Years ago while lamenting the endless mess of contraptions and creations to a friend, she turned to me and laughed saying "It must have been hard to be Rube Goldberg's mother too."
Rube Goldberg, remember him? He came up with the most laborious ways possible for machines to do simple tasks, often ones which took humans just a fraction of the time to do themselves, and then put them in comic form. Although his 'inventions' were only interpreted through his comics, the fact that he's left an indelible impression upon the world makes me think that we still love to indulge the more fanciful parts of our American psyche-- that is to say, that it's sort of akin to the bootstrap mythology--- anything of purpose can be built and put to use if only we try.
Of course, having a kid who loves to explore everything is all my fault. The seeds were probably planted when he was a toddler and I just gave him containers and lids to play with, canning rings and wooden spoons. Then he got older and I'd pull open the Found Objects drawer and let him play on the floor in front of it as I made dinner or did kitchen chores. Parts of a french press, more lids, green plastic strawberry baskets, string, twist ties, old wooden beads and chopsticks.... these became toys of his own making. He loved blocks and having a full set of unit blocks on hand (loaned to me from that same friend) kept him engaged in creative building as well until Legos were discovered. Tinker toys and Lincoln logs were cool, but too limited and therefore, frustrating for him.
Now, I'm taken aback. He's almost eight. The Found Objects drawer has become several bags in his closet as well as a few boxes of things down in the basement. He has a hot glue gun now, and knows how to use it (well, still a bit messy....). There are various creations going on right now: last night he slept in the fort he built with the pvc pipe kit we gave him for Christmas; there's a tray with three or four deconstructed hex bugs, batteries in a container and jewelers screwdrivers at the ready; and the other night we played with his zome tool set and he ended up constructing a 'marble run' with rubber bands and tape for the marble to travel on before it falls into a cup.
If you are wondering what to get Kiddo for his birthday, please consider lots of tape, any kind of tape. We go through a lot of tape here. Really, a crazy amount of tape.
This morning our big gray cat Milton lost one of those thick ponytail elastics he likes to chase around. It had gone under the stove. I used a skewer to draw it out and along with it came four Lego pieces, several beads and a glass stone. It made me think of all the times he's been in here building, making things, creating. I try to confine the kitchen creating to a tray on the table (to keep the small parts from rolling off the table and under the fridge or oven or my feet. This is the story of my life these days-- anytime I go to vacuum or sweep the floor, I am finding so many many things. Paper clips, rubber bands, Legos, bits of plastic (from what?), tons of little blue painters tape pieces which were rejected for some reason or another and just left there, plastic bugs, rocks, pencils.... all the things, one needs, I suppose, to make a growing boy like mine happy.
Sometimes the contraptions, creations work and he is so proud. Sometimes they don't and then he is so mad. When the stakes are low and he's got time to tinker, he's happy to try, retry, keep working at something. And sometimes, when the creations are soooo close to working and then something falls off or maybe the Legos weren't pressed together hard enough in that one spot there-- sometimes it all falls apart and Kiddo is so hard on himself, so angry that those 'stupid' items didn't do what he wanted or that the ability to make exactly what he is wanting eludes him and he feels helpless.
Young inventors sometimes need a lot of emotional support and reassurance. For me, the frustration and the mess are the hardest part of having a creative kid. Especially a creative kid with a strong sense of the ideal he is working to create. So, you bolster them up with some encouragement and tell them that they can take a break or try it again-- and to remember that this is supposed to be fun. If it isn't fun, then consider doing something else. Free time, that time where there are no pressing chores or homework, should be enjoyed. Often this helps him to gain perspective, try things a new way and to decide that what seemed like a mountain to overcome might actually be a molehill and rather doable. A renewed sense of capability is embraced and he moves forward.
I love his curiosity, even when I have to keep my inner voice from shouting "don't take that apart! It might not go back together again!"-- I just bite my tongue and tell myself that as long as it is just his toys, I need to let him have the ownership of them, to do as he wishes. I need to let him succeed or fail on his own terms in this. Unless it's one of my appliances or electronics, he gets to make his choices about his own toys-- and live with them. It's good, really. It shows him that some things can't be put back together. It's actually a safer and better way to learn that Mom and Dad aren't going to be able to fix everything for him, and it's a manageable experience for him.
Kids lives are all about experimentation and tinkering. They do this in how they choose their friends, how they play together--outside or indoors, even in learning how to manage their time and make good choices. All of these come from experience-- we can't do these things for them all the time and really, aside from some guidance, we shouldn't. My son is experimenting with different physical activities finding with ones he enjoys (bouldering) and those he doesn't (any sport involving serious waiting). He's finding out about how to play with different groups of friends because these groups have their own favorite chosen activities. Even when it comes to handling the cats, he's learning, sometimes rewarded with purrs and a content cat on his lap, sometimes with a scratch on his neck because cats don't want to ride on your shoulder like a parrot. Live and learn. Learning to live.
I'm glad for all of this. Kiddo is happy to have the ability to make things as he desires. Our goal was always to let him choose his own paths as much as we could allow. Having a variety of experiences and materials to draw from -- this enriches all of our lives as humans. Being a kid and only having manufactured toys to play with seems a lot like being a cook and only having processed food to work with.... we all know that being able to work from scratch allows for more variety and often, a better flavor and more appealing presentation. I think the same can be said for the little creators of the world: they like to work from scratch too. So, we'll keep the twist-ties, the mesh from that bag of oranges, the pipe cleaners and that yard of fuzzy white felt... all those little bits. I may feel like Rube Goldberg's mother with all those tiny bits about the house, and it's worth it.