Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Hunting For That Moment Of "Ah Ha"

A former Woodland Park parent recently opened up his iPhone and repaired a button that had ceased to function. Of course, he invalidated his warranty, but still, he's now on my list of every day heros.

A few years ago, my "new" vacuum cleaner stopped working so I took it into Sears where I'd purchased it 2 years earlier. The salesman told me it would cost almost as much to repair as buying a new machine. When I made aggravated noises, he answered, "Most vacuum cleaners are only designed to last 2 years, so, you know, you're right on schedule." Nothing gets my goat more than being taken for a sucker. Knowing absolutely nothing about how these machines work, I took it home, removed the screws, figured it out and made a repair.

People don't believe me, but honestly, I'm no more technically skilled than anyone reading this. I've spent most of my life throwing out "new" machines just like everyone else, but during the past several years, I've grown increasingly concerned about the waste both personally and environmentally. That Sears vacuum is still functioning, living in the garage for when I need to clean out car. Our indoor machine lives most of its life with its guts exposed so that I can more easily apply the duct tape and other repairs it needs on a regular basis. It ain't pretty, but man it makes me happy each time I service it myself. I wish I could tell you that the satisfaction I feel is about the contribution I'm making to the environment, but it has much more to do with going one more day without falling economic victim to a corporation trying to make a buck off planned obsolescence. 

Still, there remain a lot of machines that I can't do anything about, so they come into school where I turn them over to the kids. We're currently working on an old coffee mill, a power drill, clock radio, and a DVD/VCR.

It was exciting last week when Connor discovered that he could open the DVD drawer by turning a little white gear. It somehow released a catch that had thwarted past efforts. On Monday, four days after this success, he raised his hand, and in detail, described to his classmates how he'd done it.

We'll work on these machines until they are in little pieces, then we'll probably break out the glue guns and either create some sort of sculpture or collage from the parts. Last year, for instance, we used various bits and pieces to create the robot for our Pre-K play (this is a link to the video of A Beautiful Nightmare, a production produced stem-to-stern by 4 and 5-year-olds):

But whatever we wind up doing with the pieces, it's my hope to start taking some of the mystery out of the insides of machines, to teach children to not be intimidated by those stickers bearing warnings about their own incompetence.

These machines are broken anyway, and more often than not they're designed to be thrown away, so why not poke around inside? You know the repair bill will almost exactly match the purchase price of a new one. The day isn't in the too distant past when being able to perform basic repairs was considered a fundamental aspect of ownership. The Model-T came with a tool kit.

I don't know how to fix these machines myself, of course, that's why the kids are getting a crack at tinkering around with them, and maybe, like Connor did, they'll figure out how something works and even if that specific knowledge doesn't stick, hopefully, that feeling of success, that sense of competence and mastery will become a part of how he approaches life.

It's true that most of the kids, especially the 2-year-olds, are just poking their screwdrivers into holes, but that's how it starts, just opening the things up and looking around, trying your tool here and there, hunting for that moment of ah ha.

Getting to do it together is just a bonus.

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Amy A @ Child Central Station said...

I love this, getting in to see the "guts" and working towards defying that darned planned obsolescence. I assume you have seen "The Story of Stuff" http://www.storyofstuff.com/ They are about ready to release info on electronics (great timing with your blog post!)

Floor Pie said...

My husband got our DVD player working again by casually threatening to throw it off a bridge. True story.

But if it fails again, I'm glad to know it will have a good home at the preschool!

Scott said...

I love seeing an "Ah ha" moment in a child's face. And seeing the inside of "stuff" looks really fun!

Play for Life said...

Earlier this year Tom we gave the children a box full of 'stuff' to dismantle but I must say some of those dang machines can be hard to get into!
Cleaning up the storeroom a couple of weeks ago we came across a box of old alarm clocks which were much easier to dismantle and an awful lot of fun. Just this past week we too have been making sculptures out of the clock pieces along with nails, nuts, bolts, screws etc. Once the children finish them week post about it!
Donna :) :)

Transit Antenna Home said...

We love tinkering too!

Deborah said...

Those tinkering two year olds are adorable!!

Barbara Zaborowski said...

I love the look on the faces of our antsiest kids as they settle in, determined to master a machine, the more screws the better. All of a sudden, they find they can stay with a project as long as it takes.

SquiggleMum said...

Pulling things apart is the best way to learn about putting things together!

tril said...

I'm a mom nicknamed "MacGyver" so I think this is great, but i that safe for little ones? I'm thinking of lead or some other toxic metals/chemicals, esp in computers? I'm all for it, as long as it is safe;

Darcey said...

I agree with SquiggleMum, taking things apart is the best way to learn about putting things together. I enjoyed this post and linked to it on my blog: