A few years ago, I went to one of the best birthday parties I’ve been to over my 20+ years of parenting. It was a construction site themed birthday party for a four year old boy.
When they arrived, the kids got construction helmets with their names on them (so helpful for me, as I only knew a third of the kids at the party) and construction apron / tool belts from Home Depot. (Note: you can also get 6 Construction Worker Vest with 6 Helmets pretty cheap on Amazon.)
The party was held in a community room with an easy clean floor. There were 4 stations:
- The quarry – a kiddie pool filled with sand, construction trucks and little shovels; surrounded by some big storage tubs and stacked up sandbags to climb on (and a construction broom to sweep all the sand back to the quarry).
- House painting – big cardboard boxes, paint, paintbrushes and rollers. Put a BIG plastic tarp and drop cloths under it for easy clean-up. (An alternative would be to draw houses on big paper to hang on the walls, and let kids paint that.)
- Architects’ office – tables with architectural blueprints spread out and markers for drawing anything you want. (We later ate snack at those tables.)
- And the best part: the construction site – 6 foam insulation panels, miscellaneous foam blocks from packaging, golf tees, and toy hammers (including a couple squeaky hammers).
The kids assembled a building out of them. For an hour and a half straight (!) these kids focused on this building. They were working intently, hammering non-stop, negotiating design issues with each other, re-building when there were accidental dis-assemblies of the building, problem-solving when they discovered they’d forgotten to put a door between the rooms (they solved this by putting a foam “step” on each side of the wall so they could easily step over it.) They were totally engaged in the project and the imaginary play that accompanied it. This was all self-guided by the kids. Parents rarely stepped in to offer any guidance – almost no dispute resolution was needed – the kids worked it out. And note: some of these kids knew each other in advance, but many were strangers to each other. It was the work that brought them together.
Since this party, I have replicated this house building project several times in my Inventors’ Class. You can read more about it and see more pictures at this post about our class session called If I Built a House. That post also has lots of other ideas that could be adapted for a birthday party or preschool class themed around construction, Bob the Builder, etc. We draw blueprints, excavate in the dirt, build plumbing in the water table, connect electrical circuits, and lots more.
Get Kids Building
People will often say that children this age (4 – 8) have short attention spans and are hard to entertain / control / keep focused on a task. But if you find engaging, hands-on projects and let the children guide their own creation, it’s amazing just how hard kids will work on a project and how much satisfaction they’ll get out of it.
Kids love to build. They love to be competent at a skill. They learn by using tools and by the trial and error that goes with the building process. They can work together collaboratively. We just need to come up with good projects to help them do so. And there are long-term benefits to building. (Check out:The Importance of Learning to Make Things: http://harvestamericacues.com/2014/03/10/the-importance-of-learning-to-make-things/)
Some more ideas for building projects:
- Give a child scraps of wood, sand paper, glue. Hammer and nails if you’re feeling bold. Encourage them to build a boat, or a castle, or whatever inspires them.
- Cardboard forts. Ask your friends for their giant cardboard boxes (the week around Christmas is a great time to post this request on your Facebook page!). Give your kids packing tape, and markers, fabric for curtains and flags and so on. Help them cut doors and windows as needed.
- Building tunnels. Tape flaps on cardboard boxes open or cut flaps off so that boxes form a tunnel – string several together to be an animal den or a prison escape route or whatever pretend play the kids want to do. (There’s an amazing scene of this in the Ant Man and the Wasp movie!)
- Marble runs / ball runs. Use cardboard tubes, or foam insulation cut in half, or PVC pipes and a lot of tape to build mazes to run marbles or balls through. (Learn more.)
- Water walls: Use PVC pipes and PVC connectors on suction cups or water bottles and tape, and create great “mazes” to pour water through. Good for outdoors or the shower wall. (Here’s the one we built.)
- “Paint” your house with water. In the summer, put out paint rollers, paint brushes, and paint trays of water. Let kids paint the house, the patio, the car…
- Sanding wood. If you’re working on a project with wood, even small children can help with the sanding. Show them how to sand with the grain, how to touch the wood to see if it’s getting smoother, etc.
- Using screws. Your child can use a screwdriver and screws – it may be easier to screw them into a bar of soap first, before trying wood.
- Screwing in bolts. We have a fun toy drill driver with plastic bolts and wrench, but you could also use real bolts and a real wrench.
- Construction snacks: Use materials like graham crackers or marshmallows or gingerbread. Mortar them together with cream cheese, frosting, or peanut butter. Let kids create buildings with them. Decorate with candy or dried fruit or cereal.
- More ideas for songs, books, and more related to construction: http://www.everythingpreschool.com/themes/construction/
- And more great ideas: http://notjustcute.com/2011/03/11/lets-build-activities-for-a-preschool-tools-and-construction-theme/
In our STEM enrichment class, we do lots of building activities. Go here to learn more: http://inventorsoftomorrow.com/category/math-engineering/