I’m convinced Rube Goldberg machines and toys that mimic them are game changers. They teach kids about perseverance, reacting to unexpected outcomes, and pivoting to achieve a goal – whether it’s turning a light on, tripping a mousetrap, or launching a flying pig (more on that, below).
You’ve probably seen a Rube Goldberg machine – an over-engineered machine with tons of parts, designed to perform a simple task in a complex way. And they usually involve a chain reaction. (Thank you, Wikipedia).
What’s the point of complexity? (You may ask) When was the last time you did something you really had to think through and that took several iterations? How about your kids? I’ll be honest– mine, not so much. Even when my child has the chance to face a challenge, there’s almost never time to work through it vs the time we need to get through the day. For many years I’ve been VERY guilty of tackling a lot of stuff on her behalf.
Suddenly I was slapped with a scary glimpse of my future. It was a quiet morning: my daughter traipsed into her (private) bathroom, climbed into the shower after running the water a few minutes and screamed bloody murder BECAUSE THE WATER TOOK LONGER TO WARM UP AND IT WAS COLD.
The sound abruptly woke me out of an awesome sleep and simultaneously jolted me into a harsh reality: my kid has it easy. My kid is SOFT. I had a sudden vision of her years down the road at college complaining how her hot water hadn’t come on fast enough while her dorm mates looked on in disgust or worse, AGREED .
Immediately I set out to unravel years of damage I’d done (hoping it would take no more than 45 minutes or less). After we tackled a few chores around the house, I decided it might be time for a lesson that was less boring – for me. What? Have you ever watched a 7-year-old sweep, or vacuum? Sure, they can DO it but….yeesh was it dull.
A mental challenge seemed in order: something to develop creativity and intuition. Or at the very least, ensure that the kid took a moment before taking stepping in the shower. And waking me up.
As someone in the toy business, I see a lot of pretty cool contraptions and here are my top 3 picks. A quick note – most toys in this category are for kids age 6 and up. They involve relatively sophisticated concepts, manual dexterity, extreme patience, and small pieces. They can be awesome for kids that can sit and focus on a task and like to do something more than once, experimenting with variations.
Pick #1: The Wacky & Wild Contraption Lab The word “contraption” drew me to this toy, and it didn’t let me down. I first saw it at a Toy Fair where it was on a list of top toy finalists. It captured best toy awards from Creative Child Magazine, Good housekeeping, and the Association of Specialty Toy Resellers in 2012 and 2013. Designed for kids 8 and up, I watched a 13-year-old play with it for 25 minutes. Seeing no end in sight, I finally interrupted him to find out what had him hooked.
“There are so many things I could do to change things around – and each tool .”
Did I mention that one of the tasks a kid can set up is launching a flying pig?
Pick #2: Goldiblox & The Spinning Machine Even though it’s marketed as a toy for girls, it’s a fun toy for both sexes. I’ve played with it and the concepts are pretty clever. Also, it’s got interesting characters and a story that explores construction in a way that is appealing to kids (not just girls, all kids). There are axels, cranks, wheels, and washers. While it may not appear super sophisticated, it’s a great start to educate kids about building tools. Do you realize how little the average kid knows about that stuff? Here’s a challenge: Try showing a kid 8 or younger a can opener and asking them what they think it does.
My 7 year old found Goldiblox challenging and I know a few 9 year olds who had fun playing with it.
Pick #3: Q Ba Maze Warning, this gets controversial (for hardcore engineering types – if that’s not you, it doesn’t). A marble run like Q Ba Maze is not TECHNICALLY a Rube Goldberg machine; it doesn’t have a variety of components and it isn’t constructed to achieve a specific goal (no mouse trapped, light bulb lit, pig launched), so let’s call it the entry point into Rube Goldberg machines.
Because it does share some aspects of Rube Goldberg machines. You can use Q Ba Maze to build different structures and with each change the marble’s path will be radically altered. It’s much easier to build than most Rube Goldberg machines so kids can start as young as 5 with simple structures (even 4 if they are just watching the marble go through the maze).
What toys have you found to make kids smarter? I bet it wasn’t an iPad!
Or was it? Let me know!