I build toys with my son, mostly for fun, but I like that it gives him exposure to designing and making. Sometimes people ask me how to approach building toys with their kids. I have a simple answer: have your kid make a drawing of the toy, then work with them to build it…This blog post outlines a more detailed process:
Start by having your kid make a drawing of what they want to build. DO NOT DRAW IT FOR THEM. If they aren't sure what they want to build, prompt them: Say something like: Do you want to build a boat? Or a space shuttle? Or a motorcycle? Remember it’s going to be kid drawing so the simpler, chunkier and more abstract the better. Don't suggest modifications or revisions. Let the drawing be theirs. Stay open to how they want their toy. Once they make their drawing, photocopy it and protect the original.
For slightly older kids, ask them to draw a second picture of how they think the toy should be built. This may end up taking some time, but have them consider the individual parts and details. Their proposal may seem outrageous, or oversimplified but discuss what they mean. Before you work out an approach for construction, consult any paper mock ups, or lego constructions they’ve made for the same concept or genre.
Next discuss how to build the toy with the tools and materials you have on hand. If you only have paper and tape, that's fine! If you only have scrap wood and random screws, that will work (also a hand saw and hand drill will be helpful). If you have a jig saw, or scroll saw; great! If you want to step it up a notch, invest in a drill press and a band saw.
Below, I've outlined five simple toy projects that I built with my son. These are ideas, not instructions. They are deliberately rough, partly for the hand-made aesthetic, and partly because we work within in a short time span so he doesn't lose interest. If you follow the process, stay resourceful and keep an open mind your toy will turn out. You will also have a fun memory and bonding experience with your shop partner.
When my son was four, he got right to the point with the ultra-simple sketch he drew for the car he wanted to make.
We went to the Ace Hardware and looked for fun hardware to use for wheels. We also grabbed some colored electrical tape. Looking closely at his original sketch,we enlarged it roughly 5 times onto a scrap of cedar fencing. We were careful to keep the original proportions, and the quirky shapes. Then we used a hand saw to cut out the shape, and used a hand drill to drill the four corners of the window. We then used a small sheetrock saw to cut between the holes. We cut electrical tape containers in half and used them as fenders, and used screws to hold the wheels and fenders on. Lastly, my son wanted to embellish the car with electrical tape.
My son’s sailboat drawing included three masts, a cabin, and a pirate flag.
After he finished his drawing, we consulted a paper sailboat he built previously. Compared to the drawing, his paper boat had a flat bottom, no cabin, and only one mast.
We had two containers for electrical tape and decided that they would provide four good sails, so we decided to build a boat with just two masts. We found a scrap of 2x4 for the hull, and found some scraps of fir for the masts. We used a hand saw to cut the tapered shape of the bow, then we screwed the sails to the masts, and drilled mast holes into the boat (hole diameter slightly larger than the mast width). We drilled a small hole for the pirate flag (which is made from a large nail and electrical tape). Then we gently pounded the masts and flag pole into the holes.
My son drew multiple drawings for a space shuttle before he asked to build one. I’ve misplaced the final drawing we used, but his drawing iterations below illustrate a similar design. We transferred components from his drawing onto scrap boards, and then we cut them out with a jig saw. He wanted to add a fin, so we cut out an additional piece and fastened it with screws from the back of the shuttle. The shuttle, rockets, and fuel tank are held together with colored electrical tape.
After my son drew his motorcycle design, we rummaged through some hardware in my workshop for fun pieces then mocked up different arrangements based on his sketch.
We used a drill press for the holes accommodating the front forks. We bolted together a pair of angles for the seat, and used a couple small screws to attach the seat to the frame. We used electrical tape to connect the rear forks.
This project was conceived in one sketch, but was built in two phases. There is still a future phase three (to add the optional sail).
In phase one, we transferred the boat shape and cabin shape onto some scraps of 2x4. We used a band saw to cut the various angles of the bow, stern and the cabin. Then we screwed the cabin to the boat.
In phase two, my son had disassembled a toy car and was using the wind-up motor and some tape and card board to create a paddle-boat.
We realized that his previously designed outboard motor could also utilize the wind-up motor. We used the band saw to cut an outboard motor assembly and a wooden propeller for the wind-up motor. Then we used the band saw to cut a notch in the stern. The notch allowed the stern drive to fit snugly but still have an adjustable pitch.
Lastly, my son embellished the boat with some colored electrical tape.
The development of the Tectonic Toy Bee (this toy features input from my daughter)