Whittling: What Is It and Why It’s Awesome?

by | Nov 11, 2020


The notion of education through handicrafts rises from the contemplation of truth and love permeating life’s activities.” –Mahatma Gandhi

One of the many skills that we model at Aishling Forest School is whittling wood. Whittling is not new and has been around for thousands of years, since the invention of sharpened tools and this season the learners have really taken to expressing great interest in learning more and practicing this skill. Many caregivers have begun to reach out to us with questions about whittling, so we are happy answer all the questions and we are excited to write this article to help our caregivers enjoy the beauty of whittling with their littles.

What is whittling? Whittling is the simple act of using a knife to scrape, shave, or carve wood into a desired tool or sculpture. Our learners are just starting out with this skill, so we teach them using a steel vegetable peeler, rather than a knife. We also instruct three very, very important guidelines that go along with this skill.

  1. The learner must always be seated while using a whittling tool.
  2. They must be whittling away from their body, never towards.
  3. Keep your legs closed, to one side, and whittle on the opposite side of your legs. This is important as to ensure that no legs receive any injuries if there were an accident.

Those are the most important rules. There are some general guidelines we encourage as well, most of them are generic for all of our tools such as no running with a tool, keeping it pointed down while walking to your sit spot, and only working with fallen wood. We do not whittle any plants or trees that are still alive so that we can remember to take care of Mama Earth.

whittling, aishling forest school, forest schoolWhat are the benefits? Whittling is a skill that requires deep focus and hand-eye coordination. These are aspects that we always strive to build through the many facets that forest school offers. Our learners must pay close attention to where they use their whittling tool, how they use their whittling tool, and also focus on an end goal of what they wish to create, if that’s important to them. Along with building hand-eye coordination, whittling is a great exercise for developing fine motor skills. It encourages our learners to let their imagination run wild and see what creation is birthed from a simple stick found on the forest floor. We have had some spectacularly wonderful creations this season; from wands, fishing poles, spears, to talking sticks, journey sticks, and walking sticks. We look forward to seeing the new creations our little thinkers come up with.

How can this skill grow? This is a skill that can grow with a child into a deep passion or fun hobby. Right now, they might only be using a vegetable peeler on a stick, but with practice and dedication they may one day be sculpting beautiful animals or other wildlife sculptures. They may choose to study whittling and wilderness survival skills and begin to fasten their own tools with their own hands. They can whittle spoons, knives, arrows, and even little woodland musical instruments!

How can I encourage my child and assist in their passion for whittling? If your child shows great interest in this skill, and you’re  looking for ways to encourage the growth of this handcraft, try starting them at home with their own vegetable peeler (don’t let them ruin your good one for potatoes!). Watch them, observe them, and encourage them. See their confidence grow and their hand-eye coordination develop. When you think they are ready to move onto using a knife for traditional whittling, we highly recommend using a fixed-blade knife accompanied by a sheath. A folding pocket knife becomes a hazard for a child as it can open and close easily giving to flimsy stability when applying pressure during whittling. A fixed-blade knife is much sturdier and safer, and kept in its sheath when not in use and in a safe location. Make sure its storage spot is one where you have control over, as to avoid any unsupervised usage until they are old enough and ready to be independent with a knife.

Another great way to encourage your child’s interest is to purchase books about whittling for their skill level. We highly recommend “Forest Craft: A Child’s Guide to Whittling in the Woodland” by Richard Irvine for starters. It is filled with wonderful beginner level whittling projects. As they get older, there are more advanced books available as well.

We are so proud of our little learners as they develop these skills and see their eyes light up full of delight when they take the whittling tools out of the toolbox and get to work. We hope that this interest in such a wonderful pastime grows into something special for each and every one of them. Our leaders at Aishling Forest School are always happy to answer any questions you may have down the road on your child’s journey to whittling. Happy whittling!

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