Community Builds Support Construction-Minded Kids

When my daughter O was in preschool, we hosted an annual gingerbread house-making party for friends every December. We experimented with different pre-made kits, but the mini village with pieces that the kids could remix into freestyle builds was always the hands-down favorite. They worked for hours, swapping parts and suggestions. By late afternoon, everyone had created their own candy-plastered, gravity-defying structure cemented into place with royal icing.

In elementary school, O loved to build, but few friends shared her interest. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo
In elementary school, O spent most of her free time building. Photo: Jen Citrolo

As O moved through elementary school, her passion for building grew. Sticks, Lego bricks, wooden blocks, and random recyclables were commandeered for an endless series of fantastical projects. Meanwhile, though, most of her girlfriends discovered other interests. So, we decided to retool our gingerbread gathering and the “community build” was born.

The idea was to convene a small group of construction-minded kids to experiment, exchange ideas, and inspire each other a few times a year. The format was simple: theme, inspiration materials, supplies, and lots of creative freedom.

Our community builds weren’t fancy. They were just a way to support my daughter’s interest and help her connect with other kids. O dreamed up the themes, developed the supply lists, and chose most of the inspiration resources. We reached out to friends who were game and gave it a shot.

Parents were thrilled to have messes made in someone else’s house and the kids had a blast together. O said that sharing ideas with friends who were into building pushed her to think differently and be more creative. And, they laughed at each other’s crazy jokes.

Here are a few of our favorite community builds:

GNOME HOMES (Ages 6-9)

Our first-ever community build was all about homes for gnomes (and, in some cases, minifigs). Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo
Our first-ever community build was all about homes for gnomes (and, in some cases, minifigs). Photo: Jen Citrolo

A hike around the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone inspired the theme for O’s 7th birthday party and inaugural community build.

Inspiration Materials: Gnomes by Wil Huygen, Rien Poortvliet, and Brian Froud, and this news footage on Firefly Forest in Overland Park, KS

This was the Gnome Home setup for six kids. Everyone started off with a wooden base and a pre-painted, red wooden door. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo
Everyone started off with a wood base and a pre-painted door. Photo: Jen Citrolo

Supplies:

  • Two hot glue guns
  • Ten glue sticks
  • Seven 6″ x 5″ wooden rectangles
  • Two bags of moss
  • Two bags of large stones
  • One bag of small stones
  • One bag of small pinecones
  • Two 3-packs of 1.5″ x 2.25″ wooden rectangles
  • One 5.5″-wide roll of burlap
  • One bundle of decorative twigs
  • One can red Krylon spray paint to pre-paint doors
  • Aluminum foil

Lessons learned: Yes, it is ridiculous to purchase stones, pine cones, and twigs. (Our supplies came from the floral and woodworking departments at Michael’s.) This is how I rationalized it:

1) Clean, smooth surfaces adhere more easily than gritty, jagged ones, thereby reducing the potential for frustrated freak-outs.

2) Eliminates the need to risk prosecution for illegal removal of natural resources from local parkland.

3) Parents are more likely to allow a clean-looking work product in the house.

MICRO-SCALE (Ages 8-12)

Building in micro-scale was new to all of the kids and kept them engaged for nearly two hours. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo
Building in micro-scale was new to the kids and kept them engaged for nearly two hours. Photo: Jen Citrolo

O wanted a Lego open build. I wanted to keep the budget reasonable. So, she proposed that we go micro-scale: “In Lego, there is this idea of ‘micro-building.’ Sometimes, you don’t have enough of the bricks you need to build a full-scale model. But with micro-scale, you can make an entire city with fewer bricks.” Done.

Inspiration Materials: Beautiful Lego by Mike Doyle, Lego Micro SquareTM tip clips, and a few sample micro-scale buildings

The ingredient list for the micro-scale community build: nine components and a streamlined palette. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo
The ingredient list for the micro-scale build: nine components and a streamlined palette. Photo: Jen Citrolo

Supplies:

  • Disposable mini loaf aluminum tins to hold each builder’s supply allotment
  • One per child: 6×8 plate, White
  • One per child: 6×8 plate, Dark Green
  • Twenty-five per child: 1×2 plate, Transparent
  • Twenty-five per child: 1×1 plate, Transparent
  • Twenty per child: 1×2 brick, White
  • Twenty per child: 1×1 tile, White
  • Twenty per child: 1×2 tile, White
  • Ten per child: 1x1x2/3 roof tile, White
  • Twenty-five per child: 1×1 stud, Lime

Lessons Learned: To amass supplies, we hit up the Pick a Brick wall at our local Lego store and ordered the rest online. Once all the bricks had arrived, O and I divvied them up so that each builder would have her own materials to start with and trade.

  • Buying by the container from the Lego Store Pick A Brick wall is most cost-effective for small pieces: Go there first.
  • You’re able to fit the most 1×2 bricks in a large container if you stack them (14-16 bricks per stack) and then fill in the empty spaces with loose bricks.
  • To maximize value and creative flexibility, buy large quantities of just a few brick types and colors.
  • Plan ahead: Online Pick a Brick orders ship from Denmark and can take up to three weeks for delivery to the US.

VOLTAGE VILLAGE (Ages 9-12)

Goodbye, gingerbread! Our new holiday project by Bare Conductive. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo
Goodbye, gingerbread! Our new holiday project by Bare Conductive. Photo: Jen Citrolo

Once they had a few community builds under their belts, the crew lost their taste for gingerbread. So, we switched to an amped-up holiday activity: circuits!

Inspiration materials: Holiday music, candy canes, and string lights

Supplies:

Kids drew circuits with electric paint and LEDs to create their glowing houses. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo
Kids drew circuits with electric paint and LEDs to create their glowing houses. Photo: Jen Citrolo

Lessons Learned: O got a kick out of seeing how the kit had been improved from the original, which we’d purchased a year or two before. Upgrades included perforated forms (no mat knife needed!) and a reconfigured circuit map, making the project easier for kids to tackle on their own.

Based on prior experience, we purchased one kit (two houses) per child in case of faulty components or the need for a do-over, which made for a particularly pricey community build.

  • Purchasing a pot of conductive paint wasn’t necessary; the kits came with conductive paint pens which contained an ample supply and were easier to use.
  • Kids used the mini tree holiday ornaments to create a wintry setting for their homes.
  • A little adult help was needed for wire stripping, but the crew built, “wired,” and decorated one house each in about an hour.
Made for a cute presentation, but this project was not a fan favorite. Photo: Jen Citrolo
Made for a cute presentation, but this project was not a fan favorite. Photo: Jen Citrolo

Were all the builds a success? Absolutely not. The 3D LED Christmas Tree stands out as a particularly unfortunate choice. We had one soldering iron to share and there were too many components to be soldered into place to hold the kids’ attention. Instead, they raided the playroom shelves and got to work with littleBits and Snap Circuits. It all worked out.

The best builds were open-ended. However, we did go with a kit for the LED houses because it made sourcing materials easier for a rookie like me. In most cases, adult supervision was minimal. Occasionally, we’d help the youngest kids with the soldering iron or hot glue gun, but the older kids would usually help out instead.

If you’ve got a kid who likes to invent or build cool stuff, consider the community build. If you don’t want to wing it, there are a number of helpful resources online to get you started. Two to check out: Google Maker Camp and the Fundamentals of Tinkering List from the tinkering studioTM Coursera course, “Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructivist Approach to STEM Learning.” Good luck!

Jen Citrolo is on a lifelong mission to learn cool stuff, from carpentry to circuits to coding…and beyond. Luckily, she’s got a STEM-y tween to conspire with and a wise husband who’s keen on taking the dog for long walks whenever the safety goggles come out. They live in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley.