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DIY Play

If you’re thinking of giving a child a fancy new toy or gadget, consider DIY materials instead…

By Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director, Providence Children’s Museum

I’ve recently returned from a visit to the UK where I spent a lot of time in “adventure playgrounds.” Not at all common in the US, adventure playgrounds are places where kids build houses and dens with scrap wood and fabric, use old tires for swings or bridges, prop boards to make ramps for bikes and skateboards, and generally create their own play. Back home, describing these places and activities, the people I’m talking with inevitably share their own childhood memories of making playthings out of found objects. They recall making forts out of boards and branches, doll clothes out of fabric scraps, telephones out of tin cans, drums out of oatmeal canisters.

Dec2013-2Some of my own most intense play memories involve scavenging and constructing my playthings. I loved gathering up small scraps from my father’s woodworking and incorporating them into environments for my toy animals. I vividly remember a pail filled with tiny ends of wooden pegs that I used to make miniature fences. With the creativity of children, who see the possibilities in all things, shoes became cars for our Ginny dolls to drive and perfume bottles served as fancy lamps on building block tables.

Those were ideas of the moment, suggested by the perceived similarity of one object (an ornate bottle) to another (a glass lamp). There was also, in kid culture, knowledge that passed from child to child. Maybe there still is.  When we moved from the country, we copied the suburban kids who clothes-pinned baseball cards to their bicycle wheels. They made a wonderful motorcycle sound as they hit the spokes, rrrrrrrrr. A neighborhood boy showed me how to make a skateboard. We took apart outgrown roller skates and screwed the wheels to boards. I learned to measure, saw and sand making my first skateboard; I learned to measure more carefully making my second one.

Dec2013-1We learned a lot more than that. We learned to be resourceful and think creatively. We learned to fail and to try again. We learned about the joy of accomplishment. We learned self-reliance and how to learn from others. Really important lessons that children learn best by doing it themselves.

If you’re thinking of giving a child a fancy new toy or gadget, consider DIY materials instead: woodworking tools, nails and wood scraps; cardboard boxes and tubes and lots of tape; a sewing kit, fabric pieces, buttons and old socks; paints and brushes, markers, and a roll of butcher paper. Give them the gift of making their own play.

Providence Children’s Museum offers tons of school vacation FUN! See Sparky’s Puppets perform favorite fairy tales with a funny twist. Sing and dance to energetic original songs by rock ‘n roll trio Rolie Polie Guacamole. Feel the beat with The Rhythm Room and try out different percussion instruments. Invent and create with big blue Imagination Playground blocks, and join a Block Party to construct cities and build towering structures! Learn more

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  • Hmm… Wood scraps have just been around in my life so I’ve never thought much about it.
    Do you know a woodworker or a builder or someone in the midst of a building project? Ask them to save you scraps. My grandkids find old boards washed up on the beach all the time (as did we). You could ask if they have scraps at the friendly neighborhood hardware store. If not, just buy some pine boards – not too thick – and have them cut into 1 to 3 feet lengths.
    Happy building!