Make: Kids: An interview with GeekDad’s Ken Denmead

Make: Kids: An interview with GeekDad’s Ken Denmead



Ken Denmead, editor of the GeekDad blog, wrote a book called Geek Dad, a compendium of fun and geeky projects for kids to do with their parents. Last week I had a chance to interview him.

Tell me how your kids reacted to you writing this book.

They were excited abut it in the abstract., but of course didn’t necessarily have the perspective to understand that, actually getting asked to write a book is for some people like me, and I wuold think you as well, is dream-come-true sort of stuff, having that opportunity. And then, through the period of working on some of the projects, I was able to get them into some of that, and some of that they were in to and some of that… ehhhhh…, you know, whatever. A lot of it has gone on in parallel with so much other stuff going on, it’s always sort of been there. They enjoy the perks that come out of the blog and stuff, and what’s come out of the book has been good too.

I assume the publisher wanted you to test all these projects. How many did your sons help you test?

I tested or built close to half of the stuff that’s in there. There were a fair number that were from other GeekDad writers. They helped me with the balloon camera project, they helped me with testing out the board game, and a number of the other ones they at least played with some of the stuff and/or got a little hands-on with them.

What is one skill you’d like kids to take away from your book?

Hacking. I think this is something that goes along with, obviously, MAKE: don’t be afraid to take things apart to figure out how they work, and don’t be afraid to repurpose stuff, don’t feel afraid to use things that have nothing to do with each other, to put them together and create something new. It’s about getting past just using toys for the originally-designed purpose. Hopefully going through these projects, you know, parents and kids doing them together, will give kids the respect and understanding for their parents, to look up to them for ideas and motivation, and then vice versa.

What was the most challenging project to take from an idea to actually writing it out?

The failure project. The afterward that I included was basically a story about learning from failure. I had it in my mind and I thought I could do it, but it turns out probably that either the physics were wrong, or I didn’t just work it out well enough. But I thought I could come up with some sort of manually actuated pneumatic ball cannon. Not one of those that you have to use hair spray or have some sort of fancy propellant with a quick-on joint or something. But I thought I could come up with something that could be sort of like an air tube that, if you pushed it real fast, and had a graduated tube, it would compress the air quickly and launch the ball out of the other side. So I played around a ton with different sizes of PVC, and plungers, and the best I got was about five feet. Even when I went to trying it with whiffle balls it just… no. That was the toughest one, I spent a couple of days trying to get that to work, and it failed completely. So I included it in the book as a lesson on failure.

Did you write the book for kids to look at and get ideas or for kids to look at and self-start on these projects?

I think it’s a little more focused on the parents who are desperately looking for… the joke I’ve made before, actually I think I make it in the introduction, is that there are so many parenting books that are things to do to their kids, and I wanted something for parents to do with their kids. A lot of the feedback that I’ve gotten, and some of the interviews and discussions I’ve had is that, one of the reasons that people do like this is that parents tend to run out of ideas as to what to do with their kids. They have the time. They have the desire to do something with their kids, but the stuff just doesn’t come to mind. Their hobbies, probably the kids would find either boring or too complex or whatever. And the stuff the kid’s doing, the parents — geekier parents, yeah, maybe we are into video games too, but we want to find something new to do. Definitely the focus is to give parents a set of ideas to work with, and I’m very explicit about the fact that I don’t think these projects are the be-all and end-all. These are places to start, and I would imagine that just because of what the parents know and the kids now, and what tools and materials you have lying around, they could find different and potentially better ways to execute the projects. So just use it as the starting place.

I’m always trying to think of ways to get the kids away from the TV and video games — stuff that sucks them in very easily…. How much of this book is about getting kids away from that?

I do try to make it explicit that I love video games, I love playing video games with my kids, I’m never going to be the guy who demonizes video games, but obviously yes, you want to find balance in your kids’ lives. You want to help them find balance so they aren’t sitting all the time doing that stuff. The danger is more in excess than it is in the activity itself. The primary project or chapter in the book that focuses on that is one about rebranding your outdoor games with the theme of the video games you play. When my parents were kids they played cops and robbers or cowboys and indians, when I was a kid were were riding around on our bikes in the neighborhood playing CHiPs. And now, why aren’t the kids outside playing Halo? Playing Master Chief, and I threw out some ideas, make obstacle courses for your kids and use rings, and have them be Sonic the Hedgehog challenges.

Readers: Interested in Ken’s book? We’ll be excerpting one of the projects later on this month, and will be giving away three copies to lucky readers.

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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