Saturday, March 27, 2010

Taking a Break from Technology: How-Tos For Making Your Own Fun

Do you ever feel like your computer has a magnetic pull on your kids? Or that if you looked closely enough while they played Xbox, you might see their eyes spiral?

Don't get me wrong, technology is wonderful and the better our kids get at using it, the more prepared they'll be when it's time to send them out into the world.

But wouldn't it be nice if they weren't quite so smitten with all these gadgets? If the simple stuff we did as kids -- carving soap bars, building Popsicle stick houses and pushing trucks over dirt piles all afternoon -- made our kids as satisfied?

While many of us limit how long our kids stay on gaming systems, cutting them off can be brutal. The hold these things have on them -- the adrenaline they fuel -- can leave them overstimulated when their allotted time is up.

To help ease them back into doing things that require more initiative, I've spotlighted two great guides that are filled with crafts and games that many of us did as kids, but that our kids may not have had a chance to get to.

How to Do Nothing With Nobody All Alone By Yourself

by Robert Paul Smith, illustrated by Elinor Goulding Smith

Tin House Books, reissued 2010

Ages 9-12, $14.95, 132 pages

This classic 1958 guide reintroduces kids to those natural urges they have to turn random objects into crazy great stuff, like thread spools into army tanks and peach pits into turtles.

Readers will love that everything in this book was invented by kids and passed along by kids, that nothing costs money to make and that each of the projects is a seat-of-the-pants creation.

At one time or another, every idea in this book came from a kid who decided to make something for no real reason other than he had a whim and he went with it.

"There are no classes to learn these things, no teachers to teach them, you don't need any help from your mother or your father or anybody," Smith writes. "The rule about this book is there's no hollering for help."

But just some caution. This isn't a book for the younger ones. A chapter's worth is dedicated to a pocket knife lesson in mumbly-peg, a game of skill in which you flip a Boy Scout knife off and over your hands, and later Smith shows how to turn a forked branch into a slingshot and fashion a rubber-band gun.

Don't worry, though, this isn't a reckless how-to; it's just very 1950s. From the get-go, Smith talks straight to the reader: "Once you have built them my way, you may find a better way to build them, but first time, do them the way it says."

Parents may want to review safety rules, however, and if they're feeling nostalgic for their childhood days of whittling away at this or that, don't miss the introduction by the NPR Weekend Edition's literary detective Paul Collins.

Best Parts: Having plucked many pussy willow buds on my way to elementary school and imagined them to be little furry creatures, I was particularly drawn to Smith's lesson on how to turn them into fluffy bees with paper, a pen and a dab of glue.

The Girl Mechanic: Classic Crafts, Games & Toys to Build

The Editors of Popular Mechanics

Hearst Books, 2009

Ages 9-12, $9.95, 240 pages.

This clever how-to, compiled from early editions of Popular Mechanics magazine, is packed with so many fantastical projects your girls won't know where to begin.

With more than 100 time-tested project to choose from, they'll be flipping with glee from one page to the next, then rummaging through recycling boxes and closets for parts to get started.

Though some crafts, like a pixie bank made from a mailing tube can be done on their own, many of the crafts like a tea party serving cart are elaborate and will require adult skills and ingenuity.

Frequently, the directions are limited to a diagram with measurements and a short write-up, and seem meant more as a starting point then a detailed how-to.

But that's part of what makes this book so charming. It inspires girls to put their own spin on projects, and encourages parents and girls to figure out things together and try something new.

While a few of the projects are familiar, like cutting a five-pointed star from paper or making favors out of paper tubes, most you won't find in a typical kid's craft book.

For example, there are directions to turn a wooden frame into a loom for weaving rags into rugs, convert a cardboard box into a geometric drawing machine with gears similar to a Spirograph, cast bookends from their hands with plaster and even build a bamboo cage for a wooden bird.

The grandest projects (and perhaps the most alluring) are a dollhouse mansion with working elevator (and tiny fine furnishings), miniature golf course, jointed wooden pony, wooden merry-go-round and Venetian swing.

If your child happens to be a boy, check out these other great books in the series, The Boy Mechanic: 200 Classic Things to Build and The Boy Mechanic Makes Toys: 159 Games, Toys, Tricks and Other Amusements.

Best Parts: I particularly loved the section "Entertaining Toy Time," which shows how to transform a broomstick into a wooden man on a string and build a scooter from blocks of wood, old roller skate wheels and a door hinge.

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