Very Little Assembly Required


With his pink tongue sticking ever so slightly out the corner of his mouth, brow furrowed, our son Henry carefully places his train-covered boots on the rope as he plods his way across the slack line. Arms stretched over his head, he uses the guideline to help him keep his balance. I am rewarded with a squinty-eyed grin when he makes it across, only to watch him immediately jump down and do it again.

Our backyard is dotted with loosely created play areas. Areas where our son can construct, deconstruct, and imagine.

These are the moments I want to help our child achieve. I want to supply him with opportunities to experiment, fail, and be rewarded by his own effort and creativity. I believe creative thinking is one of the most important skills one can possess. As an educator, my favorite time with students has been spent creating open-ended lessons that rely on problem solving: using these tools can you make a penny float? build a bridge? create a habitat for an animal? At the end of the lesson students share what they learned, what they did, respecting the fact that there was no “right” way to solve the problem.

What goes into a tool box to encourage a child’s creative play? Tools that spark scientific inquiry, imagination, and hands-on learning. Children are natural scientists. They wonder about the world around them and need time to test their hypotheses through play. They like to tinker and see what happens. Play is a child’s work, and my son takes it very seriously. It is through play that a child takes new risks at their own speed. It is through play that a child reconstructs their day if something has gone wrong, and it is through play that a child learns about themselves and the world around them.

Our backyard is dotted with loosely created play areas. Areas where our son can construct, deconstruct, and imagine. His slack line has had many incarnations: it has been a wobbly bridge and he the steam train trying to make it back to the station, it has also been a pirate’s plank across an ocean full of sharks. The beauty in having open-ended toys is that children can truly turn them into anything they want.

Henry is almost four, and early on he began to want to use his Dad’s “worker-man” tools. Watching how he would use pliers with his play dough and hide screwdrivers under his bed, we began to realize that he needed some of his own tools. One day while hanging a picture, Henry picked up a hammer and perfectly hammered a nail in the wall. My husband and I both looked at each other; it was time to assemble a toolbox for this kid.

The following is the contents of Henry’s toolbox. I use the word toolbox in a loose sense as I really see it as more of a box full of beginnings. It is a collection of raw materials and tools that can provide limitless play. This list is just a starting point, a place to begin thinking of how to further spark creativity.

Henry’s Toolbox:

  • ropes of varying sizes and gauges
  • hammer and nails
  • nuts and bolts
  • carabiners
  • ratchet strap
  • pails
  • shovel
  • pulleys
  • safety goggles
  • construction hat

Henry’s play areas in the backyard are not difficult to construct. We keep them purposefully open-ended to encourage a multitude of uses. Unlike the times Henry will work with his dad to create a project: a train table, sealing a sand table, or building a play house, the backyard is his workshop where he can create anything he wants. Instead of being an assistant, sous chef, or helper, he gets to be chief engineer creating and crafting his own work.

We use and change things from the toolbox frequently. Our backyard has two trees that are parallel and about 10 feet apart. These trees support his slack line. Slack lines are sold as such, but a hardware store ratchet strap works just as well in the backyard. Ours is about a foot off the ground. It is ratcheted around one tree and tied to the other. It is low enough where he can climb up unassisted. The guideline is simply another rope tied about four feet above the slack line that he can hold on to while crossing. These trees have also held a rope climbing area inspired by a spider web, and supported old pallets on their ends used as a ladder.

Letting children experiment with pulleys is a great way to introduce them to simple machines. Our pulley system is on his guideline, but all you really need is a branch. Simply run a length of rope over the branch and through the pulley and tie a pail on one end. A friend’s older daughter uses her pulley system to send letters to The Man in the Moon. Creativity is encouraged when you can build, or give, a child something simple to use and then let them take ownership.

I worked at a school where there was a special stump on the preschool playground. This stump was full of nails at varying heights. The students were taught how to safely use a hammer. They knew how to keep little thumbs out of the way while hammering, where to put their hands when removing a nail, and how to put on safety goggles. Not only does this help young children develop fine and gross motor skills, but it also builds confidence. Children like to have the opportunity to do authentic work in their play, the work of grown-ups, be it building, cooking, sewing, painting, or otherwise making.

Sometimes we will see something either by ourselves, or as a family, that will inspire all of us to add to our backyard. Sometimes Henry will have a very specific idea of what he wants to do with a piece of rope (we spend a lot of time tying knots). The idea is to key into where your child is in their development. When you see the spark encourage it, fuel it, and let it burn brightly. The other day Henry took a piece of cardboard and an old can and built a ramp for his toy cars. I am already starting to think of what he might do if I introduced him to some PVC pipes and elbow joints.