Using them, with my guidance and assistance, he was able to manufacture a small (4x6in) 4-wheeled cart from scratch from aluminum rod and ABS plate. The oldest will get that opportunity soon, when out own metal shop is up and running in about a month.

    We also have Snapcircuits kits, which the kids love and explore on their own.

    Net-net: 6 is a perfectly reasonable age to get started, if, and this is the key, the child is interested. It requires a great deal of forethought, careful shopping, and lots of your time to make it safe, fun, and successful. And please do ignore the toy manufacturers – they haven’t a clue.

    PS. Check out Make’s own Sylvia’s Mini-Maker show ( – my kids love her, and can’t wait for her new episode every month.

  4. Dree says:

    Talking about shop classes:
    –I have the drop-front desk my grandfather made as his final high school shop project. That would have been around 1927. The drawer does stick a little.
    –My dad’s final high school shop project was a cutting board. His dad was horrified.
    –My brother didn’t take shop. My dad was horrified. I’m female, so my taking it was never discussed (1980s).

    I let my son use my glue gun essentially unsupervised (I was home!) for his big 4th grade class project. Parents were horrified that he used a glue gun at all. A glue gun. I mean really. He burned himself once, and that was all it took.

    We designed and built our chicken coop last summer, using an old rabbit hutch we found on the street as the bones. I think it is sloppy (my first big design), but friends are shocked. They ask who I hired. The kids did most of the painting and lots of holding and fetching and drilling.

    And the sad thing is, we aren’t really “Makers”–we just wish we were ;)

    1. Goli Mohammadi says:

      Dree, you’re totally makers! :)

      1. annmarie p thomas (@amptMN) says:

        I agree with Goli. You are definitely a maker family :-)

  5. friv says:

    I just looked up a typical high school course schedule for the US, math, english, science, history, and electives that include Sociology and something called “Consumer Skills”

  6. Nathan says:

    I was seven years old when I told my dad that I wanted to make a jewelry box for my big sister for christmas. I had already selected the materials and developed my design, so we went out to the shop and he showed me how to use the table saw and the router, which I actually used to do most of the work on the piece. My sister still has that box and I still get out in the shop. When I am using handtools I will often have my 2 1/2 year old niece at my bench watching and learning; she is already able to name most of my tools. I will be buying a carving knife for her for her 5th birthday if she doesn’t ask for one sooner.

  7. awasson says:

    It’s high time to get kids creating things again. I got a tool set when I was about 6 years old (Christmas). It had a couple of wood chisels, a hammer, pliers, flush cutters, screwdrivers and a hand powered drill. They were kid tools but that just meant they were for smaller hands. I got a set of adult sized tools when I was about 10 years old but I must have got a soldering iron sometime between then.

    All my buddies had access to tools then too. We used to build go-carts, chopper bikes, BMX bikes, motorized vehicles with lawn-mower engines, soap box derby cars (damn, those can be dangerous).

    We also used to do pyrotechnics and made our own gunpowder and model rocket fuel, sometimes more successful than others. Sure we hammered our thumbs sometimes and burned ourselves with soldering irons but we had a heck of a lot of fun in the process too.

  8. Alessandro Lambardi - 5volt says:

    Lawyers. That’s one reason I’m a bit afraid when my 16 YO (who, btw, has access to my tools since ever) saws, drills or hot glues things with his friends.
    I must say I’m happier when he sticks with sons of “simple” people and let sons of high level professionals do their own things somewhere else…

    1. Dave says:

      I think I understand what you’re saying, but try not to let where the kids come from automatically taint your opinion. I’m a principal engineer, and my 6YO has a good set of tools, and a workbench that we built based on his design in a sketch notebook that he maintains. My 3YO is really enamored with the electric screwdriver, but he’s not at the point where he can conceptualize building parts of a larger project- we’re working on it.

      The CEO’s kids down the street would spend all their time in my workshop if they could, but I’m happy to teach what I can as my time allows. It’s not where they come from, its the opportunities they are afforded. Teach what you can, and teach safety first!

  9. marcellenormand says:

    Reblogged this on Maker School and commented:
    A timely article provided by the Make Magazine blog about how children aren’t allowed to use REAL tools these days. Maker School is about changing that!

  10. Ken Norris says:

    My Grandfather taught me how to use a hammer (his big carpenter’s hammer) when I was five, and his saw (carpenter’s rip saw) when I was six. He told me it was OK to use them when he was not around, as long as I didn’t let the other kids ‘play’ with them. I started accumulating power tools when I was 12. That drill is still in use almost 60 years later! I helped my grandson build a shelf for his room (his design) when he was 10. Makers have no excuse for letting it happen in our families.

  11. Tony McDaniel says:

    My son’s elementary school has a woodworking class that start’s in Pre-K. It’s a private elementary school that emphasizes a broad range of educational opportunities. The woodworking, art, music, science and foreign language classes were a major part of why we chose the school.

    I think it’s a great way to develop manual dexterity, learn about tool safety and express their creativity. My son loves it, and is very proud of what he makes.

  12. John says:

    tools and toy have a close relationship. but it needs to be clear which is which. I have two kids 3 and 5 and we have both plastic ‘power tools’ that they like to use and I also have real tools they can access with supervision. As they get older they’ll both get a full toolset, but some tools aren’t toys. it’s a hard line to walk. I want them to have tools and I wanted them to have real tools from the start, but there is the injury thing that you become very aware of as a parent. That’s probably why toy tools are so popular. Here’s the tool set for my son who is 5.
    screwdrivers (small phillips usually, some slotted.) – mostly so he can help change batteries in his own toys
    wooden mallet/hammer (from an ikea toy) – more than suitable for his hammering needs atm. I have a small tack hammer he uses when he needs something with a metal head.
    pull saw for cutting wood (with supervision)
    glue – mostly stick glue which works adequately for this temporary wood creations. real wood glue when he want’s something more permanent, but he’s not usually keen on the clamping time required.

    My 3yo daughter uses the same stuff but not as directed yet.

    they’ll soon change out to all real tools and time in the woodshop as they get older. Real tools let them make real things. pretend has its place, but making things has its place too. you need to balance them.

  13. GeekDadof4 says:

    Gasp! Common Sense? How could you speak of such a thing! The Home Depot type build projects for kids are great. They use real finish nails, and real picture frame hammers. And occasionally smash a thumb. My daughter is a 7th grader, and is in a turning club at school, and will be learning low temp welding in Shop next month (man it’s a well equipped shop for middle school).
    That Engineering story rings deep with me. I was in my required materials class in college when the prof asked if everyone knew what a lathe was. I was the EE in a room full of ME students. And I was the only one who knew it was used to shape metal. My 9 year old got his first pocket knife this year. Would of done sooner, aside for fear he might forget and take it to school. Could you imagine the over reaction?

  14. Lyn says:

    For my 7th birthday, my parents gave me a toolbox and a sewing kit. Neither of my parents were handy, but they recognized early on that I was. That toolbox is probably the one childhood gift I still use to this day. If they’d only given me a soldiering iron, I might have soldered my first circuit board before I turned 30.

  15. Joseph Watson says:

    My daughter is four and I plan on taking her into my shop very soon. its important for their confidence and learning to work with their hands. I follow a blog where this is talked about quite often.

    You dont necessarily start with a saw but can start with a real hammer, glue, nails along with safety glasses. I sought advice on this from the owner of the blog I mentioned. He did this with his daughter.

    I am a hobbyist woodworker and wood turner and hope to let her do as much as I think she can handle but watch to see how she handles it. I too attend the Home Depot kids workshops with her have been since she was two.

  16. Eric says:

    My parents were a bit “hands off” in their style, Father not around enough to care, Mother was like “Okay, whatever you want to do dear”.

    Not the safest, not the most skilled way to learn… but still thankful.

    We built some rather monolithic skateboard ramps, gravity powered carts, boats made from scrap lumber found at construction sights. Figured out how to get flat spots out of skateboard wheels using an angle grinder (it makes a horrible mess).

    Learned everything on my own with the liberty provided by parents who just weren’t there for us. Am I complaining? Nope! I’m glad they weren’t imposing this new wave safety is everything nonsense. Now if only they were there to have busted my ass for not doing well in school in those days…

  17. Daniel Kim says:

    I commented to an article at about teaching children how to cook. (

    Quoting myself here:

    I watched a Japanese anime called “Usagi Drop”, in which a man is raising a 5 year old girl. In one episode, he buys her a “Kid’s Knife”, so she can learn to cook. I think it was either part of the daycare curriculum, or an expected part of raising a young child. I was both shocked and delighted to see that such a specialty implement existed.

    I looked Japanese Kid’s Knife, and got to this link. ( The page describes a small-size knife with a rounded tip, specifically for use by a child. The page has the warning: “Please note: this knife is not a toy. It has a sharp blade and should never be used without adult supervision. ” This is not a toy knife, but an actual kitchen tool that is scaled for a child’s use. It is made of steel, and has a properly sharp edge.

    A dull knife for training a child is a real mistake. Kids should learn early on that all knives are potentially sharp and dangerous items to be treated respectfully. In addition, a dull knife requires extra force to be applied, making them harder to control. A slip using a dull knife at high pressure will be more likely to injure than a sharp knife being used with appropriate pressure. In addition, teaching the use of a dull knife instills bad habits in knifework that must be broken later on.

    In general, children should be taught how to do *real things* using *real tools*, and should know to put on their ‘work face’ when they are working. Cooking, cleaning, sewing, minor repairs, gardening and pet care are all skills that they are capable of learning, and the acquisition of these skills will instill habits of respect and responsibility when the situation calls for it.
    — later, I wrote
    I just looked at the linked ‘child-safe’ knife (in the article). The Kuhn Rikon “Dog Knife” is short, dull and has a plastic handle. The Misono Child’s Knife that I had linked to in a earlier comment is a hollow-ground stainless steel knife with full-tang and resin-composite handle. It also costs a bit over half what the Dog Knife costs, while showing higher quality.

  18. David Wells says:

    I was using real tools at a young age, under the close supervision of my father. And the best part is, we would actually be building things we needed for our house or yard. I remember the first time I used a circular saw to cut a sheet of plywood and it blew my mind. In retrospect I see my father as a Tool Hero, he always new what tool to use and most importantly, how to use it safely and properly.

    I remember building our tree house when I was in early grade school, cutting the wood, hammering the nails and screwing the screws. It was a summer project that was heaven for my brothers and I. I vividly remember one time when my father (a.k.a. my tool hero) was powerfully hammering a nail and on his upswing the hammer claw hit his forehead. I was horrified and thought, “That must have hurt sooo much!!” But as if he was swatting a fly, he wiped the blood off his head and kept building.

    He always emphasized the importance of using the right tool for the job and to this day that is one of my mantras. I am an educator at the New York Hall of Science and have created many trainings and workshops for all age kids based around using the right tool for the job, whether it is a building tool, social tool or any other tool you may use.

  19. Brad says:

    I actually saw a good set of tools aimed at children in Home Depot the other day… and they were real tools … I was quite surprised and amazed… but made me quite happy.

  20. annmarie p thomas (@amptMN) says:

    I wrote the follow up story to this article a few weeks ago:

    Amusingly, I should admit that my 4 year old daughter hasn’t wanted to use her woodworking tools yet. She’s become enamored of sewing, and has been focusing her time on that instead. We look forward to the first woodworking project, though.

  21. Ohmaar says:

    Man! When my dad threw his back out in the summer of 1976, my 12-year-old brother and I (14-years-old at the time) finished framing, siding and roofing the 24 x 40 addition on our house. The only power tool we had was an antique circular saw (metal body, non-grounded plug [GASP!!]) with a dull blade.

    Of course, being a kid was a LOT different back then.

  22. Mark says:

    I helped invent the toy mentioned- the entire reason I did was because kids never touch tools today, and this was a good vehicle to get them started. Today’s safety regulations make it impossible to sell real ones. Age grading is a tough imperfect science. A company must rate it young enough that even if a younger child than listed on the box grabs it, they will still be OK. Sure there are some issues with the sets, but all stem from trying to make it as safe as possible, rules and cost.
    The thing is all kids are different. I was using a band-saw at 5, which I would not recommend to anyone, but I have all my fingers and am a skilled builder because of it, so what is the lesson? Also consider kids are different worldwide. In the US there is no patience or attempt to read directions (a reason the directions in the US are overly simple), but internationally kids and their parents spend longer measuring and building accurately. And finally the parents- Ones like mine encouraged me to explore and take risks and have fun learning- while others will make the task unbearable through over control of the child.
    My suggestion- let the kids be kids- and be a responsible parent. Try to show them how to use tools, and let them go. There is no such thing as a mistake when playing so let them build what they feel. Use your judgement, if they can do more, push them- ( unofficially you can use real tools, screws, permanent markers and low temp glue when the child is ready)- add more materials, build bigger, and use this a way to ease them into real tools.
    Sure, marketing lies a bit in the commercial (all do) and yes its not perfect, BUT I’ve watched boys and girls of all ages (from 3-40) smile and build the most amazing things- most aren’t in the directions. A monkey truck pirate for example. All kids are creative- its adults and rules that put out the spark within.

    Don’t over-analyze- just MAKE.
    Don’t worry – encourage.
    Don’t just read the box- think for yourself.

    Look on youtube for my unofficial ‘How2’ Videos, if you need help building.

  23. Brad Flaherty says:

    I have a daughter who is 4, and I am looking for tools she can use to learn how to make things herself… But tools that are safe. A small hammer is no problem, but as for cutting rigid materials like foam core, or corrugated I can’t find anything that I am comfortable with her using… I have an idea for an ‘extrusion chopper’ – but have yet to make it. Does anyone know of “real tools” that are also safe for a young “maker” like her?

  24. rocketguy1701 says:

    My parents gave me real tools, including a real (if small) saw at age 4, and other than a hilarious misadventure where I almost cut through a support beam for my grandparent’s house (my grandmother wasn’t the hovering type I guess “oh he’s been playing quietly in the basement for hours, such a sweet child!”), I managed to not injure myself or do horrible damage at all (ahh, it was only halfway through anyway).

    If you tell your kid how to handle the tool, and they don’t have a severe impulse control issue or acute klutziness syndrome, it should be fine. Just be sure to explain the obvious stuff they don’t know, like rules for determining which wood is okay to saw on. i.e. not part of the house. Might help if you get a bunch of non-treated scrap wood.

    Either I’m so far out of the norm that I should be rich now from my latest invention (nope, not so far anyway), or you’re *still* overprotecting your kid (I know it’s the hardest thing to not do, but you’re not doing them or the world they’ll be running a favor in the long run). Trust your kid to not want pain, and give her the tools *with simple training* already.

    Well, hand tools, not power tools. Wait for a bit for those, like say, 7 or 8. Need a bit more mass and extrapolation skills to safely deal with those, although some may be ready earlier than that.

    I’ve had a 6 year old spot welding successfully, but she’s brilliant and careful. And I’d rather die a horrible lingering death than have anything bad happen to her. So I want her as capable as possible since I can’t be there all the time. And I have kid sized safety glasses on hand, along with gloves etc.

  25. TJK says:

    Reblogged this on Corvidae Corvus and commented:
    I love what Thomas has to say in this piece. Giving children the appropriate materials, and the right tools (real tools) to work with those materials demonstrates a level of respect for their abilities–as does giving them the appropriate techniques and training to use those tools.
    When we take away tools we inhibit learning and exploration. We take away a person’s ability to work effectively.
    We do the same thing when we give children substandard materials, or encourage them to use “real” materials in naive ways. Our hands and minds want to use real tools and materials. Dumbing down the way we use materials, and making every blade, point and blunt object safer for little hands is not only unnecessary, it is disrespectful to our young people.
    Again, I love what Thomas has to say in this piece.

  26. Kris Lee says:

    When I was about 6 years old (can not remember anymore excactly) I had my personal knife that I used to cut willow strains to make a bow.

    When needed I took an ax or a saw from the shed. Of course I was also instructed about the dangers of those tools.

    Later in the elementary school we were taught basic wood and metal working sklis.

  27. My Dream for my Sons says:

    […] done some reading recently that makes me think that this is not typical in today’s era. I read in Make magazine today that a college professor teaching a freshman level class this year asked how many of his […]

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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