Z received a ride-on toy almost exactly like the one pictured at left for her first birthday. It was a typical "walk & roll" toy with a noisy horn, obnoxious music, and a few random baby toys built into the dash. She used it for about a year.
When it stopped working and a battery change didn't fix the problem, I declared the toy dead, and Z had stopped using it much except to stash vast quantities of tiny toys in the compartment under its seat. I got it into my head that it would be fun to create a handmade vehicle using its wheels and steering column. This proved beyond my abilities or resources, so I was left with a bunch of parts, including a lot of electronic wires and boxes others could probably have done something interesting with. Given my own absolute lack of knowledge about electronics, I discarded all that stuff and focused on the true prize: the wheels.
Once I'd abandoned the idea of producing something Z herself could ride on, and thus my need for the steering column and steering in general, the wheels were a pretty attractive components. They had axles, of course, but those were also contained in plastic housings. I used a cardboard box to make what ended up being a sort of covered wagon, with a few windows and a door. I made a pitched roof using some Mr. McGroovy's Box Rivets that was frankly more trouble than it was worth.
The main character of the vehicle was determined by Z, who joyously painted it in a series of bright colors. If you're working with a toddler on a painting project and are looking for a final product that is not a muddy brown, supply one color at a time and remove it before offering another. Delays or invitations to focus on specific areas of the project can help allow paint to dry so it doesn't all get mixed together, too.
The end result? A toy Z not only loves to play with, but is proud of. She hauls stuffed animals around in it and they serve each other plastic food from the service window. The door end has a little step and both the door and one window have box rivet handles (they work quite well for this). We also attached a ribbon (which Z also painted) to one end so she could pull it around. Turning the vehicle involves a bit of dragging but she doesn't complain. She also tells everyone who will listen that she made it.
The one question that has nagged at me since that project is whether it is wasteful. We could have handed down that ride-on toy to another child, one who might not care or never know that it was supposed to make noise or light up, and whose parents might even be relieved that it didn't. And we did throw away a lot of plastic parts rendered completely useless by our teardown. But the wheels make the car. I don't lose any sleep over it - more of an academic or procedural question. We didn't destroy it in a truly wasteful sense; we remade something that had outlived its purpose into something we could use again, rather than giving it to someone who wanted it as it was.
Relatives gave Z a Fisher-Price Power Wheels Jeep Hurricane for her birthday last year. They are expensive by our standards and when we were told they were thinking about buying it for her we asked them not to. But relatives don't always listen. They gave it to her fully assembled, and we accepted it graciously; although it isn't quite our style, we do appreciate the way it fosters an odd sort of independence and skill development, and Z has enjoyed it quite a bit. I still have plans to disconnect the speaker, as the car makes loud, annoying sounds, both car-like and supplied by an enthusiastic announcer, which startle Z and irritate me. To my mind, the modification will be a win for anyone who uses this car, now or when Z is too old for it and we pass it on to someone else.
But we (her parents) have also quietly speculated about turning it into a miniature Art Car; not only would Z be overjoyed at the process and immeasurably proud of the result, but it might even help her get over a bit of anxiety she confronts when she first gets behind the wheel. This would render the vehicle far less useful to anyone else after Z finishes with it, and while the battery can certainly be reclaimed, and some of our cosmetic modifications might be un-doable, others will make the car less useful to others.
This does pose a dilemma for me. As an environmentalist, I believe things should not be wasted, and that means that they should be re-used and re-purposed in the least wasteful way possible. As a consumer, I believe we should use the things we own creatively, and not be afraid to leave our mark on them. I believe this freedom and confidence is an essential part of being a thinking, self-determining person in a consumer society, and it is important to me that our three-year-old daughter live these lessons throughout her childhood.
With the moral issue of the Jeep Hurricane unresolved, it was with great relish that I assisted Z in modifying a smaller toy that she found wanting. I didn't think to take a "before" picture, but one of her Geotrax trees has a little owl in it, but it is not painted, so it is the same green color as the rest of the treetop. Kind of silly if you think about it - a green owl in a green tree.
Z let me tape around the owl to accommodate what I assumed would be some imprecise brushwork. She was also gracious enough to let me paint on the eyes with a toothpick.
When we modify the things we own, we assert our right to adapt our environment according to our needs, our desires, and our aesthetics. Those who make the things we use can guess at our priorities, but we are individuals. Some of us have a dab of paint to spare to differentiate an owl from its tree. And some of us believe that owls should not be green, but purple.
I am a member of a Geotrax Yahoo group, which recently received the following message:
im xavier im 5 geotrax should make a oil burner tender that should say geotrax lines. i have 2 coal tenders. cranks should have a light blue boiler and the brown should be red and the silver bell should be gold. id like purple and red barrel cars. geotrax should make a green cabooseTo which one of the older members of the group sensibly replied, in part:
To make your oil tender and caboose, start with some extra log or hopper cars. They are $1 each on the Mattel parts site, so you will not feel bad about cutting them up. Then use things you find around the house, like a spool from some thread for the oil tank, or some PCV tubing with caps. I made a red caboose out of 4 of the old style cabooses, but you could paint it green...I suspect Xavier learned a few things if he chose to take on this project - some technical, some artistic. And maybe, hopefully, something about empowerment. Asking for something that is lacking is the first step, and sometimes it's the best one. But sometimes it's more fun to do it yourself.