Using pretend versus real tools in preschool – let’s talk about it

A few months ago, I shared a post on how to turn a box into a fun little “Fix-It Box” for all those plastic hammers, saws, and nails that I have acquired over my years of teaching and parenting and grand-parenting. The idea of my grandson using plastic tools for pretend play didn’t seem like all that big of deal to me. The Fix-It Box actually helped to save my coffee table from getting pounded on by a pretend hammer (well most of the time) and was a good way to store all those pretend tools instead of leaving them strung all over the living room. It also provided an interesting and alternative way for my grandson to play with his set of pretend tools. However, after sharing the Fix-It Box post on Facebook, I soon found out that many in the field of early childhood education have strong opinions about the use of pretend tools versus real tools in the preschool classroom. So let’s talk about it…

Real tools versus pretend tools by Teach Preschool

Over my time as a blogger, I have heard many different perspectives on the use of real tools versus pretend tools so I have tried to summarize those perspectives below.

Real tools versus pretend tools by Teach Preschool

Pretend tools…


  • The use of pretend tools in the preschool classroom hampers imagination and creativity.
  • The use of pretend tools in the preschool classroom diminishes the opportunity to build new skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and responsibility.
  • The use of pretend tools in the preschool classroom is demeaning to young children and undermines their intelligence and capabilities.
  • The last thing we should be filling our classroom centers or shelves with is plastic toys of any kind when we can teach much more effectively with the real thing.
  • Plastic hammers and toys such as these lead to more chaotic play than constructive play because children are limited by their use rather than challenged by their use.
  • Plastic tools simply do not work as well as real tools and leave little room for children to do anything substantial, meaningful, or realistic with them.

Real tools versus pretend tools by Teach Preschool


  • Pretend tools can be made freely available in the preschool classroom and allows children to explore their use through pretend play.
  • Like any kind of pretend play, pretend tools gives children the materials they need to emulate the grown-ups in their lives through their interaction with the materials.
  • Combining pretend tools with other materials such as play dough or paper boxes or other materials can give the children similar experiences as using real tools with a bit more freedom in the process.
  • Pretend tools can lead to discussions about the uses of those tools, who uses the tools in real life, and can help build new vocabulary.
  • Pretend tools do not require constant adult guidance, supervision, monitoring, and control.

Real tools versus pretend tools by Teach Preschool

Real tools…


  • Most (not all) real tools (hammers, saws, drills, glue guns) require the close supervision and monitoring of the use of those tools which means the child really isn’t freely and independently exploring the environment.
  • Hovering over a child who is too young to master the safe and effective use of the tool so that the teacher can give the child the experience of using a real tool is out of touch with where the child is in his development and can ultimately be a frustrating experience rather than a meaningful experience. Hovering is still hovering regardless the medium used.
  • Many real tools can lead to real accidents with serious injury that are simply not worth the risk.
  • When a young child gets injured by a tool or even burned by something like a glue gun, they don’t understand that this is only temporary. It can build fear to try again rather then build a healthy sense of respect for the tool.
  • Introducing a real tool that a young child can’t possibly master on his own isn’t any different or constructive than expecting a preschooler to hold his pencil correctly and write his name before he is physically and cognitively ready to do so.
  • The average preschool classroom is not equipped with enough staff or parent volunteers to effectively introduce real tools and monitor their use successfully.

Real tools versus pretend tools by Teach Preschool


  • Real tools are far more interesting to young children which naturally leads children to be more positively and constructively invested in their use and in the classroom experience as a whole.
  • The use of real tools in the preschool classroom give children a sense of accomplishment and a truer inner joy for constructing, building, engineering, and creating.
  • The use of real tools in the preschool classroom heightens children’s self-awareness and an awareness of others around them as the consequences of misusing the tools are very personal and very real.
  • The use of real tools in the preschool classroom promotes self-regulation and self-control as the consequences of misusing the tools are also very personal and very real.
  • The use of real tools in the preschool classroom honors children’s abilities and intelligence and sends the message that they are capable constructors and engineers.
  • The use of real tools can be a bonding experience between children and their teachers (or other adult helpers).
  • The use of real tools naturally leads to real and meaningful experiences in other kinds of study that crossses over into all realms of the educational experience such as in science, nature, construction, engineering, math, language, literacy, and writing. 

Real tools versus pretend tools by Teach Preschool


So are you thoroughly confused yet? Undecided? More confident? It’s funny, but when I read through only the “cons” on either type of tool, I am convinced that using that type of tool may not be such a good idea. But when I read just the “pros” on each type of tool, I am convinced using them is a must do!

But to give you some sort of opinion on this discussion…

Real versus Pretend Tools in Preschool by Teach Preschool

In my classroom, I will try almost anything that I feel my students will find rewarding and can reasonably do on their own at some point. I don’t mind walking my students through a process but ultimately, I want them to take ownership of the process and have some freedom to explore the process entirely on their own (but within a safe environment and under my safe watch).  So whether we use a real tool or a pretend tool – for me the approach is the same. I introduce, guide, then observe and see whether or not my students are…

  • ready for the type of tool we are using
  • enjoying the experience or finding it interesting and engaging
  • need additional support or time to build confidence or understanding
  • and finally, whether or not the children are demonstrating the ability to use the tool in a constructive and meaningful manner (whether it is real or pretend).

So the perhaps you are passionate about the use of real tools over pretend tools in preschool or perhaps you stand completely at the other end of the spectrum. Where ever you stand, just know that there are reasons why different teachers believe the way they believe and stand where they stand and it is important to look at the bigger picture of a program and teaching practice before insisting that your way is absolute or before being so strongly against the ideas of another.

Early childhood education is riddled with controversy and yet, we can find common ground if we learn to listen to one another, respect and understand our differences, and be aware that not all classroom situations or environments or teaching skills and experience or programs or student skill levels or personalities or ages or student/teacher ratios are the same.

Real versus Pretend Tools from Teach Preschool

I’m sure you have your own experience with the use of real or pretend tools that has influenced your decision-making or preferences. Feel free to share them below…

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By |2014-01-06T06:00:23+00:00January 6th, 2014|

About the Author:

Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. has been working and teaching in the field of early childhood education for over 30 years. Deborah currently owns and teaches in her own part-time, private preschool called The Children’s Studio. Deborah’s deep passion for teaching and working with young children is documented and then graciously shared with millions of readers around the world through her blog and other social networking communities. Deborah believes that young children learn best through play and exploration and embraces this belief in all that she does in her own classroom so that she can effectively and passionately share rewarding, real- life, tried-and-true practices with other teachers, parents, and leaders across the field of early childhood education.


  1. Katie @ Preschool Inspirations January 6, 2014 at 10:17 am - Reply

    I am so glad you made this post!! Back when I was in a center, accreditation wanted us to have real tools but licensing wouldn’t allow them. We just took the hit with accreditation obviously. Wouldn’t it be great if someone made tools that were a combination of both?! I think a miniature hammer designed for children would be so cool!

    • Sara January 6, 2014 at 5:09 pm - Reply

      Lowes has them.

      • Katie @ Preschool Inspirations January 7, 2014 at 4:07 pm

        Sooo good to know!! Right after I posted that I realized that these hammers look much smaller than any I had ever seen before!

  2. Lindsey January 6, 2014 at 10:32 am - Reply

    I have a pre-k standard that talks about using problem solving to put things back together, and I recently saw a post of a preschool teacher taking apart a flashlight including the batteries and let the kids try to figure out how to make it work. I’m going to do it, but I know I’m going to get major flack from the people that work in my room about safety. I think it’s all about teaching kids the proper way to use something–especially safety wise–and then watch from a distance. Pre-k is one of the last times kids get to be true explorers.

  3. Susan January 6, 2014 at 10:35 am - Reply

    Thank you for this post. There are some curricula and accreditation standards that do look for the use of real tools, but this needs to be realistic. As you stated, the “real tools” that we put into children’s hands need to be appropriate for their ages and development, as well as the supervision available in the classroom. As a mom I have allowed my children to use real construction tools with my supervision. I believe in children having the opportunity to do this. However, a classroom situation where there is a lot going on is not the appropriate environment for swinging a hammer whether you are an adult or a child. When I use tools (that can be dangerous in some way), whether these are construction tools, sewing tools, craft tools, or cooking tools, I make sure that my space is clear so that I do not inadvertently injure someone. Young children are not equipped to monitor themselves and others around them in this way. Your ideas for using “play” tools with play dough, or other materials is a much better alternative for the classroom.

  4. jwg January 6, 2014 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Why does it have to be either/or? We had toy tools in the block area and to use with playdough. When we started construction on an addition right outside the classroom window I bought a workbench and real tools. Over time the kids became pretty adept at their use but it still required supervision. There is a need for fantasy play that goes beyond housekeeping and for some kids the play tools and workbench along with some hardhats and tool belts fulfilled that need.

    • Sara January 6, 2014 at 5:15 pm - Reply

      I agree. We have both in our room and the children understand that with real tools we use the goggles and gloves and are more careful of how we use them. We have a work bench with screw drivers, mallets, hammers, nails, level, vices, sand paper, measuring tape, and a saw that we get out when we can be near to supervise.

  5. Marcia Fowler January 6, 2014 at 1:22 pm - Reply

    Once again, great ideas. I think using pretend is perfect for the younger children. When I let my children use “real” tools, I stay near them. But pretend tools gives them a chance to play and explore by themselves or with friends.

  6. Kierna January 6, 2014 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    So true! As I reading your post I found myself agreeing with the cons & then the pros – so I’m as confused as you! But as you quite rightly say, we need to remember everyone is at a different place etc. and be careful not to jump on people for doing something we might agree with. Here’s to 2014 being the year we all agree we want the best for the children in our care.

  7. Christine Holroyd January 7, 2014 at 9:12 am - Reply

    This is a fabulous, balanced view of plastic versus real tools. Thankyou. I’m quite a mixed bag when it comes to this subject. My daughter has always had excellent fine motor skills so I have trusted her and will continue to trust her with the real thing, so long as it is ‘age appropriate’, which is different to each person, but She loves make believe toys and is 8 yrs old so why not let her enjoy those, too?

    I have seen toddlers in other countries adeptly using machetes and I’m sure it’s because there isn’t the same fear around using them as we tend to place on them over here. I don’t know if there is a high incidence of injury, though. Need to do some research perhaps on that one 🙂

    Cheers, Christine.

  8. Inspirations ELC January 7, 2014 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    Wow, I love your insight on this, and I have tons of respect for how you were able to share the pros and cons of each method. We generally incorporate both pretend and real tools. The pretend tools are available at all times, while the real tools come out when we have a specific project and enough supervision. The opportunity to freely interact with the pretend tools helps to make sure that the children are ready to use the real ones.

  9. Carol January 8, 2014 at 7:25 am - Reply


    I just think so many of your ideas look so cute and cool. I would love to hear how it is all child initiated. What makes them think of these ideas or if they are your ideas?
    I am really believe in child initiated play. I provide a stimulating environment and they take it from there letting me know, through actions, stories and questions, what they want the environment or supplies to represent. I know you are doing good work. I think it would be beneficial to read about the process more.
    I may be mistaken, I have only read your blog for a short time, but I am really interested. 😀

  10. Renee January 10, 2014 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    I teach preschool and right now we are doing a box study and I filled my dramatic play with real screw drivers and wrenches to help them build with boxes. Lots of robots are being made. One student make a comment that moved me to the pretend tool side. She said, “These are grown-up tools.” I thought about how many parents have taught their children to stay away from real tools for their safety and now I have them in the classroom.

  11. Makayla January 11, 2014 at 9:20 pm - Reply

    Personally I think real tools are the way to go at all times, but it just isn’t realistic… however, that doesn’t mean they should be taken out of the class.
    They should be monitored, and not hovered… I have seen on many occasions ‘dangerous’ tools being used by children that even I was surprised at. 4-5 year old boys and girls who could properly use a sewing machine, or use a saw or hammer. Only one teacher was required at each of these areas because they worked in small groups that were interest based. The children who wanted to do it also wanted to do it right because they had their own environment to create. They didn’t have to be successful but learned from their failures and often found a way to be successful. Leading them to be extremely proficient and confident with their chosen tools. Three students can help with one sewing machine, one teacher can oversee two to three children hammering… etc.
    It is all relative to your staffs understanding and willingness, the children’s understanding and willingness, etc.
    The fact remains that when kids are working toward their own goal, they do not mess around and casualties are a rarity. After this school working with a real sewing machine for 3 years (now 5 but I haven’t been back), they had never had a single accident. Same with hammers, saws, etc.

    It is far more valuable for children to learn about the ‘real’ world, though there is always room for pretend play. Neither should be knocked out of consideration. There is a time and place for both.

  12. Denise @ Kinder-Touch January 12, 2014 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    Very well thought comparison and I am already confused about the pros and cons of both! As much as I wanted my kids to use real tools when playing I don’t want to risk their safety unless they already understand the consequences and accidents that might happen in using real tools. Maybe we can let the younger ones play pretend tools and let the older one kids experience the real thing. I really can’t imagine a kid handling a driller, it might cause me a heart attack!

  13. R Hibbs July 15, 2017 at 11:30 am - Reply

    I am concerned about the real tools in our pre-school as we have 3-4 year olds. They have screw drivers, tape measures etc. and they are really sharp. the ratio situation is X 3 workers to 24-26 children and I feel that whilst playing in the small construction area X 1 member of staff needs to monitor the children

  14. Melbourne Mum August 27, 2017 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    My childcare centre has a learning activity in the outdoor area that is a table with a wooden board full of screws and a couple of adult sized phillips-head screwdrivers. I was horrified to find my 2 year old playing with a full sized, long sharp screwdriver that he doesn’t have the motor skills to control. A toy screwdriver teaches exactly the same fine motor skills of screwing and unscrewing. This activity was undertaken without my prior knowledge or consent which I would never have given. This is learning theory madness, an educator has no right to decide that this is a risk worth taking with my child in the name of experiencing “real life” learning. He engages with “real” objects all the time, just not ones capable of killing someone…. the type of injury caused by a fall or slip with a screwdriver could be catastrophic and is simply an unnecessary risk and has no place in a childcare environment.

  15. […] How fun is that? Letting kids get their hands on real tools is something that many parents shy away from, but there are benefits to letting them play with ratchets and wrenches and hammers (after they understand the safety rules, of course)—it heightens children’s self-awareness, honors their abilities and gives them a sense of accomplishme…. […]

  16. Zak of Melbourne March 23, 2018 at 3:25 am - Reply

    Spot on Melbourne Mum, my 4yr old boy was hit on the head by a real steel hammer by a 4yr old girl at childcare. The centre made no attempt in asking us for permission or telling us that hammers were being used for activities. My child suffered a split/cut on his head followed by a big lump/bump and was taken to a doctor to ensure his health was not in jeopardy. The centre failed to supervise the children properly when using the tools and my son paid the price…… we were also the ones that brought the injury to their attention when we picked him up from care and watched the little girl play with the hammer on her own in the corner of the centre. They stood by their decision to let kids use hammers and we were made to feel guilty for complaining and escalating the issue further by the centre director. So my view on tools in the hands of children is it isn’t worth the risk.

  17. Helen Garnett July 11, 2018 at 7:27 am - Reply

    Real tools, small groups, wisely supervised. There needs to be an environment of quiet endeavour, which must be modelled by the adult. There needs to be a highly appealing ‘purpose’ to the process, again modelled by the adult. With hard hats, safety gloves, and anything else needed to keep children safe and sound, the risks that they then take will be minimal. While I sympathise hugely with the comment above, (parents’ anxieties over real risk/injury must ALWAYS be met) I know first hand that quiet endeavour and good modelling creates an excellent forum for working with real tools, and that children who experience such activities will thrive in the knowledge that they have accomplished something rather special.

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