September 26th, 2011

“Dad, will you and mom stay up all night decorating the house for me?”

That was Jacob’s question to me at bedtime the evening before his fifth birthday. Jacob had already had his birthday party a few weeks ago. When scheduling means that parties happen that far away from the boys’ real birthdays, they get a smaller celebration with just Terah and me where we open their presents from us. A low-key thing, so we weren’t planning to decorate the house. I said, “Well, I don’t think we’ll be doing all that since you already had your birthday party.” And the look of eager anticipation on his face turned to a very sad and disappointed look, and made me feel really bad. Uhoh.

So while Jacob was sleeping, I mentioned it to Terah. We decided we should improvise something simple, so she found some old streamers and we taped them up, running them through several rooms in the house and across his door. It took a few minutes using supplies we already had, but the joy the next morning was priceless.

“Oh dad, you said you wouldn’t stay up all night, BUT YOU DID! Oh I am SO HAPPY! YAY YAY YAY!” And he ran through the house to discover what else was set up. Then he ran to find Oliver and gave him a tour of everything.

Then we sat down to open his presents. Here he is, holding a present from Terah and me:

That’s a copy of The Lorax. My friend Jonathan had brought a copy along during our road trip in Mexico, and Jacob was really excited about it. And didn’t really want to give it up, because “You can only get The Lorax in Mexico.” He (and Oliver) really enjoyed all his presents — he also got a train book from us (which he said, “Oh, yay, it’s the book they have at preschool!”), and a game and some other presents from the distant relatives.

But the highlight was something of an impulse buy. I was at the RadioShack in Derby — a place I’ve written about before, It is what a RadioShack should (and used to) be. It has a large amateur radio section, sells all sorts of coax by the foot, and provides astonishingly good post-sale service. Well, I was there with a radio question, and Mark (the owner) — who is an excellent salesman in a positive way — pointed me to a display of snap kits. I noticed their Electronics 101 Snap-Kit (a rebranded Snap Circuits Jr. SC-100). A ham in Pennsylvania had suggested them to me once, and as Jacob’s birthday was coming up, I gave it some thought. The kit said ages 8 and up. I asked Mark what he thought about a boy just turning 5. He said, “Well, probably not normally. But knowing you, if you’re there to work on them with him, I think he’d enjoy it. But I wouldn’t have him work on it by himself.” I agreed and we bought it.

I pondered how to explain the concept of this thing to Jacob. Eventually I decided I would call it a “toy-building kit.” He understood that.

Jacob and I spent hours together working with it. He would flip through the book, either picking circuits that looked interesting or telling me what kind of circuit he wanted to build. Then I would tell him what to put where, and he’d snap them together and play with them. He only played with each finished product a few minutes before he was ready to try another. Once I got him very excited with my offer to show him how to hook up two switches in parallel for the fan he built (and later introduced the parallel vs. series concept by hooking them up in series instead.) Here we are working on it together.

Jacob repeatedly called Terah over to look at the things he built. He was very excited that he assembled it himself. Eventually, Oliver (age 2) came over wanting to help. So he sat on my lap, and handed parts to Jacob, then Jacob put them on the grid. Oliver really enjoyed being involved in this way, even though I had to keep him from doing things like ripping the capacitor off its mount.

We tend to be modest in terms of the number of things we give the boys and their cost, reasoning that we, like many, already have too many toys in our house, and that greater cost doesn’t necessarily equate with a better experience for the boys. I particularly look for things with lasting value and unique experiences for them, and I think we succeeded this year.

But I realized quickly that the greatest value of this kit wasn’t electronics. It was having a great way for me to spend a lot of time doing things with the boys which all of us enjoyed. Those hours building things together were as much a present for me as for Jacob, I’m quite sure.

Jacob’s “real” party was a few weeks ago at the Great Plains Transportation Museum in Wichita. They let people rent a historic caboose to use for a birthday party for children. So we did that for Jacob this year.

That was a huge hit for the boys. Jacob got to help his grandpa make some pie (instead of cake) for the party. He enjoyed eating it, of course.

He enjoyed opening his presents high up on the observation chair in the caboose. And the boys got to play on all the other equipment in the museum. Jacob enjoyed playing tour guide for family since most of them hadn’t been there. He also enjoyed watching freight trains pass on the other side of the fence from the museum — preferably while sitting in one of the museum’s engines.

Oliver certainly didn’t get left out. Train-watching is serious business, after all.

Jacob has long talked about going to the “train museum” and the “airplane museum” (Kansas Aviation Museum) on the same day, so one of his birthday surprises was that we went to the airplane museum after his party. His favorite item there is a retired FedEx 727. Here he is walking down the rear of the plane.

And, of course, they played captain and co-pilot in several different planes.

Categories: Family

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  1. Andrew Ruthven


    Good to hear that Jacob enjoyed the snap together electronics kit. I picked up the same kit (different branding) on sale a few weeks ago to give to our daughter for her 5th birthday. Again figuring like you that with my help she’d be able to use it.

    It is reassuring that with my help she’ll probably be able to play with it, and hopefully enjoy it!



  2. Jonathan Hall

    I’m glad you were able to find a copy of The Lorax outside of Mexico!


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