Using toys to teach maker basics

Writing in Make, engineer-dad Saul Griffith proposes a "curriculum of toys" that adapts the toys around our kids to provide a curriculum that teaches all the important subjects for a happy, well-informed life.

1. Drawing. Being able to draw sufficiently well to communicate your ideas is critical, especially for future makers. You don’t have to be Rembrandt, just learn proportion, perspective, and how to represent 3D objects on the 2D page. Chalk and a sidewalk, pencil and paper, an Etch-a-sketch if you must.

2. Sculpting. Understanding three dimensions and producing 3D forms. Play-Doh, Fimo or Sculpey, clay, sandboxes and beaches, food, aluminum foil, paper and origami.

3. Knots. It frustrates me that so many people know so few knots. Rope can help you do almost anything. String or rope, kites, sewing, knitting, crochet, sailing, rock climbing.

4. Joining Things. Gluing, nailing, soldering, welding, tying, lacing, riveting, taping, stitching, screwing. Most of these are cheap to learn — give them an old log, a hammer, and a bag of nails, and let them bang nails until that log looks like a rusty hedgehog. Nearly any craft project or model kit.

5. Shaping Things. Cutting, sawing, chiseling, whittling, sanding, grinding, drilling. Give kids real tools, not plastic versions, at any age. Woodworking and metalworking toys, most craft projects, origami, a penknife, scissors.

6. Forces. Gravity, levers (moments), projectile motion, friction, pulleys, mechanical advantage, gearing and gearboxes, torque. Mobiles, trebuchets, magnets, juggling, throwing and ball sports, board sports, sailing, seesaws, slides, Lego, and bicycles!

A Curriculum of Toys

(Image: scraptbooking kids, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from wwworks's photostream)


  1. Give kids real tools, not plastic versions, at any age. 

    This. I always wondered what those ridiculous plastic Fisher-Price “tools” were supposed to teach. Kids are resilient.

  2. Giving a moment of thanks for my big tub of Legos…. which, sadly, none of my nephews or nieces had any great interest in.

    1. Les, you might try sorting them by size and color. Organizing them may help them see their potential usefulness rather than viewing it as a big bin of hand-me downs.

  3. I was watching them present the “hot” toys on TV yesterday – not one of them incorporated any of the listed skills.  Too bad – all this stuff is more fun to do then watching Elmo play the drums.

  4. “It frustrates me that so many people know so few knots. ”

    If anything ever deserved the “first world problems” tag, it’s this.

    1. Knots are pretty useful no matter where in the world you are.

      If anything deserved “First World Problems” it’s typically things like “My iPhone won’t connect to the web!” instead of “I wish more people had this basic skill.” 

      Having watched enough people struggle with a basic square knot that will be holding something above someone’s head, I share the author’s concerns.

  5. “. . .You don’t have to be Rembrandt, just learn proportion, perspective, and how to represent 3D objects on the 2D page.”

    Hmmmm, actually, learning proportion and perspective would get you a good ways towards being Rembrandt.

  6. This is absolutely brilliant, and yet so common-sensical. That’s how kids learned back in the day–granted, they probably weren’t too concerned about perspective or 3D shapes, but they learned about the world by going out there and living in it! :)

    As a side note, I’m a homeschooler and this just radiates unschooling. Love it! :)

    1. My son is in a Cub Scout Pack locally and we made a big deal in his den that all of the boys would learn certain skills, not just as part of their badge requirements, but as part of “This is what every boy should learn.”  (Not to make it sound sexist, but it is the Boy Scouts.  We’re not focused on the girls.  My attempts to pitch similar skills to the Girl Scouts has experienced less…enthusiasm)

      So one of the den meetings we had was:
      Building a candy dispenser out of wood and a mason jar.
      Building a door stop.
      Building a bird house.

      Next week, all of the boys, in the entire pack will be headed to a local charitable organization that refurbs bikes and they’ll be working there to replace chains, tighten handle bars, replace seats, etc.

      And in the spring we’ll be working with the kids’ elementary school to repair all of the wooden booths and homemade games the school uses for their May Fair, so there will be a lot of working with tools there as well.

      I feel deeply blessed that I live in an area where the Maker spirit is not just honored but is passed down from each generation to the next.  So not all hope is lost for all future adults.

  7. Fantastic> Never thought about this, but I learned all those things young, except Mechanical Drawing which was a required year-long course  at Stuyvesant HS back in the 1970’s, when it still had traces of being a trade school, instead of simply being the best large academic high school in the country.  My worst subject, but I learned enough so that I could design and execute the gut renovation of my apartment pretty much myself 15 years later. But for those younger than I, a few memories on how you can gets kid to assimilate these ideas:
    1. Sculpting: one word– Play-dough.  Starting at about 3. Even got to love the taste.  If making new stuff is too hard, have the kid add features to something else, (i.e. Mr Potato-Head style).
    2. Knots:  Boy Scouts. If your heavy canvas tent fell over in the rain, you became wet, cold and miserable, so we eventually learned how to do it right. Back then, we even had to learn how to splice sissel ropes together, and I even carried a card reprint of knots for sailors c. 1940  while I was learning them, so by he time I got to Princeton, knot theory seemed like a fun idea,  not punishment from an alien culture.
    3. Grandpa had been a carpenter, so we had tools in the house. I put nails and screws into everything I could, until my Mom freaked out and stopped me. Oh, I learned how to soldier when I built a Remco radio kit around 1967.  Kids love being given dangerous tools. They will use them eventually- teach them how to young, under supervision.  Made dozens of plastic scale models, including a 3 foot high Apollo rocket, and a balsa/doper paper glider. Didn’t paint them- the paints cost too much, but didn’t care. Function ruled.  making it pretty came later.
    4. Shaping- Boy Scouts again. Find an OLD Boy Scout handbook, like from 1960. Look at the things you are supposed to be able to do at age 12, like make a dugout canoe from a log with fire or a build a 35-foot signal tower with only logs and ropes (we did both).  This is awesome stuff, that requires real skills. Importantly, building something  LARGE, tactile and useful,  not scaled-down or virtual or cute, while cooperating with other kids is how you learn.
    5. Forces. We did everything except trebuchets.  Pulleys, gear ratios, Estes rockets,  kites, building a keystone arch from blocks etc. Great.
      I’ll add a couple of things.
       Let kids make stuff in a way that if they FAIL, you still learn something new, so it’s fun. Failure is part of the game ( if there is no risk of a spectacular screwup, it’s boring), and it is not only OK, that is how you know you are doing cool stuff.  Like the 3 foot diameter Wilson cloud chamber that we tried to make at an NSF summer program at Cornell that blew up. One image: Thermite, a pile bronze pennies  and abandoned trolley tracks…. Damn, that was cool.
      I would also add “observation” as a tool. Learning how to really look at stuff and understand it’s physical existence in terms of all the other skills.  If you can afford it , buy your kid a telescope, binoculars, microscope, even just a (really really good quality if you can-don’t skimp ) magnifying glass.  Helps them realize the world exists independently of their imagination, but is still accessible if you try hard enough. 
    All this got from me from a creaky public school system to a full Ivy League scholarship skipping freshman year. But even if I had simply  quit high school, I could still fix a car,  or build a house, or make a fire and cook a meal.  And that’s not bad.

  8. One can’t help but notice that none of these have batteries, and they are in fact critical life skills to owning a house/car/appliance/etc and not being a slave to repairmen.

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