Editor’s Note: The following article is by MAKE author (Volume 25) Dale Wheat, whose latest book is Building Your Own Electronics Lab: A Guide to Setting Up Your Own Gadget Workshop (2012, Apress).
By Dale Wheat
Parents fear the day when children outgrow their Lego blocks to build and create. That’s because what often follows is their offspring’s pleas for tool and electronic kits.
Nothing instills dread into a caregiver like the thought of poked eyes, smashed fingers and potential electrocution resulting from DIY projects. Of course, most parents cautiously weigh the pleasure and satisfaction that accompanies their child’s producing a mechanical, electrical, architectural or usable piece of work against the risk that comes along with crafting it.
The good news is that tool and electronics kits can be very safe resources. Here are five safety tips for parents to consider before and after buying a kit.
1. Determine your child’s level of interest. A child who’s fascinated by tools or electrical equipment typically demonstrates an almost obsessive interest in them, pays attention, takes direction well, and instinctively focuses on the job at hand. I’ve taught soldering to children as young as eight, and their ability to concentrate is astonishing.
If you’re a DIY enthusiast have a basement tool-and-gadget area, let your child see the fruits of working with these objects and identify with what Mom or Dad does to fix or make things. If you sense your child’s delight in imagining similar creative endeavors, then buying a kit could be a good idea.
2. Evaluate your child’s dexterity. Before buying a kit, make sure your child can identify and handle simple tools, nails and screws. One way is to take a piece of soft wood, like pine, and let your child softly hammer thumb tacks or short nails with large heads into it, or insert screws into pre-made holes. Ask your child to bend a paper clip with your own pliers. Determining your child’s strength and control is critical.
Think in terms of getting your child “qualified” to use tools. Start off with hand tools – those powered solely by your hand and not reliant on batteries or electricity– like hammers, screw drivers and pliers. After your child masters using simple tools, you may proceed to battery-operated ones.
3. Know your kits. Commercially available tool kits may contain tools that are too heavy for your child. If this is the case, then consider customizing a tool kit by choosing a separately purchased smaller hammer or other items.
Electronic tool kits contain items that are powered by electricity. It’s essential that you confirm your child is a whiz at using battery-operated tools before you graduate to those that get plugged into sockets.
4. Be dramatic. At the beginning of my soldering classes, I give my young students a short but scary warning. I point out which end of the soldering iron to hold, and explain that the other end is hot enough to melt metal, burn skin and cause pain. Clearly state the consequences of careless behavior, which includes putting fingers or other objects into sockets.
5. Schedule supervisory time. When children operate electrical tools, they must never be left alone. This means you need to allot time to evaluate their skills, conduct practice sessions – like hammering a few hundred nails into wood – and supervise them as they do projects you assign or those contained in project kits, such as creating a small music synthesizer which involves lots of soldering of knobs and small components.
When determining whether tool and electronic kits are in your child’s future, it’s instructive to think about how the army approaches use of weaponry. You don’t get to pick up a bazooka on day one. You first get a shovel, and master digging holes. Let your child start at the most basic level and ascend through the tool-and-electronic ranks.
Dale Wheat is an author specializing in electronics. He designs and manufactures DIY electronic kits and is the author of Building Your Own Electronics Lab: A Guide to Setting Up Your Own Gadget Workshop (2012, Apress). He’s also creator of the Blinky Bundle in the Maker Shed.
If you’re at Maker Faire New York this weekend, September 29 and 30, be sure to visit Apress in the Maker Pavilion at booth number 43, where they’ll be teaching kids to kids assemble light-up pins.