Ever wonder why the box is often more interesting to a kid than the toy inside? Children -- with their infinite imaginations -- are born DIYers. Encourage their do-it-yourself instincts today, and there's nothing your kids won't be able to do tomorrow.
It's never too early to teach DIY skills to a child. Here, my grandson Joseph paints a house he and I built together for the Molly the cat (who is very happy to have a warm place to sleep this winter).. Photo: Joe Provey
When I was a very young child, I had few toys
(by today's standards, anyway). There were my beloved electric trains, of course. But for me, the idea of making things from common household items was fascinating. Clothespins, buttons, thimbles, marbles, string, a magnifying glass, candle wax, aluminum foil, scraps of fabric
-- these were the building blocks I used to make the toys that existed in my mind.
I spent hours trying to invent "machines" from pencils, thread spools
, and rubber bands. I also became an expert at building houses from playing cards and creating boats and airplanes from paper, tape, and paper clips. Outdoors, I enjoyed damming up curbside streams with sand, skimming rocks on ponds, and building lean-tos in the woods. Nature offered a whole new array of materials with which to work: seeds, nuts, reeds, leaves, vines, earth, sticks, and stones.
Upon becoming a dad, I bought into the commercial toy trap. My kids didn't want for anything. But I, like many other parents, quickly learned that expensive toys were often brushed aside for the same "found" playthings that appealed to me as a child. I made an effort to encourage my kids' curiosity for everyday things by introducing them to the possibilities of paint, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks
, paste, paper mache, plaster, and modeling clay at early ages.
Not until my kids were six or seven years old did tools come into the picture. I had a workshop in the garage that included a kid-size workbench. My own (adult) bench had a stool in front that helped bring the kids to working height when they needed extra space. There was always a bin filled with pieces of scrap wood, dowels, and pipe cutoffs, which I supplemented with more easily tooled materials like balsa wood
and Styrofoam. Coffee cans were filled with all sorts of hardware, including nuts, bolts, washers, and springs.
My own son, Renald, banging nails at 4 years of age. Photo: Joe Provey
Actual tools are different than sticks and stones, of course. Precautions and rules became necessary when introducing kids to the wonders of the workshop. I made sure that hazardous items, such as mineral spirits and sharp tools, were out of reach. I had to be present when they were working. Most of the projects involved hand tools only, but there was also a small scroll saw for cutting wood and plastic. A hobbyist's handheld grinder (Dremel tool
) allowed my kids to do some drilling and grinding in soft materials. They soon put their newly acquired skills to work building train layouts, remote-control cars, kites, model planes, birdhouses, and backyard teepees.
Later, as young adults, I was proud to see my sons tackling projects like building loft beds and kayaks and making beer and soap. My daughter volunteered to help maintain and preserve an ancient building (in Bordeaux no less) and to work with impoverished women at an agricultural cooperative in valley outside of Marrakech. Although their careers now bring them into virtual worlds where internet architects build structures for information, projects are now programs, and software has replaced hardware, I still like to think that their comfort with physical, tangible materials is a core strength for them.
Now I have a grandson, Joseph. I try to steer him away from computer games and toward old-school materials like clay, paint, and wood. This past summer, he helped me turn an old wooden shipping crate into a snug little house for the cat that hangs around our house. I'm proud to say that at four years old, he knows how to tap excess paint off his brush so it doesn't drip, understands what rigid insulation does, and knows how shingles shed water. This Christmas, maybe we'll set up my old electric trains and have our first lesson about wiring
If there's a child in your life, I urge you to give him or her the gift of DIY. It's truly one that keeps on giving.
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