My original plan for this column was the foundation for dad of the year dreams. I was going to prove that it was possible to build a custom-designed RC car with my 4 year old daughter, Harper. And I was going to do it in about 10 days. Before talking it over with my daughter, I went to a Goodwill store and purchased a cast-off Radio Shack RC buggy for $2 that seemed to be in pretty good shape. I was going to disassemble it with her to see what parts we could harvest. Then I was going to have her draw a new car shape and use a water jet cutter to make a new chassis out of wood from her drawings. Then we were going to paint it and likely get some glitter on it, too. I was going to have her solder up a circuit board with blinking LED headlights, then install the controls from a nicer RC car and have her drive it.
It is not hard to see that the plan derailed quickly.
Building an RC car with her was a red herring to the real goal of teaching Harper the basic prototyping skills that get used in the Enventys prototyping shop every day. The end goal is not to prepare her for a career in product development, necessarily, but to give her the pleasure of building something, while introducing her to some unique tools along the way. It occurred to me that we have done some interesting building projects along the way and have almost by accident been working on all of the skills I was going to teach her with the RC car project. These are some of the projects that I have worked on with Harper that I am hoping form the building blocks for lifelong curiosity and the pleasure of making.
Often times prototyping is taking a set of parts and rearranging them to create something different. I see cooking as roughly the same. With core ingredients of flour, water, sugar, salt, and of course sprinkles you can bake cookies, bread, rhubarb crisp or muffins. One of my favorite activities to do with Harper on a weekend morning is to bake chocolate chip cookies. I let her dump the ingredients in and stir them up. After a few times of doing this she has set at least half of the ingredients to memory. Just a few days ago, she told me she wanted to do an experiment. She had me get out a bowl and started calling out for me to get ingredients from the pantry while she got some water from the sink. She mixed up flour, lots of sugar, water, sprinkles, and vinegar (yes, vinegar) and told me the cookies were ready. While she was napping I could have chucked it because it seemed like it was going to be terrible, but I baked it in a small cake tin instead. She got mad at me for not baking it as cookies, but we still tasted it as an after dinner treat. Surprisingly it was not too bad.
It seems like every kid likes to paint, and Harper is no exception. She will do water colors, but she has no time for the subtle hues of a Georgia O’Keefe. She likes bright and bold colors. Peter Max is more her style. She paints rainbows, sunny days and an occasional tribute to our dead cat on paper at her easel. However, I wanted her to paint something more tangible. I like to build racecar models and it was one of my favorite activities as a kid. My dad used to call me the “glueifyer” as all of my builds had as much weight in Testors model glue as they did in car parts. I had an old Tony Stewart model car in my office, and I was never going to have the time to build it. So one day I got it out and I let her paint the parts with some some of my Tamiya paint and a nicer paintbrush than the junky dollar store ones from her art set. I explained to her the different parts of the car and let her pick out the palette. She had fun painting a 3D object and noted that the paint was “soft” which seemed like an observation of a mature artist as opposed to a 3 year old. Like every other model I have ever built, this one will take years, or never get done at all, but it is certainly the most fun, and the only one with a rainbow colored engine.
Electricity is abstract for many adults, let alone a pre-schooler, so I wanted to build a really simple circuit with Harper. One day we read a book from the library about the lantern festival during Chinese New Year. At the back of the book was a page describing how to make your own lantern out of paper. It hit me that the lanterns would be even better with a little LED in them. So we built the paper lantern together. Then I got a yellow LED from my electronics kit, a resister and 2AA batteries. I showed her the pieces and we taped the LED leads to the battery and made the lantern light up. We turned off all the lights in the house and spent the next half hour walking around the house looking for treasure. Since then I have also had her solder up an LED circuit board kit that I got from Radio Shack. I made sure to get the lead-free solder and she had lots of fun using the soldering wand.
Wood is great material for prototyping, because it is inexpensive and easy to manipulate. At home, I do not have a lot of woodworking tools. Fortunately Lowes and Home Depot have weekend workshops for kids to build little toys using a hammer and nails. Lowe’s version is called “Build and Grow”, and I first found out about these when Harper was about two and a half. This was a little bit too young to start, but I was too excited to let that that stop me. I realize that it is mostly an elaborate rouse to get a bunch of people into the store to buy stuff, but the kits are really fun. They take about 20 minutes or so to complete, and they get to learn how to use a hammer and get a feeling of accomplishment from building the kit.
For now, my $2 RC car project has been put on the shelf, but my quest to find great hands-on activities to do with Harper has not stopped. I bought her a bouncy ball molding kit for her birthday and cannot wait until she is old enough to do some more complex electronic stuff like building robots.