Perfect use for broken technology: Give it to a 3-year-old

June 26th, 2010

I last wrote about Jacob’s new computer back in April. He has had fun with it, but is still a little young to appreciate it a whole lot. It’s a fun thing, but not yet a favorite.

Yesterday, though, I introduced Jacob to several bits of technology that really got him excited.

We have a pair of FRS radios. These are low-power “Family Radio Service” devices, with a maximum practical range of maybe a mile, and are about as cheap a radio as you can buy that still has any sort of practical use. Anyhow, the receive circuit on one broke. I ordered a pair of TriSquare digital radios to replace them, which are incompatible. So, I have two radios, one with a broken receive circuit. What to do?

GIVE THEM TO JACOB! I explained that one radio is the “talking” radio (the broken one) and the other is the “listening” radio. Then I demonstrated how I could use the talking radio and he could hear me on the listening radio. That was great fun. I encouraged him to go to the kitchen and see if he could still hear me in the next room. Cackles of laughter gave me the answer. Then he discovered the “call” button would make the other radio sound like a telephone, which was all the more exciting. He and I took turns with the talking and listening radios.

Then I used the belt clip and attached the listening radio to the back of his shirt. I pointed out to him that this was sort of like a loudspeaker. Anything he said into the talking radio while holding town the transmit button would sound louder because it would also come out the radio on his back. Much cackling followed, and he ran around the house yelling “MEOW!” at the top of his lungs into the radio, then saying, “Dad, did you hear THAT? It was VERY loud!” He has spent hours listening to himself, listening to me, and generally enjoying life with radios.


Jacob’s second discovery was a cassette tape player. Awhile back, Terah rescued an old cassette tape player that was being thrown out, and bought a few 15-cent tapes for Jacob at a thrift store. The idea is that we can just let him play, and not care if he smashes it to bits. He enjoys it, but like the computer, didn’t really get excited about it. Until yesterday, when we had this conversation:

Me: “Jacob, would you like to record your own voice on a tape?”

Jacob: (excited) “Sure!”

Me: “OK, bring me your tape recorder.”

Jacob: (exasperated) “Dad, it’s not a tape RECORDER. It’s a tape PLAYER.”

Me: “Jacob, it is a tape player, but it’s also a tape recorder too.”

Jacob: (paused for about 5 seconds, then…) “Ooooo! That is silly!” (scampers off to find it)

He found it, and I helped him put some tape over the write-protect tab on a cassette he had. Then he recorded his voice. He eventually figured out the stop, rewind, play, and record buttons with my help. But he’s still confused: while he’s recording, why doesn’t he hear anything? Our first recording had me asking him some questions, and then telling him to press the stop button when he was done. He listened to it dozens of times, and each time my recorded voice asked a question, he answered it a little before his recorded voice did. And each time my recorded voice told him to press the stop button, he would say, “I don’t want to” while his recorded voice asked “is this it?” He pretty well understands what the radios are about, but doesn’t really “get” the tape recorder yet. Nevertheless, it has just become a far more exciting device in his eyes.

Terah has been rolling her eyes at me today as I’ve been trying to think up what other broken or old bits of technology we might have that Jacob would enjoy. My latest plan involves adapting his broken old batte
ry-operated fan into some sort of lego-related car. I think he’d have fun working on it with me too.

All this reminds me of things I did as a kid. My dad worked with a semi-retired man (Herb Miller) that loved to build weird contraptions. One of my favorites was a ball shooter made out of an old vacuum cleaner with a cardboard tube attached to the output spot. I also remember building a motorized car out of an erector set that sort of bent the rules at a school science class project. The idea was to launch a vehicle down a ramp and person whose vehicle went the farthest got a prize. There were no rules against using batteries and a scavenged motor to get that extra little edge over gravity. My car was the only one to manage to crash into the wall on the far side of the gymnasium. The science teacher, in a bit of fast thinking perhaps, announced my car the winner of the “electric division.” For some reason, I seem to be poised to encourage this sort of thinking in Jacob…

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  1. Jonathan Carter

    I think it’s great that you expose him to all that stuff. There’s so many things we used to play with as children (like tape recorders making our own ‘radio shows’) that kids today just don’t do anymore (unless they get more serious and to podcasty kind of stuff which only comes much later). So many kids these days just miss out on just getting to play with technology like that these days.

    BTW- I recently bought 4 of those walkie-talkies and they’re great fun for adults too! (especially with road trips if you’re using a few cars) :)


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