Recently a fellow Montessori educator raised an interesting point about our Kiddie Kutter knives. She suggested that by removing the ‘risk’ of being cut by the knife perhaps the product was actually creating an even greater risk that a child would then expect all knives to be equally ‘safe’. This is a valid perspective, and is based on a principle that guides choices about many Montessori materials. We would, however, offer our families and educators a few other points to ponder so that you can make an informed choice.
1. The knives, while ‘cut-proof’ on skin, are fully functional. Generally the Montessori principle of using ‘real’ tools is strongly correlated to the importance of making the task achievable and to reducing the ‘risk’ inherent in using poor tools. Take, for instance, scissors. Many “safety scissors” do not actually cut effectively. This means that the child experiences frustration and disappointment, as the task itself cannot be successfully completed with this inferior tool. It also creates an additional risk that due to this frustration, and because the correct procedure for cutting isn’t effective, the child might start to use the “safety scissors” in a rough or improper manner. This can either lead to injury at that point, or can lead to injury when a child encounters real scissors because the child will naturally assume they need to use that same rough or improper technique with all scissors, and will therefore get cut by the sharper blades. It is extremely important to remember that despite being a “safety knife” the Kiddie Kutter actually works! It is not a “toy” version and it is not simply a blunt knife – it is a fully functional blade that cuts food effectively and can be used in the same manner as a regular knife. This ensures that a child who is using the Kiddie Kutter knife is actually achieving the intended outcome – of cutting the food – and is doing this using a correct and safe cutting technique. When that child then encounters a ‘sharp’ knife he or she will already be aware of the appropriate cutting method and will have no reason to attempt a risky or improper technique.
2. The Kiddie Kutter knives look sharp! I know this from firsthand experience – from the reverence with which children in my classroom carefully pick up the knife by the handle, and from the look of shock on the faces of parents the first time they see the knives in use! They don’t look harmless and so children still appear to assume that there is a risk involved, and so they act with the corresponding respect and caution. A child looks at a plastic cup and knows it is plastic just from its appearance and can be handled carelessly. Conversely a child views a real glass and knows from that visual cue that this vessel is more fragile and requires more delicate treatment. When a child views the Kiddie Kutter knife the aesthetics alone send the cue that it may be sharp and this provokes appropriate caution. Furthermore, the knife does scratch! It might not break the skin but it does cause discomfort if it slips against the finger or hand while cutting. I know this because before stocking the product (in my classroom or on the Montessori Child “shelves”) I spent about a week trying to cut myself with it! I used the knife on a variety of different foods to test its effectiveness. I also used it with varying degrees of caution. When I was being intentionally reckless I discovered that while I couldn’t cut myself with the knife I could hurt myself. If I was pushing too hard, or holding my fingers too close to the blade, then it would hurt my skin as the blade nicked past me. It just wouldn’t actually break my skin. The same principle therefore applies for children. They may still experience a little jolt of pain if they are rough or reckless with the tool – or even if they are being cautious but still refining the required movements – and this sensation will be sufficient as a self-correcting mechanism. In fact, it seems like a pretty ideal situation that with the Kiddie Kutter knife a child can still experience the physical signal of pain as a natural reminder but without the health hazard of spilled blood on the tool or the food,
3. Montessori lessons tend to be ‘staged’ to allow for progression and refinement. The introductory level at which a child first experiences a task is intended to provide opportunities for success and often this is done by breaking the process into comprehensible, individual components. Using the Kiddie Kutter knife might only be the initial stage of a child’s progressive acquisition of the skill of cutting for food preparation. It allows specific aspects of the task to be isolated without the distraction of the additional anxiety (for both child and adult) regarding the potential for injury. The child who masters cutting with the Kiddie Kutter might not be considered to have finished “learning to cut” or “learning to use a knife” – he or she may simply be at the point of “learning the motion and movements for cutting” and may be ready to move on to the next lesson of “learning to incorporate cutting motions with a sharper knife”.
4. The Kiddie Kutter works – for adults too! As adults we favour sharp knives because they are effective. It is not that we inherently love their sharpness, we just need to use a tool that does the job and sharp knives tend to do this. Yet this is not a reason that we should necessarily prevent our tools from evolving. Over the course of the ‘modern’ world countless tools and activities have changed or developed to minimise danger and maximise productivity. It is true that we should introduce our children to (and therefore prepare them for) the real risks of the real world but this doesn’t mean we should necessarily actively try to make the real world as risky as possible. I’m sure many adults would love to have “Biggie Kutter” knives – none of us enjoy the occasional band-aid wrapped fingertips that can happen to even the most skilled ‘masterchefs’!
5. I have faith in the intelligence of my Montessori children! I feel really confident that my classrooms full of Montessori children can use this knife and still comprehend the basic safety rules and procedures around cutting. I genuinely do not believe that a single one of my children, after using the Kiddie Kutter knife, will walk away with the belief that they ought to grab any knife and start slicing away at their fingers. Firstly, I rarely intentionally draw a child’s attention to the fact that the knife won’t cut skin. That is a by-product, a simple bonus feature, and is not the point of the tool itself so I find no reason to highlight this aspect. I do still present it in the same way I would present any other knife and I mention the same strategies and safety precautions. So through the Kiddie Kutter experience my children are still learning both the physical actions and the abstract concepts and procedures relevant to cutting and food preparation.
On another note, we did receive some suggestions that it is a shame that the Kiddie Kutter knives are “plastic” rather than a natural material. Again, it is of course an aspect of Montessori practice that we favour natural materials wherever possible. Certainly if the Kiddie Kutter came with a wooden handle I would be delighted to stock that too. In its current form, however, I still find it an aesthetically pleasing tool and I certainly find that its materials fit in comfortably with the majority of kitchen utensils. Certainly knives do sometimes come with wooden handles but many other implements – such as vegetable peelers – tend to come almost exclusively in the combination of plastic handle with metal blade, just as the Kiddie Kutter does. For me it is still a realistic representation of a kitchen tool and the design is physically attractive and comfortable to grip. These attributes, even without being solely ‘natural’ materials, mean that a child can be attracted to the tool and can effectively complete the task. The unique appearance of the Kiddie Kutter knives also play a role in further negating the aforementioned potential ‘risks’ relating to giving children a ‘safety’ knife. A child will be able to easily visually distinguish between the “Kiddie Kutter” style knife and a regular, adult knife. Therefore parents or teachers who do wish to highlight the fact that the Kiddie Kutter “won’t cut skin” can also emphasise the fact that “other knives will” and the child can then appropriately determine which is which based on the very obvious physical style of the Kiddie Kutter knife.
There are obviously many points and counter-points to be made on this subject. In fact, what I love so much about Montessori is the depth and scope of interpretations and applications. I do strongly believe in preserving the core principles and ‘essence’ of Montessori but I also believe that even Dr Maria Montessori herself would approve of healthy, conscientious and intelligent debate and consideration. Dr Montessori was a woman who took the best influences of her predecessors, coupled this with her observations, made improvements wherever she could and then expressed the best that she could offer. As she put it herself “I have taken what the children have given me and I have expressed it, and this is what we call the Montessori method”. So I take what Maria has given us, I couple it with what the children I interact with each day give me, and then I consider it and express it! The result is not always exactly the same as the perspective of every other Montessori educator in the world ad nor, in my opinion, should it be! What a sad and colourless Montessori-world that would be! I am so proud and pleased to have platforms for sharing my ideas – through Montessori Child, in my ‘day-job’ as a Montessori Pre-school Director, and within the resources that I create for my staff and share through outlets such as the Montessori Australia Foundation. Yet despite my eagerness to share, I would never become arrogant or ignorant enough to believe I had the ultimate answers to complex questions! Part of the beauty of life is to think, to question, to introspect and to observe, and to then come away with the most considered, informed perspective that you can create…and to leave that open to improvement when new information or experiences are encountered! We are all on an ongoing learning journey, and there are always many sides to consider – not just when contemplating the big questions of life, but even when thinking about the pros and cons of a knife!