Models for our Children


A Rocket for Ryan

A few weeks ago I decided to build my 4 year old a rocket.  He has been asking questions about rockets and got excited watching Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Day Out and I just knew that he’d LOVE building and flying a rocket.

Estes D12-3 engines
Estes D12-3 engines

So I did what any dad would do. I headed to WalMart to pick up some rocket engines. “We used to carry them, but all the models are gone now” says WalMart. Wait, what? No models at all? Alright, it’s off to Target. “No, we don’t carry anything like that” says Target.

At this point I have been driving around town for a while and want to go home. I’m a little bit frustrated because growing up K-Mart always had a whole row of models in the toy section and I went into WalMart and Target with certain expectations.

I suppressed my disappointment and decided to just go to Toys ‘R Us. “I should’ve just gone there in the first place” I thought to myself, “even though it’s farther away, at least it would’ve just been one stop.” I was confident that Toys ‘R Us would not disappoint.

Toys ‘R Us Disappoints

As I wandered around Toys ‘R US it dawned on me. I hadn’t seen a single toy that required real building skills. Not in the toy section at WalMart or at Target, and not even at Toys ‘R US. No wooden block sets, no Tinker Toys, no Lincoln logs, no bristle blocks, waffle blocks, K’Nex, Marble Works, Erector sets … or  Models. They did have Legos — kind of. All of the Lego were sets. A collection of pieces specifically for a specific model, mostly Star Wars related and mostly very expensive. I didn’t see a big bucket of bricks anywhere. If they were present they weren’t the main display (and they definitely didn’t have rocket engines).

To say I was let down would be an understatement. I know that I can buy any of those types of toys online, at an independent toy store or probably at an educational toy store — but why aren’t toy stores carrying imagination building toys? Why don’t the toy isles at the big box stores carry them? I suppose it’s because sets and pre-made play sets have higher profit margins and benefit from media tie-ins, but other building toys wouldn’t be off the shelves if parents (and grandparents!) showed enough demand for them.

Innovative, Creative, Problem Solving Kids that Can Follow Instructions

I’m glad my kids like playing with Lego sets,  flying RC helicopters and other toys that only work one way.    Toys that don’t work unless you follow the instructions teach kids to follow instructions, to read a manual, to research why things aren’t working correctly. Collection based toys such as Pokemon cards and action figures can teach kids to take care of things and work towards a goal of completing the set.

My concern is the the lack of problem solving toys. Toys that make you think to figure out the solution. A few nights ago Caroline brought home a couple of toy shelves from Ikea. She and Ryan put together the first set of shelves following the instructions. When I started on the second set of shelves, Ryan just about had a panic attack when I wouldn’t pick up the instructions. Eventually he was persuaded that we were doing it correctly without the instructions, but there were a few tense moments at the beginning of the process (for him, not me).

Homemade livingroom table
Homemade living room table

The Ikea shelf only had 6 main boards, all pre-drilled and they would only fit together correctly one way. Do I expect a 4 year old to be able to do it? No, of course not! But it did worry  me that he felt so strongly that it would be impossible without instructions. I made the table pictured here without instructions. It’s much nicer and sturdier than anything I could buy at Ikea and I’m very proud of how it turned out.

Many of the neatest and coolest things in the world don’t have instructions – think of great works of art, architecture, the best costumes, scrap book pages or parenting. I want my kids to be able to fix problems they encounter with sweat and inspiration when needed, and to be able to set aside the instructions when they want to. You can’t paint a masterpiece using paint by number.

Models for Our Children

Perhaps my fears are unfounded. Perhaps kids become creative based on their personality and not on their surroundings. Perhaps I just went to the wrong WalMart, Target and Toys ‘R Us.

But maybe I need to make sure to order models and building toys from online retailers and find a better local toy store. Maybe I need to demonstrate creativity first so that my kids have an example of someone who can fix and make things.

Maybe I’m the model my kids need.

Partial Success

A few nights after the failed rocket engine hunt Ryan came running into my office yelling “I made a BB Gun!”. He had cannibalized his prized Lego garage set to make an blocky L-shaped gun – a glimmer of creativity, no instructions needed.

Now that the rocket engines came in the mail Ryan and I can figure out how to build a rocket.

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