What should go in my mini-inventor's box?
October 24, 2013 11:33 AM   Subscribe

If you were to fill a 4' x 3' x 2' box with awesome and fun and mostly not messy things for a five year old to invent with, what would you fill it with?

My son has always constructed, towers, sculptures, museums, swords, bolt action crayon launchers (seriously - it was met with high praise and don't do that again), garages, robots, fire trucks and an assortment of other items out of other things in the house. We've got an arts and crafts box, so we've got glue, pipe cleaners, construction paper, buttons, scissors, and so on... this is an invention box - not an arts and crafts box.

There are a few problems that currently exist with what he does now:
1. he is routinely using things inappropriately, which means they get damaged.
2. he is using other people's things.
3. he sometimes is trying to use all of a given toy or item.
3. he has a hard time if his sister wants to use a toy or item he's using.
4. he wants whatever he makes to last forever... (but not really)... but the feeling of it makes cleanup and the impending doom of a two year-old-on-a-milk-bender into an immediate traumatic event.

Things that I've identified so far:
* a few wooden boards, with holes drilled at varying locations (He's got kiddie nuts and bolts which fit the holes and he should be able to connect them together that way.
* 1 1/4" PVC pipe, various length with a few connectors

Any other suggestions would be awesome - anything that I can very quickly pull out, and let him go nuts would be great.

As a reminder - he's five... glue is potentially a bad thing, paper gets crumpled and so on.
posted by Nanukthedog to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
A set of Tinkertoys?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:38 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Gears and cross-stitching plastic matrix grid. In conjunction with pipe cleaners (or whatever), you can use the plastic grid as a base to build gear trains.

And it might take a little modification to fit in the space you mentioned, but: A child's log building kit mostly made from old fence boards, AKA "Lincoln Logs on a scale that kids can built forts from".
posted by straw at 11:39 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Clean and safe pieces of cardboard, with a bunch of these. They're fasteners designed for kids.
posted by hanoixan at 11:40 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tinker Toys. I know you're looking for more DIY things, but I'm trying to sit here and think of ways to effectively DIY Tinker Toys, but they're all labor intensive.

I got SO much mileage out of my (plain, wooden, totally boring) Tinker Toys. Mostly the fact that I could use the circle parts as wheels and the dowels as axles and I could make cars. And the cars could do things, like hold a catapult or drive around my playmobil people or be RVs with hinged doors.

They really are just awesome.
posted by phunniemee at 11:40 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is probably too out of left field, but on the off chance that it isn't... if there are tools/toys he has that are already the standard stuff (Lego, Duplo, K'Nex) these connectors can help him attach one thing to the other. You'd need to be plugged in to a Maker community or do some research but they seem neat. My sister and I had the old box of straws and these things (warning: autoplay audio). Not sure if that's too arts and craftsy. We also had some eitech-type building stuff with a lot of thumbscrews and nuts. Other options: velcro, big magnets (good with metal buildo stuff), a bunch of shoelaces, slotted cardboard along the lines of this sort of thing and a lot of rubberbands.
posted by jessamyn at 11:43 AM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Stick on velcro squares
Key rings
Old keys
Metal S hooks example
A large nut and bolt - or hook that screws into a large nut.
Paint stirrers
Paint sample color cards example
A carabiner
Pipe cleaners!!
Rubber bands

I imagine you could take a walk around a home depot and find a ton of things like this.
posted by kdern at 11:44 AM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: What a wonderful idea! My eight year-old is similar. Some ideas off the top of my head:

- Rubber bands
- Electrical tape
- InstapMorph (plastic that melts in hot water and solidifies at room temp
- Wooden paint stirrer sticks from the hardware store
- Releasable zip ties
- Lil' spring clamps
- Bendable craft wire
- Stiff sheets of cardboard
- A hole punch and yard to go through the punched holes
posted by julthumbscrew at 11:44 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Masking tape (or gaffer's tape - easier to remove from things but more expensive).
posted by kdern at 11:45 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Instead of glue, what about tack? They sell it in all craft/miniature stores and it can be peeled off without marking surfaces.
I'd also suggest a pack of toothpicks and a few cotton balls for filling in odd holes.
posted by whowearsthepants at 12:13 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: With a little work you could put together an electric circuit kit suitable for a five year old.

Sheet of board, with components (battery holders, lamps, push switches, toggle switches, buzzers, potentiometer, mercury switch, etc) mounted on it. Each component is "exposed" via a couple of banana jacks. (Like this but a bit more feature-complete).

Building a circuit means using patch cables to chain the components together. I wasn't much older than five when my dad built something similar for me, and it taught me circuits, series/parallel, positive/negative, and a few other things.

(I think these guys might give you some good ideas, especially their materials section).
posted by Leon at 12:23 PM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am going to add a disclaimer that I am not a parent, and had very relaxed parents growing up so I am not sure if any of this is inappropriate. You may also want to work now on the habit of wearing safety glasses.

- latex surgical tubing
- twist ties
- various large electrical components (switches, buttons) - modified so they do not work and can not be plugged in
- various sized cardboard boxes
- magnets
- assortment of springs
- some old electronic devices (a keyboard, telephone hand set, a cheap keypad, or calculator)
- a few old/blank CDs
- clothes pins
- cardboard tubes
- magnifying sheet
- various sized squares of cloth
- different lengths of ribbon
posted by ohjonboy at 12:29 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Kitchen implements from the dollar store -- things like wooden spoons, spatulas, rolling pin, measuring cups, etc. For $10 you can get a jillion of 'em.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:47 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Plastic food tubs/bottles etc. that can be cut up into different shapes and sizes.
posted by penguin pie at 1:24 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of cardboard, a hole punch (fun, and he can make connection points), string, rubber bands, old plastic cartons and tubs, toilet roll tubes, soft balls (for launching or rolling, soft so they wont damage stuff they hit), popsicle sticks, paper clips, wire twist ties, sticky velcro pads.

Show him this video too!
posted by Joh at 1:43 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: LEDs, coin-cell batteries, double-sided tape, some short lengths of wire.

How about a cheap-ass digital camera that he can use to take pictures of his creations (so they DON'T have to last forever)?

Broken things that he has been given express permission to disassemble and destroy.

Kid-size hand tools, or at least cheap hand tools (like from Harbor Freight) that are HIS.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:50 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Marshmallows and toothpicks!
String or kite twine and paper clips
Rubber bands
Brads, Mini clothespins (or similar fasteners) and magnet disks from the craft store,

My kids also loved Gears and marble runs. (they make great Christmas gifts for junior inventors).
posted by misha at 12:11 AM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Clean energy: solar panels, wind generator, connecting wires, LEDs, light bulb and sockets (low-voltage), electric buzzers, boards and boxes to hold the components.

Motors and the gears that attach to them. Combining motors and solar panels, have him try to figure out how to make a solar panel track the sun across the sky, or how to trigger a buzzer for an alarm clock.

All sorts of little switches that he can try in combination with the above. Push button, toggle, knife (Frankenstein), etc.

Kid-sized needle-nosed pliers, wire cutters, screw drivers, wrenches, etc.

Clocks he can open, inspect, take apart, reuse, and ruin. Also other forms of telling the time: sun dial, water clock, hour glass. Have him figure out how to use the shifting weights and volumes of water and sand to trigger switches and close circuits.

Show him how easy it is to build a time bomb from a clock, a battery, some wire, and (in place of the detonator) a buzzer or light bulb. Show him how to build a booby trap with a simple improvised tripwire switch, a battery, and (in place of the detonator) a buzzer or light bulb. Show him how to set up a little hidden spy camera to record the movements of... but now I'm reliving my own childhood.
posted by pracowity at 3:25 AM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ok, so seriously... I think I can fill about 30 boxes with the suggestions that are here. More importantly, I've got a solid set of things to start with, and plans for expansion.

Some notes:
Oddly enough, Jessamyn, I have access to a prototyping scaffold - up more in your neck of the woods (Bradford to be specific) - so now that I know we can combine some of their toys with other sets - we may get much much more mileage out of some of his older toys than I expected...

Also, life size Lincoln logs are being built... not this weekend, but very shortly. I'm thinking that may be a Christmas present.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:01 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

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