Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on October 16, 2013.
One day last week after our reading and math lesson, I helped my son finish one of his creations – a “robot spaceship” made out of recyclables. He used a toilet paper tube for the body, part of a plastic bottle for its head, thin cardboard rolled up for its arms and legs, and toothpicks for fingers. It turned out great, and as always, I’m awed by my little boy’s imagination.
My seven-year-old is turning into a little engineer, and he doesn’t need a lot of help, but he wants me to sit there because he’ll need me to do something that he doesn’t quite have the manual dexterity to do. Once in a while, I might be able to help him see an easier way of doing something, but there have been times when my ideas failed and his were better.
I try not to interfere too much with how he wants to make something. I just show up and support him, even when it’s hard for me. I can think of at least ten other things I need to be doing, and five other things I would like to be doing. And since he is only seven, he works much slower than I could. Once I see what he’s doing, I know I could cut the cardboard into a tiny circle much faster than he could. But I wait until he asks me to do it.
This morning my son decided to add a sleeve to a dragon puppet he made a few months ago. He said that way when he holds the puppet up over the sofa (where we do our puppet shows), no one will see his arm. He pulled out the felt and craft thread we have in our overstuffed “craft supply” drawers. I got him a needle, which is one item I keep stored in another place for safety reasons.
Not quite finished. He still has to attach the sleeve to the dragon head, but you can see his handiwork.
After that, he began to sew the sleeve, and then he added scales or “plates” on the dragon’s back. Occasionally I have to help him when he makes a mistake while sewing or gets the thread tangled up, but he knows how to thread the needle, and he is finishing this project on his own. Again, I’m proud and a little amazed too.
But all it took to get him here was time and materials. Even though I would like less clutter, I have made a space in the heart of our home where he can reach every kind of art material I can afford to buy. I have bought a little bit at a time, and I’ve taken advantage of sales to have a little extra on hand.
Last year, I found some little dinosaur finger puppets on the Internet, and I thought my son would enjoy making those. I am not skilled at sewing, but I know how to thread a needle and sew some stitches. So I showed him what I know, and he enjoyed it. He made his own, silly “alien” finger puppet too. It was enough to get my son started, and now he has sewn this big dragon puppet, which is his own design.
We also spent time collecting a big box of recyclables. Paper towel tubes, cereal boxes, bottles and almost anything can be made into something fun with a little imagination and hot glue. I spent some time showing my son how to make some things, and now, since the items are within his reach, he just goes to get what he needs when he has a new idea.
Spending time teaching him to work with these materials is important, but the most important “time” is the free time I give him to work.
Last week we were busy with play dates and errands, and I found him looking at the calendar on our refrigerator. He noticed that nothing was on the calendar for Friday afternoon. “I’m going to build my Lego airplane on Friday afternoon.” After that, I made a mental note to try not to add anything to our day on Friday!
Some people may say my son is just very creative and likes art and building, but I bet all children, given a little instruction, access to materials and plenty of free time would take advantage of it. Fostering children’s imaginations, honoring their interests, and teaching helpful skills at a young age will make children doers instead of passive learners.
The other day my son said to me, “It occurred to me that if I want something, and I don’t have it, I can just make it!” That’s exactly what I was aiming for.