Making Toys With Children

I just got back from spending Christmas with my Sister and her husband, or more correctly with their children. I brought projects to do with the children, and they had some projects for me as well. We did all the usual seasonal things; we read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” out loud, and there was the requisite baking of Christmas cookies, and we went to a candlelight service on Christmas Eve, at which my oldest nephew, predictably, dripped hot candle wax all over himself, but most of our time was spent in the basement making things.
           I love making things with my nephews and niece. All three approach the creative process from different directions. This is due, in part, to their different ages, their ages range from six to eleven, but they also have very different personalities from one another. We worked on a range of projects from Christmas gifts that they had already started to make for other children, to model airplanes, but the project that was telling and illustrates the different creative approaches was our own version of a pinewood derby.
           I brought with me a number of pine blocks, all slightly different in size, and all pre-drilled for axles (getting the axles parallel is the biggest challenge and they do not have a drill press). I also supplied a bag of wheels, a bag of axles, and a bag of odds-and-ends that could be adapted to make headlights, tailpipes, or whatever they chose. The idea was that each child would pick out a block of wood and determine what shape to make his or her car body, and what accessories to add.
           My youngest nephew dove right in; he was not particularly interested in shaping the body of the car much, but rather had a host of ideas about what to attach to the car. Interestingly, he was adamant about attaching parts to his car in such a way that they could be removed, or replaced; “No glue.” He told me, “It takes too long to dry, and then I can’t fix it.” He would get either me, or his father, to help him cut dovetails and drill small pegs, that at six-years-old he could not manage himself, but he knew exactly what he wanted, and there was never any question of making suggestions or offering an alternate way of doing something (believe me I tried several times).
           My niece spent more time thinking about what she wanted, and then presented me with a carefully detailed description of what she wanted to make, complete with a description of the driver (a giraffe named Charlie) and passenger (a snail named Angus). She then asked me to help her lay out the steps to get the completed car she was after. Because what she had in mind to make was more complex, there were several points where she asked my help to execute a part of her plan because she did not know how to cut a certain shape, or get a specific end-result. My only real contribution to the design was to suggest that we make the neck of the giraffe-driver hinged in several places so that Charlie would have an articulated neck.
           My oldest nephew worked almost totally on his own while all the while accusing us of stealing his ideas. He knew exactly what he wanted to make and only grudgingly acknowledged that he got the idea of having a driver for the car after he saw what his sister was doing. His driver was a porcupine named Spike who had quills made of the ends of toothpicks that were glued pointed end facing out. The only drawback to this design is that it works rather too well. We all got jabbed at different times while trying to pick up Spike’s car.
           I need to point out that all three of these children are already well versed in how to hold and use certain tools safely. Additionally, I deliberately bring tools that are child appropriate. For example; the shaping, or carving, of the car bodies was done with a coping saw, block planes, large rasps, files, and sand paper. We also used several sizes of push drill, sometimes called a “Yankee drill”.  These tools can be used by children with relative safety, since most of the tools are used by clamping the block of wood in a vise and then gripping the tool and using it with both hands, making it more difficult for the child to get in the way of the tool. A very little work did have to be done with a small carving knife, and chisel, but this work was very closely supervised. No one got injured, (except for getting stabbed by Spike, the porcupine) and the two biggest problems at the work bench were that the glue kept getting spilled and resolving who got to work at which vise when.

Some of the pinewood derby cars: Charlie and Angus are in the car at the left, the car in the middle was the pace car that I made, and you can see Spike in the car at the far right.

           On the last day of my visit, we put some planks together to form a ramp and had a series of races. The car belonging to the six-year-old consistently won (no one was more amazed than he) but the truth is that we all had more fun making the cars than racing them.

           The winning car; on the left at the starting line of the racing ramp.

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