I know you all probably let your kids make crafts and inventions out of things they find around the house, which is really, really great, but I just have to say: I am not one of those moms.
For one thing, it makes a mess. Keeping a clean house is enough of a challenge for me with its normal day-to-day messes without adding to it through craft time and Play-Doh and cooking with kids and all those other things patient, energetic parents do.
For another, where is this craftiness supposed to happen? Cleaning off a cluttered table is sometimes just beyond my energy level. Leaving it to the children to find an appropriate spot is risky with such little ones in the house—what might be forgotten at the end of craft time that the baby might put in his mouth in the fraction of a second I’m not looking?
Finally, what materials might be needed for all this creativity? I’m determined to always have pencils, crayons and paper available to them (and sometimes scissors and tape when I’m up to supervising), but no glue, no glitter, not even markers, and definitely no paint (for my family, those are things that are used only at school or someone else’s house).
My boys make do. They’re constantly drawing and writing, and they get excited when they’re allowed time for cutting and taping, and you’d be amazed by the things they’ve constructed out of just what they’re allowed. It is true that they’re always clamoring for this empty box or that empty toilet paper tube, and while I’m okay with the toilet paper tubes, since they’re easy and ubiquitous and don’t require cleaning out, I dig my heels in about most other things for various reasons but mostly because I don’t want garbage all over my house.
There was one exception to this, though, and it happened three Christmases ago. One of my sons in particular has always had a tendency to see great things in every little piece of garbage.
That year, he was deep in a phase where he was bugging me all the time to be able to keep the garbage. Empty boxes, lids and bottle caps, bottles, canisters—basically anything we wanted to throw away was something he needed for his inventions. Finding garbage all over the house, even as part of the Next Great Invention, was really wearing on me.
So I cracked down and said, “No more.” For my sanity, even if it meant stifling his creativity, no longer would I let my son have our garbage.
Or so I told him. I think it was late summer when I issued that decree, but already I had Christmas in mind. For the next couple of months, I squirreled away, in an old cardboard diaper box, bits of garbage that I knew my son would love.
There were plastic toothpick jars and spice jars with their screw-off caps, orange juice bottle lids and lids from peanut butter and jelly jars, long tubes from aluminum foil rolls, egg cartons, those three-pronged white things that keep the pizza box top from touching the pizza, empty snack boxes, empty bread crumb and oatmeal canisters, those squarish plastic things that keep the bread bags closed, salvaged wrapping paper folded up neatly, pieces of cardboard from packaging materials, and bits of string that had tied up bakery boxes and ribbons that had decorated baked Christmas goodies received in the weeks beforehand from friends.
I bought some new things to put in there too—a package each of pipe cleaners, drinking straws, and Popsicle sticks, as well as some new Scotch tape and a book about recycling garbage into new crafty things.
“A box of garbage” was not, of course, something my son would have ever thought to put on his Christmas list, so I knew this was a little risky. Santa is generous but restrained in our house and has a pretty strict limit about how many gifts each person is given; having a box of garbage take the place of a much-hoped-for, asked-for gift could have been a disaster. But the biggest risks can yield the biggest rewards, and I was pretty confident about how well I knew my boy.
When Christmas morning dawned, I was excited to see his reaction.
Before he opened his wrapped diaper box-shaped gift, we explained to him that Santa had needed our help to put this gift together, which just increased our coolness in his eyes (Mom and Dad can talk to Santa!).
And when he opened it—oh my. My little crafty inventor was agog at all the new materials he had to work with, and not only that but also having Mom and Dad’s blessing (since we helped Santa put this gift together after all) to build and create and make a masterful creative mess to his heart’s content. And he did: non-mechanical robots, simple machines, abstract sculptures and other 3D pieces of art were displayed all over the house for months afterward.
That box of garbage remains in all our memories as one of the crowing glories of Christmas presents in our family’s history. My other boys said for months afterward that they too wanted a box of garbage the next Christmas, and I just saw the other day that one of them has put it on his list to Santa this year.
So if any of you are out of ideas for a child in your life who is creative and inventive and whose mom is stingy about letting him or her use household items in their quest to become a famous artist or inventor, use these three weeks until Christmas wisely: start hoarding your garbage. Merry Christmas!