A Switchbox and a Very Happy 4-Year-Old

December 6th, 2010

This all started this summer. My parents have some dimmer switches in their house, which Jacob loves. He also enjoyed turning their lights on an off rapidly to make them flash. Since we have CFLs almost exclusively, we have no dimmer switches, and we don’t permit making the lights flash. (This hurts the lifespan of CFLs much more than traditional bulbs.)

(I’ll just put a few pictures from tonight within the story so you get an idea of what it turned out to be while you read.)


So I had an idea: why not build him a box that has some switches that he can play with? And why not make it a project we can do together?

So back in, I think, July, we went to the hardware store. We bought some AC power cord, some electrical boxes, and assorted supplies. I had some other supplies on hand already, so we didn’t need to spend much. I asked Jacob today if he remembered that day, and he said, “Oh yes! And I got popcorn to eat there!” Which was, indeed, quite true.


I had some surplus plywood, so I cut out two squares, one for a front and one for a back. Then, in 10-minute increments every so often over the last few months, Jacob would say, “Dad, shall we go work on my switchbox?” And by that, he meant that I should work on the switchbox while he pretends that my tape measures are train engines or raids the corner where disused toys are stored. After 10 minutes, he’d be done. Which meant that after I gathered up my tools, remembered where I was, and got to work, I made only a few minutes’ progress each week. But that was fine.

This week, I got it all wired up. It doesn’t have its sides and back yet, but it was enough for Jacob to try it out.

To add to the excitement just that much more, I spent a few dollars at the hardware store today and bought him four light bulbs: 25W red, green, and blue bulbs, and a 7.5W miniature white one. I let him choose two of them to use in the switchbox.


So he started playing with it, and after just a few seconds, said, “Dad, I am very very very very excited about my switchbox!” And a little while later, he burst into applause, and announced, “Dad, my switchbox is so so so so so fun! It is also so so so so so silly the lightbulb is green!”

I wired up a regular light switch that is a master on/off switch. Then the dimmer switch controls the light bulb socket but not the outlet. The dimmer switch also has a pushbutton on/off circuit, so there are plenty of opportunities for discovery.


This is a “play with it only with dad’s supervision” item for now, but after supper, he insisted in bringing Terah downstairs to show her how to use it too. He happily showed off the red and green lights, how to turn them on, and how to make the red light dimmer. I suggested he also show her what happens when he pushes on the dimmer switch, which he happily did, and also explained to her what it does.

He was just amazingly excited. Every so often he’d tell me how excited or happy he was, and some fun fact about it all.

And, really, that’s what I hoped would happen. I didn’t accompany it with these words, but I hope that projects like this can serve to remind everyone that toys and gifts don’t have to cost hundreds of dollars; they can be made with a few dollars’ supplies and some surplus materials laying around the house.

But not only that, but the best parts of this project were the ones Jacob and I spent together — from the time when just the two of us went shopping at the hardware store, through all those 10-minute times where he pretended my tape measures were locomotives and the tape was their track, right to today when he got to try it out. It took a long time, but when I asked him if it was worth the wait, he said “Yes!” and clapped while jumping up and down.

And, I have to admit, as I got into the car with my $4 worth of light bulbs today, I was almost as excited as him, just to see what he would do.

That’s the best part: I got to experience Jacob’s joy right along with him. It’s a time when I really enjoy being a dad.


Categories: Family

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Comments Feed18 Comments

  1. nixternal

    OK, before anyone else gets the chance…

    You are letting your kid play with electricity next to a water source???? HAHA! I had to do it.

    I think this is a pretty neat idea, and I enjoy it when a kid can get such pleasure out of something so simple. Maybe you have a future electronics engineer on your hands :)

    I wish my daughter was that darn easy to please :) Good job dad!


    John Goerzen Reply:

    One of the reasons it’s “with dad’s supervision” so far. It’s not as close as it looks in the photo; that’s the angle of photography playing some tricks.


  2. Jeff

    I just ran across this while surfing while waiting for a shiny new Debian system to finish updating … that is one great story. That just made my evening.

    And thanks for the pictures, too.


  3. Anonymous

    When he gets a bit older, you might consider putting together an electricity kit: a simple breadboard, some wire with bare ends, a pre-wired battery box or a 9V-to-wires adapter, some resilient DC light bulbs, some resistors…

    You could probably put it together for about the same cost as your switchbox. Bonus: he can fairly safely play with it on his own, as long as he knows not to get the wires anywhere near wall sockets.


    Anonymous Reply:

    (Assuming you don’t mind the chance that he finds out the hard way what happens if you lick a 9V battery, but that won’t do any permanent harm. You may or may not want to warn him first, depending on his tendencies towards the “don’t stuff beans up your nose” problem.)


  4. Jon Kåre Hellan

    My father used to tell me how pleased he was when my grandfather told him about electromagnets. But he was displeased that he wasn’t told that blank wire into a wall outlet wasn’t the reommended way to test them.


  5. Gerfried Fuchs

    Good to read you again. :)

    Actually this story makes me think about my advent calendar. There is a short story behind it: It’s from the shop Conrad.at which is a shop specialized on electronics. They are doing advent calendars since a few years from what I know, and at my company someone brought along one. This is when everyone in our team ordered one for themself.

    Actually it’s an advent calendar which has a new electronic piece each day. Day one started off with an LED and a resistor which you can put in serial to your battery to test the led. The next day had a small board to put on the pieces and a connector for the battery. Every day gives you additional electronic pieces with a short explenation of what they do and how they should get used, and in the end all pieces will get used together to build a big thing.

    This story reminds me of this advent calendar. Best 10 euros spent in years. And actually, when working on my calendar I will think daily of Jacob. :) It hurts that I missed you at this year’s debconf, but I’m confident that we will meet one day.

    Thanks for keeping this blog alive with stories like this,


    John Goerzen Reply:

    That sounds like a really neat idea. I wish they had an English version. My German isn’t up to snuff on that sort of thing.

    Thanks to you (and everyone) for the kind words.


  6. Colin

    Cool! I’d probably have used a ‘C’ cell and small bulbs rather than mains power, but then ours is 240v which is a bit more lethal.

    I’m intrigued by the two big holes in what I presume is your basement floor, A well?



    John Goerzen Reply:

    There are two holes there, both of which relate to water removal.

    The one closest to the camera, and to Jacob, is a sump pit with a sump pump in it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sump_pump describes those. Basically, it collects water from the ground in the outside perimeter around the basement, then pumps it out before it can get into the basement and cause trouble.

    The second hole is for eventual wastewater removal. We don’t currently have a bathroom in the basement, but we plan to in the future. The basement is lower elevation than where the wastewater will go to, so this pit — which will be sealed up when put into use — collects the drain water and will then pump it out.


    Colin Reply:

    Ah, that makes sense. So few houses in the UK have a basement that I hadn’t thought about the need for water removal.

    I seem to remember that you live out in the country – do you have backup power for the house?


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Yes, I have a gas (er, petrol)-powered generator. One problem we had was that strong thunderstorms could knock out our electrical service, and also dump lots of rain on us — resulting in a water accumulating in the sump pit without an easy way to get it out. Very glad we have the generator now.

  7. Gunnar

    I remember very happily going with my father to buy an equivalent to the set you have built for your son (only at around twice his age, probably 7 or so) — Only we did this –as Colin suggests– with batteries. Buying 6v and 9v lightbulbs, we were able to play quite a bit, even safely introducing some other concepts: What happens with an underpowered or overpowered lightbulb? How can you connect several lightbulbs? (in series, in parallel, mixing both – Of course, given the limits that the only six bulbs I had gave me)

    About two years later, I was given a set of http://www.fischertechnik.com/ he bought on a trip to Germany. It was great! Several simple electric components (there were more complex and electronic ones, but probably more expensive or unfit for a small child), building blocks, motors and wheels.

    You are effectively building a geek in there!


  8. Jonathan Carter

    My father built me stuff like that too when I was a kid. He says that since I was old enough to press buttons I was fascinated with anything that had them. Jacob is lucky to have a father like you, it’s posts like these that make me wish I had kids too!


  9. links for 2010-12-07 « WhilelM’s little Wor(l)d

    […] A Switchbox and a Very Happy 4-Year-Old | The Changelog (tags: toy diy child lang:en electricity light blog) […]

  10. Nana

    Just totally awesome, John.


  11. Duncan

    Fantastic post :) As others have said: it’s stuff like this that makes me really look forward to having a kid! :)

    I remember when I was about the same age, dad made me a little electronics kit by hammering nails into a block of plywood, and soldering various components between the nails (from memory, a few LEDs, a couple of light bulbs, some diodes and resistors and a capacitor or two, switches, and a couple of relays, and a battery pack), and then I could connect the components together with alligator clips. It was probably my favourite toy for the next 4 years…

    Your post reminded me of it — thanks heaps! :)


  12. In Our House, Math Is Exciting | The Changelog

    […] costs less than $5. Along those lines, Jacob has an old manual typewriter he can use, he and I built a switchbox full of switches and light bulbs that the boys love to play with, we built him a command-line-only […]

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