A Curriculum of Toys

Making Trouble Volume 25
Saul Griffith: Making Trouble

Every pundit cries that education is broken, the standards of standard-based education are mixed up. I agree completely! All we really need are good toys. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a curriculum of life skills and the toys that would support it (and not only because I have a 2-year-old).

What are the fundamental things kids should know to help them understand and enjoy the complex physical world we live in, to modify or repair it in the future, to succeed as adults? How do we enable kids to be masters of their destiny? Can we do it with nothing but good toys and experiences? Could a curriculum of engaging toys be so powerful that the role of schools is reduced to something manageable, like merely socialization?

The best toys and games can be foundational lessons in life, teaching how stuff works, how stories are told, how strategies play out. Here’s my list of core life skills I think can be supported taught by toys. It’s a work in progress. I’d love to hear your ideas.

1. Drawing. Being able to draw sufficiently well to communicate your ideas is critical, especially for future makers. You don’t have to be Rembrandt, just learn proportion, perspective, and how to represent 3D objects on the 2D page. Chalk and a sidewalk, pencil and paper, an Etch-a-sketch if you must.

2. Sculpting. Understanding three dimensions and producing 3D forms. Play-Doh, Fimo or Sculpey, clay, sandboxes and beaches, food, aluminum foil, paper and origami.

3. Knots. It frustrates me that so many people know so few knots. Rope can help you do almost anything. String or rope, kites, sewing, knitting, crochet, sailing, rock climbing.

4. Joining Things. Gluing, nailing, soldering, welding, tying, lacing, riveting, taping, stitching, screwing. Most of these are cheap to learn — give them an old log, a hammer, and a bag of nails, and let them bang nails until that log looks like a rusty hedgehog. Nearly any craft project or model kit.

5. Shaping Things. Cutting, sawing, chiseling, whittling, sanding, grinding, drilling. Give kids real tools, not plastic versions, at any age. Woodworking and metalworking toys, most craft projects, origami, a penknife, scissors.

6. Forces. Gravity, levers (moments), projectile motion, friction, pulleys, mechanical advantage, gearing and gearboxes, torque. Mobiles, trebuchets, magnets, juggling, throwing and ball sports, board sports, sailing, seesaws, slides, Lego, and bicycles!

7. Fluids, Hydraulics, and Pneumatics. The power of pressure and displacement. Water pistols and super-soakers, water balloons, boats and rafts, blow darts, bathtubs, rivers, beaches, lakes, dams, skimming stones, bicycle pumps.

8. Electronics. Voltage, resistance, current, and blinky lights. Battery-powered toys (hack them), 9-volt batteries (lick them), LED throwies, introductory electronics kits.

9. Structures. Trusses, compression, tension, architecture, how things stand up. Blocks, cardboard forts, Lego, sticks and stones, sandbox play, Erector sets, Lincoln logs, treehouses.

10. Energy. Conservation and momentum, transformation (one type to another), generation, storage, consumption. Marbles, batteries, rubber band-powered airplanes, bicycles, dirt bikes, cars, slot cars, train sets, swings, skateboards, kites.

11. Math. Counting, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction, geometry — just about any toy has a math lesson in it. Beads, marbles, dice, poker chips, money, Sudoku, card games.

12. Laughter. Life has to be fun, and toys should help us laugh. Soap bubbles, Slinky, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, whoopee cushions.

13. Natural Philosophy. Inquiry into the ways of the natural world, including geology and biology. Magnifying glasses, magnets, telescopes, microscopes, buckets, nets, specimen boxes.

14. Properties of Materials. Every toy has a materials science lesson waiting to be explained. Cooking, Play-Doh, chemistry sets, any toy made of wood, plastic, glass, ceramics, metal.

15. Magic and Illusion. I love magic, because it challenges you to search for the illusion — an opportunity to learn about reason and the scientific method. Magic sets, physical puzzles, brain teasers.

16. Your Body. Exercise and nutrition, dance, sport, climbing, swimming, hiking, gymnastics, and all the wonderful things the human body can do. Go outdoors and to the park!

17. Storytelling. We survive socially by telling each other stories. Encourage children to tell stories and release their imagination through whatever toy they have in their hands. Dolls, stuffed animals, wooden trains, Lego, Play-Doh, it doesn’t matter.

18. Logic. Building a complex Lego model or knitting a hand puppet are both exercises in basic instructional logic: do this, then that; if this happens, do that. Any construction toy, any craft project presented in sequence.

I doubt our school system will be reformed soon, so I think the burden falls on parents, guardians, and friends of children. We can teach them the skills of life, and toys are the medium. Let’s share the lessons and experiences embodied in the best toys, with each other and with our kids. But subtly. Kids can smell didactic like a giant adult skunk. Make it fun, don’t make it stink.

This column first appeared in MAKE Volume 28 (October 2011), page 27.

Saul Griffith is chief troublemaker at

From the Pages of MAKE

MAKE 28MAKE Volume 28: Toys and Games!
MAKE Volume 28 hits makers’ passion for play head-on with a 28-page special section devoted to Toys and Games, including a toy “pop-pop” steamboat made from a mint tin, an R/C helicopter eye-in-the-sky, and a classic video game console. You’ll also build a gravity-powered catapult, a plush toy that interacts with objects around it, and a machine that blows giant soap bubbles. Play time is a hallmark of more intelligent species — so go have some fun!

On newsstands now! Buy or Subscribe


Milwaukee Makerspace’s RFID-Secured Kegerator

They call this system the Beer Automated Dispensing and Security System (BADASS):

Adam, Kevin and I have been working on a secure kegerator project. We made a kegerator that uses an Arduino Duemilanove with an RFID reader for access control, a solenoid for controlling the tap and a flow meter for recording how much beer was dispensed. We are reusing our Makerspace keycards and fobs for access. The system is pretty simple and only has a few components. We’ve done a couple of iterations on it so far and are currently working on a custom-etched Arduino shield for the components. While the system currently uses a little Nokia 5110 screen from AdaFruit, we are also working on a version that uses an android phone for display, data logging and cloud-connected goodness.

The old, tired way of storing and dispensing beer relies on cans and refrigerators. This simply won’t do for today’s tech-savvy connoisseur.


Choose the Form of The Destructor

“What did you do, Ray?”

In all seriousness, the robot skeleton of Society of Robot’s soul-reaping rug-crawling Carpet Monkey v5 is pretty sweet. Check it out:

The claws are CNC-cut aluminum, the body is HDPE. It has no autonomous behaviors, so the guts are quite simple: two servos, a battery, and a small R/C receiver. [via BuildLounge]



Make: Live Ultimate Kit Episode 11/9/11 (video)

Make: Live‘s Ultimate Kit Episode celebrates the upcoming release of the Special Issue, The Ultimate Kit Guide. Ariel Churi from Sparkle Labs stepped in for Becky as guest co-host. MIT research Fellow Michael Schrage talked about how kits drive innovation. The Make Labs interns checked in with their kit reviews, including a few siege and ballistics kits (above) and Ariel and Matt played with a few electronics kits in studio.

Subscribe to the Make: Live Podcast in iTunes, watch Make: Live episode 20 in its entirety (or download in m4v format). Also check out the chat room transcript!

Crafty Kits

Checking in from Sebastopol, Becky Stern and Brookelynn Morris show a few of their favorite kits in the craft section of the Ultimate Kit Guide. They include an octopus needle felting kit, a celebrity paint by numbers, a lego syringe and a trash can lined with plastic bags.

Electronics Kits

Matt and Ariel look at a few of the electronics kits in the Special Issue of MAKE and Ariel discusses his own Discover Electronics kit.

Show notes:

Want to show us your project? Upload a video or photos and send a link to

Next show:
Make: Live 21: Soapbox
Wednesday November 30th, 9pm ET/6pm PT
Watch at or on UStream
Please join us in the UStream chat or mark tweets with #makelive to interact live with the show.


How-To: Mini Metal Lathe

Back in Plastics Month, we featured a simple shop-made plastics extruder built by Instructables user Random_Canadian. Now the arbitrary Canuck returns with this pint-sized metal lathe built with a 14″ piece of precision aluminum T-slot extrusion, and some characteristically resourceful salvage including an electric motor from a cordless weed trimmer, a variable speed switch from a cordless drill, and a tailstock center improvised from a countersink.

The tiny 3-jaw chuck is adjusted with an Allen wrench, and was hand-made by brazing three hex nuts onto a fender washer and running set screws into them. Impressive, clever work.


New in the Maker Shed: Adalight – DIY Ambient Monitor Lighting Project Pack

The Adalight project pack, available in the Maker Shed, lets you build your own ambient light addition for your monitor or media PC television. Originally outlined in Sean’s post from October, this project pack is contains nearly everything you need (except an Arduino and a USB cable)  for the Adalight project tutorial. By running the Processing code on your computer, the halo of LEDs will follow the screen colors to provide an ambient light display that adds pop to TV shows, movies or games. Works using open source Processing and Arduino – so it’ll run on Mac, Windows or Linux computers.


  • A strand of 25 x 12mm LED pixels
  • 5V 2A power adapter
  • 2.1mm female power jack
  • Arduino and USB cable not included!

Hackerspace Happenings: Safecast bGeigie World Tour

Are you a hackerspace member with an event you’d like to publicize? Send it to or tweet me at @johnbaichtal and I’ll post it. Also feel free to subscribe to my hackerspaces Twitter list. Hackerspace Happenings runs weekly(ish) Tuesday(i)s(h).

Safecast bGeigie World Tour

Hopefully you already know about Safecast – they are a group of hackers and volunteers who are working to map radiation levels in Japan after the 3/11 earthquake earlier this year and providing all the data freely and openly for anyone to use. In doing this they realized the need for this kind of data outside of Japan as well and are teaming up with some hackerspaces to help fill in other areas around the world on their map!

The main way they are taking these measurements is with a device designed at The Tokyo Hackerspace called a “bGeigie” – it’s basically a geiger counter paired with an arduino and a GPS module which gets strapped to a car and driven around. Starting with the US (if this experiment works we’ll add the rest of the world soon) we have the idea of doing a bGeigie Hackerspace tour. The plan is, one bGeigie will make it’s way around the country, from hackerspace to hackerspace, measuring and mapping all the way. For a hackerspace to participate, the agreement would be to drive the device around your city taking a ton of readings, uploading the data to Safecast, and then physically driving (taking readings along the way) the bGeigie to the next closest participant. Ideally this will start and end in Los Angeles here at Crash Space, so with any luck the route will be a big giant loop. Depending on who volunteers.

Is your space interested in participating? fill out this form.

HackMiami is Now a For-Profit LLC

A lot of spaces in the U.S. have chosen to ditch the bureaucracy-laden NFP angle in place of a LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) filing, which is quicker and simpler. Hackmiami announced that they have done the same,

This is an official annoucement. HackMiami Inc has been dissolved as a non-profit entity and has been reinstated as an LLC. We have made this move so it will be easier for us to provide services to those who need them. We will be adding a page with services offered on the site shortly.

Hackupy: Hackerspaces in the Occupy Movement

Sounds like some hackerspaces are contributing to the Occupy movement, and a page has been set up to coordinate.

Lighting Talks at Mesa, Arizona’s HeatSync Labs

Hot Topics is our unfortunately named lightning talks series modeled on events like Ignite, Ted, and Noisebridge’s Five Minutes of Fame. Talks are <5 minutes and generally revolve around creation and hackerspace culture.

The talks will take place tomorrow, November 11th at 7pm.

Create Your Own Lockpicks Class at Cincinnati’s Hive13

The Lock Forensic group at Hive13 is having a class to show you how to create your own high quality metal bogota style pick set. The study of locks and lock picking is fascinating. A bogota style lockpick has a backend that can also work like a tension wrench. We will be making 2 of these style picks in the class. The two stiles will be the half diamond and the hook. If time permits we will have templates to make some more advanced designs (such as the actual bogota). We will also have lots of test and progressive locks to test our your new lock picks on as well as a quick demo on how to picks locks if you haven’t yet.

The class will take place Thursday, November 17th, from 6:30-8:30.

Open House at Huntsville, AL’s Makers Local 256

Come celebrate the last binary day with Makers Local 256 during our Open House on Friday, November 11 at 6 o-clock. Our doors are always open but on the 11th we will have many of our projects on display, a go-kart, 3D printers, a vacuum form table, a solar food dryer and much more. We’ll also be serving hot gumbo. Donations Welcome.

DARPA Cyber Fast Track Lecture at Seattle’s Metrix Create:Space

Put Saturday, November 19th on your Calendar. At 2PM, Peter Zatko, AKA Mudge, a hacker and Program Manager at DARPA’s innovation program, will be going over their new funding program, Cyber Fast Track here at Metrix Create:Space.

If you saw the Blackhat Keynote, or read the Slashdot post about it, you may know that DARPA is looking to get lighter, faster, and cheaper by reaching out to the hackerspace/makerspace communities.

Vancouver Hack Space’s Super Happy Hacker House

Hear ye hear ye. All countrymen and ladies are welcome to attend the VHS biquarterly event known as the Super Happy Hacker House. This event is the XVIII SHHH, and will celebrate summer hacking in the glorious City of Vancouver.

Bring your ideas, smiles and good friends down to VHS to celebrate with the hacking masses. It has also been designated as a binary beverage night. Bring your own binary beverage of choice.

The event is this Friday, November 11th, at 7:30pm-1am, at Vancouver Hack Space. (The timelapse is from a previous SHHH.)


Top 10: Flamethrowers!

Searching related content for yesterday’s Pistol Flamethrower post, I came to the startling realizations that A) we have lots of great flamethrower-related content in the archives and B) hard as it may be to believe, we have not rounded it up before. That oversight is hereby rectified. Thank you, and you’re welcome.  Enjoy!


Weekend Project: Make a fireball shooter


World’s noisiest flamethrower


Flame-throwing robot draws on your lawn


Anti-flamethrower mosquito


Flamethrower trombone


Create fire with your mind using DIY pyrokinesis


Homemade backpack flamethrower


Flour-based flamethrower


Functioning X-men “Pyro” costune flamethrower appliance


Fire-breathing snowman is standing contradiction


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