If you are not a believer in children using knives for food preparation, look away.
Right, now let’s talk.
I think knife skills are pretty high up there in the ‘practical life’ stakes. They are necessary and ubiquitous. We all use them everyday. They also carry a whiff of danger that makes them pretty darn attractive as well as being symbols of growing up.
First I start with the knives you get in an ordinary children’s cutlery set. Over the years we have acquired a few of these. Ikea always has at least one type, and the good cutlery name brands often make a set too. You can sometimes also find them at children’s stores or occasionally department stores like Big W or Harris Scarfe.
We use these at mealtimes from a very young age. This allows it to be under fairly tight supervision and in a way that the children are using them while being exposed to modelling. We usually cut young children’s food at the table in front of the child rather than presenting them with already cut food, unless that’s how I would serve it to an adult too. Modelling is SO important!
At the same time I start to introduce cutting in playdough play. We have a small plastic knife I use for this, but I actually can’t remember where we got it from. We also use some plastic cutters that are sold for kiwi fruit.
All of this takes place before they get to real knives. By the time they pick up a knife designed for cutting real things they have already have great deal of information about how knives are used, a lot of safety information and a sense of knives being just another tool.
So when I have seen a fairly consistant use of knives correctly, and a general willingness and ability to follow instructions, it’s time. When it’s time to chop something hard, I introduce my proper knife. Celery is a good transition item.
Although I explicitly teach all the knife safety rules, this is really when you see if you have been modelling safe knife handling! I explicitly teach how to pass a knife and why we do it that way. I talk about how and why to keep fingers clear of the blade, and about not cutting towards yourself.
My go-to knife for children is a vegetable knife. As small as a paring knife, this knife is reasonably easily managed by children, and it has a flat, rounded end that I think is safer for children to use. The knife itself should not be too dull. I know this seems counterintuitive, but a blunt knife requires a lot more force to actually cut, meaning slips of the blade are much more likely and thus there is a higher risk of injury. (If you don’t believe that, try cutting an apple with a dinner knife. How controlled are your cuts?) Another thing to keep in mind is that we may need to check the height of the cutting. A child shouldn’t be cutting too high! Not only does it put the head and neck too close to the cutting area, but a child reaching up to cut can not effectively use body weight to help cut and is likely, again to use more force than they should be. Not to mention it hurts the shoulders!
All my children so far have gone through a ‘smoosh stage’. This is when the joy of cutting out weighs the fun of eating and food gets… umm… diced… but not eaten. My two pronged attack for that one is to offer playdough for chopping while removing the food. I try hard not to stress about the food. It can usually be thrown on top of a salad, frozen and thrown into a smoothie or served on breakfast cereal.
Yes, I do worry that they will hurt themselves. I am a mother, I can’t turn that off. But like all things in life we do our best to make sure they have the skills they will need, then hold our breath and let them try it.