The other day I was tidying up our play kitchen area and found an old and broken plastic checkout register. It’s been with us for a while and was hugely popular until our toddler started taking it apart and throwing it around.
Then one day it just didn’t work any more and was dismissed. When it stopped opening properly, didn’t make any more sounds or show us it’s red scan light and started missing parts, it lost it’s appeal.
Usually I try to fix our toys or re-purpose them in some way or donate when we’ve moved on to another stage of play. But this one seemed to be a basket case. I almost felt sorry for it, and for our environment.
So I thought it might be fun to take it apart first, get one last hoorah! from it.
While my 4 year old daughter loves a good tinkering activity, neither her nor I are really into Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM). We were about to venture onto unknown territory here.
I decided we were going to keep it simple: open the thing up, see what we find and pray there won’t be any technical questions.
Here’s how it went ..
Editor’s note: before proceeding with any tinkering yourself, please read the safety notice at the end of this post.
Tinkering Activity: Let’s Open it Up and Take a Look
I told my daughter that day that I had a special treat for her. I had gotten her Dad’s mini toolbox out and put it next to the checkout register.
“Where’s my treat?” my patient and polite child asked.
“Well, here it is. Today we are going to do something special, we’re going to open up the checkout register and take a look inside.”
My daughter pushed the button, which gave an awkward yelp. The drawer opened up half an inch. She forced it wide open and looked at me. “See?”
“I see.” I said, holding back a chuckle. “What I meant by opening it up is that we’re going to use these tools, get the screws out and really take a look inside”, shaking the checkout register a bit in the hope of making myself more clear.
“Oooh” she said, eyeing the tools. “I can use those?” she asked, pointing at the little grey box.
“You sure can!” I answered.
And we dove into it.
It was hard work. For a four year old, it takes a considerate amount of patience and hand eye coordination to get all of those tiny screws out. At one point I thought she was going to walk away. I quietly helped her out a bit, being careful not to take over and finally we got to open up the box.
“Wow”, she said.
She spent some time looking and feeling her way through all there was to discover.
The bell held her attention for a long time. You could easily see how that worked on the inside and she was so delighted to find out where the noise had been coming from all this time.
Then the questions came.
“What are all these wires doing here?”
So far so good, I could still answer some simple questions about how sounds and lights need electricity to work and how electricity travels through those wires. I could even tell her how that plate was a tiny computer.
(Added note: please avoid touching circuit boards with your hands as they contain toxic elements. Although we were very careful, we really should have worn gloves.)
We traced the wires and then decided to strip them. It was all very exciting stuff.
My daughter ended up cutting in everything. Because she could. She made the most of her opportunity to work with some of Daddy’s tools. Nothing was left unturned, no screw unscrewed and no cable uncut.
Until we had taken apart every. single. item. What an accomplishment. We had been working for almost two solid hours. A tinkering activity I wasn’t even sure she was going to like!
I put all the wires and technical looking ‘thingies’ in the bin to take to the tip. The plastic loose parts moved to our inventor’s box, where one day they’ll become part of the next best thing in Tinkerland. I have no doubt!
Following Up on a Tinkering Activity
The day after our tinkering activity, we went on a play date and I heard my daughter explaining to her friend that the noises and lights that come out of the music making toy travelled through little wires and that it even had a little computer inside!
I was so surprised! I honestly felt like our tinkering activity was STEM at it’s most basic, since all we did was open something up and have a poke around.
But it stuck with her. She seemed to have had a little light bulb moment, this insight that she realised her peers might not yet have. Not only did she feel compelled to tell others every time there was an electric toy near, she also talked about it at her Montessori preschool and has been making suggestions for things to take apart next. (No, we’re not opening up my sewing machine!)
I can only encourage her curiosity.
While I am a huge tinkerer in the playing around with loose parts sense of the way, I’m not naturally interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). But through this tinkering activity I’ve learned that it pays to get out of my own comfort zone and explore new territories together with my children. Who knows what we will discover next?
And should you like to tinker some more at home? Have a look at all of our tinkering and loose parts play ideas here.
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! SAFETY NOTICE ! (Disclaimer)
Taking apart electronic toys (or other equipment) is generally considered to be an adult activity for obvious safety reasons. If you decide to involve your children in this activity so they can experience some hands on STEM learning, please keep the following in mind:
1) Always supervise your children when taking apart items. Be especially vigilant with younger children as they might easily swallow a small battery (which could be LETHAL) or other small items (like screws).
2) When a toy is battery operated, please remove the batteries first and put them out of reach of children. Once the battery is removed, the electric circuit is broken and you should be able to safely poke around.
3) When a toy works on solar power, they have batteries in them which are charged. These batteries should be safely removed by an adult before children can start ‘working’ on the toy.
4) When a toy or any electric item is plugged into the main circuit. Unplug it first or if that’s not possible, do not touch. Please do not tinker with anything that is plugged into the main circuit, this is very dangerous. Once unplugged you can proceed taking things apart. (also see point 7)
5) Consider wearing protective gloves while tinkering to protect your and your child’s skin from potential toxins. Circuit boards for example are known to contain lead.
6) Be aware that any tinkering with toys will quite possibly void any product warranty.
7) Please keep in mind that the larger your electronic equipment is, the higher the levels of toxicity and the risk of electrocution. TV’s and certain computer monitors for example contain capacitors that can hold a charge of hundreds of volts for a long time after the device is unplugged.
8) Use your common sense. If you are unsure about something, you might want to safe rather than sorry.
If you have any other safety tips or concerns, please let me know. Let’s work together to keep tinkering fun safe!