Math at Home is now Early Math Counts! Visit our new website!

If I Had a Hammer

Guest blogger: Diann Gano, M.Ed.


“I did it! Look! I did it! I hammered it all the way down!” shouts three-year-old Gabe with pride.

This is our preschoolers’ first day of learning how to hammer nails into stumps. “Playing with dangerous tools” is one of the top six activities that children enjoy when engaging in “risky” play. Risky play is about boundary testing, which leads to greater self-confidence, increased resilience and better risk-management skills. Today’s activity—which teaches life skills along with math and science—is a popular one with our preschoolers.

We want the children in our care to develop and understand relationships with objects, places and people. In math, we refer to these as spatial relationships. To help foster the development of spatial awareness, we must provide opportunities for young children to explore and investigate locations, positions, directions and shapes. As we build the foundation for spatial awareness, we are introducing children to geometry, perspective, measurement, size, composition and decomposition.

Children love tools, but we worry about safety, risk, liability and the comfort level of administrators and parents. Here’s how we “baby-stepped” our way into the world of tools. First, we prepared our logs by pounding large roofing nails into the top of each log:

Then we set up a work area. We used chalk to draw a large circle around each log and explained that each circle represented a DANGER ZONE. These circles have proven to be very effective visual cues for our young learners. Before the hammering started, we discussed the following rules: “No one can walk into a DANGER ZONE except for the one child who will be hammering in that specific DANGER ZONE. One student, one stump, one hammer. No one can enter anyone else’s circle. The hammer doesn’t leave the circle.”

Our work area looked like this:

Next, we distributed safety glasses, hard hats and work gloves. If you are three years old and decked out in equipment like this, you know that you’re engaged in serious business right from the start. We quickly learned, however, that the hard hard hats slipped down over little faces, and that the gloves didn’t allow for a great grip because they were too large for little hands. You may have better luck, but we came to the conclusion that the Dollar Tree safety glasses were sufficient to convey the idea that this was “Serious Business” and dispensed with the hard hats and work gloves.

We didn’t have tools that were the right size for the children when we first introduced the use of tools at our center, so we used what we had. But don’t let that stop you. The children will figure it out. If the hammer is too big, they will grip the handle higher up for better control. This is problem-solving. When administrators and parents see the safeguards that you’ve put in place—as well as the skills and confidence that young children gain through this type of hands-on play—it will be easier to secure the funding that you need to buy child-sized tools for your little carpenters in the future.

During the first week or two, the children will concentrate on simply hitting the nails. But, as time goes by, they will learn how to start the nails as well. As the children manipulate tools, they will learn about weight, balance, strength and the textures of the materials. They will develop better eye-hand coordination and dexterity, as well as fine-motor skills, which will help them hold a pencil when that time comes. Hands-on learning with tools also teaches children concepts such as problem-solving, counting and measuring.

Start out small. Baby step your way into playing with tools. The math and science are already incorporated into this toolbox. Trust yourself and the kids. If you build it, they will come.



Diann Gano, M.Ed.

Diann Gano—who opened her family child care program, Under the Gingko Tree in 1986—has long believed that "the earth gives us what we need to learn" and that nature is "the perfect environment for little brains to grow and learn in every day." While conducting research for her master’s thesis on outdoor learning in early childhood settings, she learned about the Nature Explore Classroom Certification Program, which recognizes schools and other organizations that have made a commitment to providing outdoor classrooms and comprehensive programming to help children use the natural world as an integral part of learning. She enrolled in the Nature Explore Classroom certification program after completing her master’s degree in 2010, and Under the Ginkgo Tree was certified as a Nature Explore Certified Outdoor Classroom Program in 2011. A member of the Erikson Family Child Care Portal Project Advisory Board, Gano has also participated in the Erikson Institute’s Early Childhood Leadership Summit and served as a webinar panelist for Town Square Illinois, an online resource and professional development tool for home-based providers. She has presented at the local, state and national levels on topics such as indoor and outdoor learning environments, the importance of loose parts in early math education and the impact of immersion in the natural world on brain development in young children. In 2016, Gano was honored as a recipient of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Child Care Innovator Award for creating a school environment that inspires children to become more active and engaged learners. In May 2019, she received the prestigious Terri Lynn Lokoff/Children’s Tylenol National Teacher Award, which honors 50 outstanding early child care professionals across the nation each year for making a lasting difference in the lives of the children they serve and setting them on a path to success in school and in life. She received her BS in liberal arts from Western Illinois University and her MEd in education from St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana.

Read more posts by Diann Gano, M.Ed.

8 Replies to “If I Had a Hammer”

  1. Love this I remember doing this as a child, so many learning opportunities with this activity.

  2. This is a great activity to do with the children for them to learn how to use a “dangerous tool” and learn about it. It is a good moment to do a lesson and educate the children about the tools and what they are use for.

  3. Interesting, a great activity to learn about dangerous items and take car to handle it and how to use them

  4. Interesting, a great activity to learn about dangerous items and take care to handle it and how to use them

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: