Archive | March 2012

Bricks vs. Sticks

One of the great things about being a Geek Dad is being able to expose my children to the interesting, the esoteric, and the odd. And while I love sharing my personal interests with my kids, it is sometimes hard to reconcile that they are not simply small versions of myself — that listening to NPR, Robert Johnson, and The Clash in the car doesn’t preclude them walking in the door one day asking me to download Ke$ha or Justin Bieber (two bullets we have so far dodged), or, as in my case, that one would end up preferring K’NEX to Lego1.

Growing up, I was a Lego kid. Sure, I had Lincoln Logs, but after the house, barn, fence, jail, and really tall tower that collapsed every time someone walked by, there wasn’t a whole lot left to do with them. I even dabbled a bit in Tinker Toys and Erector sets belonging to my little brothers, but I always came back to that giant tub of Legos2, handed down and added to over the years.

So, when Dylan started asking for K’NEX sets, I was surprised at how much fun they were. Once I got over everything being wireframe, I started to see the attraction. There was much more movement, more engineering and physics, than sticking bricks together. How do you build an eight-legged creature that doesn’t pop legs off when you move it? Sure, that tower looks fine now, but when you add a fulcrum and turn it into a trebuchet, you have to widen the base and add in more cross-supports. Or, in the case of his newest sets, take into account the force of a small plumber driving in circles.

When the Mario Kart K’NEX were first released, I knew we were going to end up owning them all. Before such a thing was ever on the market, Dylan’s room was walls covered with Mario wall stickers and posters, and a floor covered with K’NEX structures. And while these kits are still fun to build, they’ve somehow managed to incorporate the most negative aspect of the two toys from which they originated (slot car tracks and K’NEX models). The key to enjoying the kit is to recognize it is a module for creativity, not a standalone toy; enjoy the fun of construction, and then use it as a part of a whole, combined with other Mario Kart kits, the big bucket of K’NEX pieces, Mario chess pieces, Hot Wheels, building blocks, and whatever else is lying around. We are hoping to finish his newest acquisition tonight. From the pictures, it appears Bowser needs a few more weapons at his disposal. I’m thinking a jungle-style Swinging Log of Death, which, come to think of it, would be a good use for those Lincoln Logs.

1 To put this in context for those of you who aren’t builders, this is the geek equivalent of preferring Episode I to Episode IV or Val Kilmer to Christian Bale.

2 Sorry, the only way the Lego company is going to get me to stop calling them Legos is to invent time travel and threaten 6-year-old me with sticking together all my thin flat pieces unless I agree to call them Lego bricks.

Beyond the Instruction Manual

This weekend my oldest son finally got around to building the tin can robot kit he received for Christmas. While calling it a robot might be a little generous — tin can electric vehicle is probably more accurate, it was a fun project that offered a few lessons in mechanics, battery polarity,deciphering an exploded view, and following instructions. I also got to play the part of wise old man when I showed him how to magnetize the tip of the screwdriver with the old hard drive magnet I had attached to the filing cabinet, as well as discussing simple machines when he discovered that using the screwdriver with the fatter handle was easier than the tiny eyeglass screwdriver.

Altogether, it was a great little geeky project, and had it ended there with the little robot spending the rest of its life collecting dust on a bedroom shelf, I would have considered it a success. As I snapped some pictures, however, my son began taking the project beyond the instruction manual.

“Sure you can switch the wires, but if you do it like this, it’s a moonwalking robot.”

“Hold on, let me go get some Hot Wheels cars and we’ll take some pictures of it crushing them.”

“Can we use GIMP and make it look like it’s destroying a city?”

“How do you get your edges to look so good when you are removing the background?”

By this point, the robot is sitting on the kitchen table, and Connor is on his laptop next to me on my desktop learning how to use feathering and opacity in GIMP. And this is the real value of craft and science projects  —  the questions they create and the opportunities they provide for us to share our passions with our children.