When I was 5 years old, my dad brought out his old Boy Scout knife and showed it to me. He showed me how to open and close it safely, how to hand it to another person safely, and how to use it safely. He taught me the rules and enforced them strictly and because of his teachings, knives are still one of my favorite things that I use safely on a day to day basis.
When my son turned 5 (he will say he was 5-and-a-half), I got out a knife that would fit in his hand easily and started teaching him safety and the very basics of using a knife. Around the same time we started teaching the Lad about knives, a great organization in our area called Trackers PDX posted on their blog about kids and knives. My husband was understandably nervous at first, but listened, read the post, watched me teach Laddy safety and the rules so we were all on the same page, and agreed he was ready. You will have to decide when your child is ready to handle the big responsibility of using his/her own knife. It doesn’t have so much to do with age as it does maturity. I felt our son could handle it, and we haven’t had a problem. A kid getting their first knife is a camping right of passage, but it is a right that comes with a lot of expectations.
Here are the rules we set out first. Laddy had to remember them before we allowed him to touch the knife.
1) Mom and dad keep the knife. If you would like to use it, just ask.
2) Mom and dad must be with you while you are using the knife.
3) You need to clear the material you are using the knife on with mom and dad. Some stuff is good, other stuff isn’t. If you use the knife to destroy things (like picnic table tops), you will lose the knife and will take responsibility for the repair of the destroyed item.
4) You must sit down when the knife is open. No walking around with it open, it is dangerous.
5) Always use a movement that goes away from you, when using the knife.
6) Never ever leave the knife open and unattended. You will also lose the knife that way.
Some of these rules we will ease up on when he is older and has proven how responsible he can be and as he matures (mainly rules 1 & 2, and eventually he will know what wood is safe to work with). We also make an exception to rule #1 when we are out on hikes. He may have his knife in his backpack, but we put the knife away when we get back.
After the rules were taught, we started with the basics and safety:
1) Find a knife that is basic and small enough to fit comfortably in the child’s hand. It only needs to have one or two blades, which will keep the child focused and not curious about all of the other goodies on the knife. I have a small Victornox and another small Gerber knife we use with him. The fewer gadgets, the better.
2) Teach the child to open the knife without your help (if it is a folding knife, if not teach them to unsheathe the knife safely). First show them. Then let them try. If they can’t open/unsheathe the knife alone, you might consider a different knife or wait until they are older. It was taught to me that I wasn’t allowed to use a knife until I could open it myself. We have applied the same principal. In the picture to the left, Laddy shows how he safely opens a knife. Holding the outside of the casing, he lifts the blade into place, keeping fingers clear of the blade’s housing area, just in case it snaps back.
3) Teach your child how to close the knife without your help. It is scary giving your kid the space to try and figure this out. I get that, but it is really important for them to know how. Some knives will be easier than others, especially if there is a locking mechanism (I recommend getting your child a knife with a locking mechanism by the way). That lock can get sticky and be a pain, so make sure the knife is maintained well and oiled and the child is taught how it functions in the safest way possible. We showed him first, and then had him try with us right there. Fingers should hold either side of the handle, keeping clear of where the blade nests and they should control the blade slowly into the housing at all times. Don’t let it snap closed – that is how we get cut. This was another step I had to master before I was allowed to continue on with my “basic use” lessons and the same applied to Laddy.
To the right Laddy demonstrates how he closes the knife safely. Just as he opened the knife, he holds the outside of the casing, keeping his fingers clear of the blade housing slot. With control, he slowly lowers the blade into the housing, not letting it snap closed.
4) Teach them how to safely hand a knife to someone else while it is open. The best way to hand it off to another person is to close the knife, but sometimes that isn’t possible.
What happens if the child can not close the knife and needs to hand it to an adult for help? This is an important lesson because that happens! There are other scenarios too where handing and open knife to someone is necessary. They need to carefully hold the blade between their fingers and hand the handle to the other person. They should also learn how to take the knife safely from someone.
In the picture here, Laddy demonstrates how he safely hands the knife to me. Holding the blade between his fingers, handing the handle to me. I take hold of the handle (holding the knife in place) and he releases moving his hand to safety. This is how we do it at our house.
5) Teach the child how to hold the knife properly. Laddy is demonstrating on the right how we taught him to grip the knife. Sometimes he puts his thumb on the top (as you will see in the next set of pictures). The grip stays the same however. Nice and strong.
6) Teach the child how to use the knife safely. The knife always goes away from the body. Use strokes that go straight out, and if they must go down make sure the child’s legs are spread so the knife and arm go between them.
The knife is never to be left open, and if it is open it should never be left unattended. Never walk around with an open knife. Make sure the sticks or bits of wood are not too dry. If they break easily, it can lead to injury.
7) Make sure the child knows how to take care of the knife (especially by seeing you take care of your own knives). If it is a folding knife, teach them how to oil hinges. Make sure the blades are kept sharp (for us we tend to send them off as many companies offer a sharpening service when it comes to our camping knives; most of our kitchen knives are sharpened at home). Many people believe a dull knife is safer, but that has not been proven to be true. In fact a sharp knife is a safer knife for many reasons, and if you happen to be cut by a sharp knife, the cut will heal much better than that of a dull knife. Take it from me! Also, the knife should never be left out in the elements. It will ruin the knife.
8) Practice. This is one we just discovered. Practicing even out of camping season is a good idea so your child doesn’t get rusty with the rules or their skills!
Making your own s’mores sticks or other fancy wood items using knives can be a lot of fun, especially when camping, and even more so when you come away with all of your fingers in tact! Have fun and be safe!