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

Important considerations as you provide meaningful and relevant learning opportunities for your students!

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…

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.

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.


  • 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 give 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 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 use 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


  • 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 their 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 than build a healthy sense of respect for the tool.
  • Introducing a real tool that a young child can’t possibly master on his own is not 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 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 gives children a sense of accomplishment and a deeper desire 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 crosses over into all realms of the educational experience such as in science, nature, construction, engineering, math, language, literacy, and writing. 

Final Thoughts

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!

However, to give you some sort of opinion on this discussion…

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 do not mind dedicating time to walk 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 (while doing so 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
  • needing 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, 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. Wherever 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.

I am 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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Deborah J Stewart

Deborah J Stewart

Every time I think I know everything I need to know about teaching young children, God says, "Hold on a minute!" and gives me a new challenge.

Let me tell ya...

With each new challenge that you overcome, you will find yourself better equipped and more passionate about teaching young children.

God didn't call wimps to lead, teach, or care for His children. Nope, he has high expectations, so get ready. You will have to give your very best but after teaching for over 30 years, I can tell you that it is a wonderful and rewarding journey.

Whenever your calling feels hard, just remember, 'He who began a good work in you (and in the children you serve) will be faithful to complete it.'

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