Tag Archives: construction

Problem Solving at the Adventure Playground

In a separate post, I told all about the Adventure Playground on Mercer Island. In this post, I want to share a few stories from our trip there to illustrate some of the learning opportunities it presents.

Responsibility for Others

We visited with our son, who is five. He saw this slide in the distance.


He immediately ran over to play on it. There was an older boy there – maybe 10 – 12. He warned my son – “be careful, it’s not stable.”

The boy had started to remove the nails that were supporting the slide, because his family wanted to move it over to a more stable platform that they were working on.


My son was very sad about not being able to use the slide. The older boy told him he’d fix it – he pounded back in the nails he had just pulled so my son could use the slide. I told my son I wasn’t sure it was safe, because the bottom of the slide was propped precariously on a couple boards, with some loose boards just beyond the slide. I asked him to slow himself down on the first time down the slide, and once we knew it was reasonably stable, we cleared away the loose wood, and let him take 3 full speed slides, then we moved on so they boy could return to his work of re-locating the slide.

I thought this was a great example of a tween who was paying attention to and looking out for younger children. He knew that with the joy of risky play that the playground offers, we also have responsibility to keep others safe. And he knew that in a communal space, sometimes you change or pause your plan to make sure other kids are having fun too.

Risk Assessment

At a typical playground with mass produced equipment, it’s all been carefully designed and tested to be as safe as possible. That’s not the case at the adventure playground! This stuff was all knocked together by kids! It was a good opportunity for my 5 year old to learn how to watch out for hidden dangers: he learned to test for wobbly boards before going onto a platform, to be careful to stay in the center of high platforms without railings, and to look for protruding nails before going under something (note the third picture below, which has a random cluster of nails poking down in the middle of a board, for no real reason… this is at about head height for an adult.)


My son found one “balance beam” catwalk he really wanted to cross. It was about 6 – 8 inches wide, which would normally be easy for him. But it was also 5 feet up in the air. He was wise enough to realize this was not a good thing for him to attempt.

no rail

Problem-Solving / Engineering

My son wanted to make the “bridge” wider so it was safer to cross. But, we looked at the support platforms at each end, and there was just no way to make it work.

I suggested a hand rail, which he could use to stabilize himself, and he liked that idea. But this was a long span (8 feet?). We searched around and realized it was longer than any of the planks that were available. We thought about a rope handrail, but didn’t think it would provide enough stability. Then we looked around on the ground and found a really long branch. Perfect!

My husband, my son and I worked together to lift the branch up high. We were able to brace it in multiple places on tree branches. Then we scavenged for some ropes to tie it in place.


Then, my husband tested it, then made some minor adjustments, and then my son got his chance to cross the bridge – it’s a success!


This was a fabulous example of the engineering process in action: find a problem, brainstorm solutions, test available materials, build a prototype, test it, refine it – the problem is solved! My son learned a lot in the process, and was very satisfied with the results. The idea that he could help build something big and real that other kids could use was very empowering to him.

Taking Ideas and Improving Them

We walked around and played on other people’s structures for a while, and my son found this swing:

floppy swing

He is a huge swing fan, so couldn’t wait to try it. But it was a big disappointment. Instead of hanging flat, it tended to tilt up to 45 degrees forward and basically dump you off of it. It also didn’t have much of a swing radius.

We decided to build our own swing. We went back to the platform where we’d added the handrail. The handrail branch was so long that about 3 – 4 feet of it hung off over the end of the platform, at the perfect location and height for a swing support!

But, we’d installed it with the skinny end of the branch at that end. So, we uninstalled our handrail, flipped it over (tricky to do with a branch that must have been 15 feet long or more) and re-installed it with the fat end hanging over the end.

We found rope and a board for the seat, and started to build a swing. The board had four nails pounded through it, near each of the four corners – I started to take them out, but then realized that we could use them to stabilize the swing. So, as I tied the rope around the board, I poked the nails through it, then pounded them down to hold them in place.

board nails

Stringing the swing up was a little tricky, because we didn’t have any scissors, knife, or anything to cut the rope with, so it had to be one continuous loop. Once it was installed, again, my husband tested first, figuring if the swing could hold his weight, it was safe for kids. The branch support wobbled back and forth a bit as he swung, so we found some straps to tie it down better, then my son got to test it. Another building success!

swing installation  swing test

Because my son is such a huge fan of swings, he was so excited that we had built a swing together! He shouted to the kids who were working nearby to look at it. He ran over to some other kids to invite them to come try it out. But they were busy working and didn’t come, so he came back and tested it more. A grandma who was supervising those kids came over and checked it out and shared my son’s excitement with his creation.

Competence and Empowerment

We saw similar excitement throughout the adventure playground, and lots of kids who were glowing with the empowered satisfaction of having BUILT SOMETHING.


Modern American kids don’t get a lot of experience with making real things, although they may do virtual building in Minecraft for hours.

These kids all built real structures that they could climb on and play on, and they felt competent, powerful, creative, bold. That sense of accomplishment is the best thing about the adventure playground, I think. And it’s something they carry out of the playground to increase their confidence at taking on other tasks.

Kids Love to Build


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/

Cheap Dates with Toddlers: Construction Theatre


[Every Friday, I post a “toddler date” idea for something fun, simple, and cheap to do with your toddler. The big picture ideas apply to any locale, but the specific examples will be Bellevue-centric.]

Construction Sites and other Big Equipment: Kids LOVE watching construction vehicles at work. They also like watching trash pickups, cars being loaded onto tow trucks, cranes at the port lifting and placing containers on ships, street sweepers, and more. (The luckiest days for a toddler parent is when you find a cozy warm coffee shop to hang out in that’s next door to a construction site. You relax while they’re entertained!) Last week, my son was captivated by a landscape worker and his leaf blower outside the library. Take advantage of those moments when you run across people at work, and stop and watch. Talk about the different types of equipment, the colors, the shapes – what the workers are doing.

Now Showing in your Local Construction Theatre: The South Kirkland Park and Ride features a GIANT hole in the ground, with lots of construction equipment moving around… and today, we got to see a port-a-pottie lifted 40 feet in the air and moved by a crane. (hopefully it was empty at the time…) Here’s the view from the 2nd floor of the parking garage.


And right around the corner from there: From the Burgermaster parking lot, you can see a construction site for the work on 520. Park there, and if you’re lucky you’ll see people working. If not, you still get to have a really tasty milkshake, so it’s a win-win situation.