Introduction: Building a Toy, Game, or Puzzle for Children in Need

Twice a year a local woodworking supply store has a woodworking show and contest. This time the theme is toys, games, and puzzles. They are working with Southwest Human Development (SHD), a non profit Arizona organization with early childhood development programs in literacy, disability and child welfare. Another service they provide is to place children in foster homes. SHD has asked this store to help them by providing handmade toys to kids making this foster care transition.

This Instructable is about my thought pattern that went into a toy design and the steps it took to build it.

The contest


Step 1: Choosing a Toy

First I have to say that I am usually not a big fan of making wooden toys for needy children. I find the needy kids want what other kids want, something plastic from Walmart. I find that many people make the toys they want to make, and not the toys kids actually want, and beggars can't be choosers. Now I do have experience with making toys for hospital emergency waiting rooms. I call them throw away toys as the volunteers want toys to give kids waiting there. (Billy gets woken up and goes to the hospital with his parents because Grandpa had a heart attack. They all jump in the car and didn't think to pack anything for Billy to play with. Billy gets fidgety and gets snapped at frequently. Billy figures that something is wrong with Grandpa and they are yelling at him, so he must be responsible for Grandpa's condition. It is nice if the volunteer has a toy for him to play with.)

I understand that when kids are removed from their homes to a foster home it is usually done while at school with the parents told after the fact. As cold as this sounds it does reduces the violence on the caseworkers. So this toy may by the only thing they bring to their new home. Here are some constraints I see:

The toy must not be too large, be too complicated, or have too many parts.

The toy must appeal to a wide age of children and be child safe. It should be able to pass the choke
hazard test. Google "Chock Test Cylinder".

Finish must be child safe and wooden toys can splitter when chewed.

Stay away from nut oils finishes.

The project I choose is a panel with half a dozen gecko tessellations. It is patterned after MC Escher's lizards. I don't like to call it a puzzle as it is so much more. For younger kids They will view it as puzzle pieces that go into the panel. Older children will place them in different patterns and the more of them they have the better. They cost less than 25 cents per panel to make so you may give several to each child. (I think six panels is a nice quantity.) It requires two pieces of ⅛"x 5⅞" x 7⅞" MDF and are painted with acrylic craft paint. They are child safe and can even be chewed without harm. They are small enough that a child can keep it with them at all times. Remember this may be the only thing they now own. They are small enough and cheap enough that caseworkers may keep some with them. It would be nice that when a caseworkers came to visit they brought one as a gift. Every kid should have someone in their life that thinks so highly of them they bring a present whenever they visit. (Call this the Grandma effect.)

These are extremely fun at any age and I can see an adult sitting with a child putting together some really fun designs. It is a good icebreaker for a adult needing to talk with a child.

This is my reasoning for the project I am making. The remaining steps will go over the construction.

By the way ,these will also make good toys for the local hospital emergency room and I will later make some for them.

Step 2: Cut and Paint MDF

A ⅛" 4x8 sheet is 49" by 97". If using a thin kerf saw blade. your can get 96 pieces 5⅞" by 7⅞". This is enough to make 48 panels. As to painting these pieces you have several options:

Don't paint at all and leave them the MDF color.

Paint one side of all the pieces used for the panel tops and don't paint the bottom pieces.

Paint one side of all the pieces.

I chose the third option and painted the pieces three different colors; red, green and blue. I chose these because they are the three primary colors. Not much of a reason after the fact. I think when I make more I will try some pastille colors. Maybe the six colors of the rainbow. Maybe some camo.

To paint I use two parts acrylic craft paint mixed with three parts water and apply with a foam brush. Interior wall paint will also work fine and small sample cans can be purchased at a paint store. I give them a completed one I have made, tell them what I do with them and they give me the paint free. Another option is to lay the pieces to paint on newspaper on a flat surface (the ground works for me.) and spray paint them.

Step 3: Laser Cut the Top Pieces

Take 48 of the pieces as they are to be laser cut. In my case that is 16 red, 16 blue, and 16 green. The DXF file has been included. It contains the information necessary for the laser to cut them. There are three colors.

Red: This is the lizard details. it should be cut first.

Blue: This is the lizard outlines. It should be cut next.

Black: This is the rectangular outline and is not meant to be cut. It is there just to help align the pattern to the panel piece.

Now get to the cutting.

Step 4: Glue Up

After you have finished the cuttings you will have 48 top frames, 288 lizards (That is just too gross :-), and 48 back pieces. It is time to glue the frames to the back piece. Apply glue on the back of each top frame and place on the back pieces. Be sure to clean up any glue that leaks into the lizard cavity.

For my build I am gluing: 8 blue frames onto red bottom pieces, 8 blue frames onto green, bottom pieces, 8 red frames onto blue bottom pieces, 8 red frames onto green bottom pieces, 8 green frames onto blue bottom pieces, and 8 green frames onto red bottom pieces.

Step 5: Trim Edges

No matter how well the piece edges are matched before gluing, there will be some gaps. Use a table saw use to trim 1/16" from each edge. The finished size is now 5 ¾" by 7 ¾".

You now have 48 panels in 6 different color combinations.

Step 6: Populate With Geckos

If these toys are to be given out in groupings of three, I populate the frames with 6 geckos all the same color. I like to make them a different color than either the frame or the bottom piece. If they are being handled out in smaller groupings, I like to place two of each color in each frame.

You may have different ideas of how they should be. You might want the geckos, frames and bottoms to all be the same color. Don't worry too much. The kids will trade and place them any way they want.

Step 7: Interesting Observation

Look at the one above and tell me how many geckos you see. Is it six or eight? The holes left by taking out the two removed pieces sure look like geckos. How about the geckos spaces hiding under the other four pieces? You can't see them but you know they're there. 6, 8, or 12 who can tell? This is an interesting observation to point out to a child. Four years old is a good age to try it.

Step 8: Determining the Success of a Design

One on the advantages of a market system is that you get feedback for your product in the form of money. With donated toys this is not an option. They may want your toys or just may not want to hurt your feelings. When I make a toy to donate, I give it to them with my phone number and tell them to call me if they need anything. If they want more they will ask you. I may call up the organization and ask if they need anything. I do not mention the previous toys. Again they will tell you what they need.

Another thing you can do is to sell some of your toys and give the money directly to the organization. Ask to make a presentation at local service club or organization. Tell them all the money goes to the charity and charge a lot.

In this case I showed these toys to some people and one asked if they could buy some. I sold six for a price the covers the material cost. The charity gets 42 panels, I have funds to makes more, and best of all I know someone thought enough of my design to pay for it.

If you try one of these methods you may not like the answers you get but I believe it is better to make toys kids want and not just dump the toys you want to build.

Step 9: Special Mention

A big shout out to HeatSync Labs in Mesa Arizona for making their laser available for community use at no charge.

HeatSync Labs is a community-driven 501(c)3 non-profit shop and workspace where engineers, artists, students, and hobbyists come to make prototypes, art, and other creative projects.

It is a workshop for mad scientists, artists and anyone creating or making! They make tools, resources, and skills available to you. They're also a heck of a bunch good people. This project could not have been built without their generous support.

If I win a prize in the Makerspace contest, I will donate it to HeatSync Labs.

Check your own area for a community Maker Space or Hacker Space.