Thursday, March 6, 2014

5 Things Your Child Can Learn from a Project

I recently replaced my back fence. The rusting frame dropping shards in the grass was causing me to regularly think of one of my favorite book series from my childhood - The Great Brain. In one of The Great Brain books, a neighbor boy stepped on a rusty nail and ended up losing his leg. The Great Brain then taught him how to do his chores and play games with his artificial leg. And yes, this is the way my brain works on a regular basis. I am just one giant tangent after another. And no, this won't be a tutorial on how to replace a fence. This also won't be a tutorial on how to do chores with an artificial leg.

Counting nuts and bolts is fun!
Since I didn't want any of my kids losing a leg, I started to work on the fence. My three year old asked me if she could help. Of course I can't deny her anything, with her pigtails and squinty smile, so she came outside with me. Now the efficient side of me wanted to send her to some meaningless task so I could finish the gate in 20 minutes, but the educator side of me wanted to turn it into a lesson for her. The educator side won. Here are five lessons that I taught my three year old while replacing the fence (in no particular order).

1). Counting practice - Almost any handyman-type job around the house utilizes counting skills. The gate had ten slats in it, and three sets of nuts, bolts, and washers per slat. For my three year old, I had her count out ten nuts, ten bolts, and ten washers. She did that for each run. Could I have done it more quickly and efficiently? Of course. But the point was not to be quick and efficient. The point was to engage my daughter in work, give her purpose in it, and ensure that she will be self-sufficient and able to take care of me when I am old.

For an older child, I would turn this into a multiplication lesson. If there are ten slats, and three bolts per slat, how many bolts would we need? It could also be a percentage problem (10 of 30 bolts complete. What percentage is that?), a subtraction problem (we needed 10 bolts, and we have already used 3. How many are left?). Or more advanced (If it requires 80 ft/lbs. of torque to keep a bolt in place, and you can only apply 40 ft/lbs. of torque because you refuse to eat your vegetables, how long does the pipe need to be that you put on the handle of your wrench to apply the proper amount of leverage to reach the required torque?). The point is to help them see that what they learn in school can be used in real life, thus answering the age old question, "When am I ever going to use this?"

Socket wrenches - a lesson on torque
2) Torque - Of course I didn't force my three year old to memorize the word torque, but I did have her try to turn a bolt with her fingers. When she couldn't, I gave her my socket wrench and had her turn it. We talked about how machines and tools help make work easier, and how we wouldn't be able to turn the bolts if we didn't have a tool.

3) Righty tighty, lefty loosey - I had my daughter tighten the bolt, and then loosen it. We talked about how the bolt has to turn one way in order for it to tighten and another way for it to loosen. Will she retain this? No. Not after one lesson. But the next time she works with me, I won't have to explain it as many times.

As a parenthetical story, when I was in high school, my family had a cappuccino machine. I was making a cappuccino, and the steam was leaking. I attempted to tighten the lid, and turned it the wrong way, sending a blast of steam up my chest, face and arms. My dad immediately commented, "Righty tighty, lefty loosy." My seven-year-old brother then added, "I don't knowy. It went blowy." Notice the total lack of sympathy here. Anyway, please do your children a favor and help keep them from blowing up a cappuccino machine by teaching them this saying.

How many workers have a partner with tights like these!
4) Organization - Better suited for a younger child, having them work on organizing materials based on size, shape, color, etc. is a great project activity. Taking a pile of nuts and bolts and having the child separate them into different stacks helps the child develop hand/eye coordination, fine motor skills, and organization skills. Later in life, you can capitalize on these skills by having your child organize your sock drawer.

5) People are more important than things. Okay, there was no particular order to the first four, but this one is the most important by far. And it is something that I consistently try to teach my children. I don't always succeed at this. But I do want my children to know that the time I spend with them is more important than the task at hand. If it takes an extra 30 minutes to replace the fence, but I get to spend the time with my daughter, then of course the project is a success. When I engage my children in a project, my type-A, perfectionist side often shudders. I know that the paint will be sloppy, that the screws will be stripped, and that I may need to re-do half of it when they aren't looking. But their memories of these times with dad will last longer than the stupid gate anyway. And little by little my kids' skills will improve and they will actually be a help.

Their skills will improve, won't they?


  1. Their skills far exceed their age contemporaries already, right?! You said it all when you said you want her to be self-sufficient so she can take care of you when you're old... even YOU will get old someday, Sonny :-)

    1. If I will get old someday, why do I feel so old now...?