Made to Order

L ooking for some new takeout options? How about Bird Beak Variations or Blended Lights? 

These “entrees” were among the projects on offer from Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop last week. Keeping kids’ brains and hands busy during the pandemic has been no small task for quarantined families, but Eli Whitney has a full weekly “take-out menu” of “appetizers, entrees and leftovers”—that is, small projects, bigger projects and projects left over from previous weeks—to satisfy the hunger for meaningful, fun ways to pass the time.

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“When this started, we had a lot of product that had been prepared already,” says Sally Hill, associate director and principal designer for the museum, who, with director Bill Brown and the rest of the staff, is currently furloughed. Still, Hill and Brown are volunteering their time, “trying to give a little relief to parents who are home with kids,” she says.

After securing my own takeout order—email Hill at sh@eliwhitney.org to find out how—I picked up a paper bag of goodies from the bench outside the museum and brought it home. With the help of two grown-up “kids” at my house, I built three projects at my kitchen counter and was reminded of the thoughtful details, intellectual challenges and just plain fun you can expect from Whitney Workshop kits.

We started with Blended Lights, a project designed for fifth- to ninth-graders that, I humbly admit, taught me something about light and color. Following the instructions, we mounted a white corrugated plastic screen on a flat base and assembled holders for three little LEDs in the primary light colors of red, green and blue. The light holders are designed for storage on pegs also mounted on the base—an example of those thoughtful details—but in order to learn how colored light and shadows work, we were encouraged to move them around, crossing their beams on the screen to create a white intersection and multicolored shadows.

“We are accustomed to teaching with a model in front of a child, but these instructions should make it so that anyone can build one without our presence,” the general primer on the website says. “We urge that parents and teachers be there to guide—but to allow the child to try to let the materials (and a picture of the final product) guide them.” In other words: hands off, parents! This may be challenging because the projects are so fun to build and play with. Hill says some grandparents have even ordered two kits and sent one to a grandchild so they could build them together online.

Once we’d constructed our Blended Lights project, we turned to the ingenious Bird Beak Variations. Builders get just one of four types, designed to teach kids how different birds’ beaks have evolved to suit their diets. We got the seed-eater, a working wooden beak mounted on a standing arm, which we constructed with pegs, O-rings, wood, wire and a rubber band. This kind of simple but creative design comes from 30 years of experience, says Hill, in which one idea leads to another, which leads to the next. An old project to show how a hand with an opposable thumb grabs things morphed into the realization that bird beaks do the same thing, which led to another thought: “One kind of beak couldn’t possibly pick up a big piece of fruit, and a toucan isn’t going to be pecking on a tree trying to get insects, and an insect-eater isn’t going to be holding prey down with its claws and tearing the meat out,” Hill says. The coincidental purchase of a CNC machine made it possible to easily cut a different beak for each type of bird, and a new idea was born.

Projects like Bird Beak Variations teach not only mechanics and physics and following instructions but also imaginative play when you’re finished. We tried our seed-eater on all kinds of tiny and not-so-tiny items. Not surprisingly, pistachios were its favorite. In the meantime, our cat had enjoyed the activity by batting around one of the small dowels.

Contrarians, we finished our construction meal with the appetizer, a cute little owl designed to accompany a reading of Little Hoot, a children’s story about an owl who just wants to go to bed but whose parents won’t let him. What might take a preschooler some time to assemble—especially with a parent willing to practice hands-off guidance—came together in under 60 seconds without instructions. But then we took our little owl apart again (“a wrong direction is always un-doable until you’ve glued something,” the instructions say in true Whitney Workshop try-again fashion) so we could color him. He probably should have been wearing pajamas, but we gave him a purple tuxedo. The instructions promised “easy construction but offering a good hour of play,” and even though we didn’t have the book or a little kid to read it to, we spent a half hour just planning and coloring our design with a set of fine-tipped markers.

Makers like Hill know this focused feeling well. “Sometimes you just get too deep and you go overboard and you make this incredible design. And then you [realize] there is no four-year-old in the world who is going to be able to do this,” she says. “You do your own obsessive bit of designing, and then you scale it back.” There’s a sweet spot, she says, where the project can be both challenging enough and “a success within the time allotted for the program,” referring to school programming the museum often conducts.

School programs, of course, have dried up for now, and Hill’s and Brown’s brains have been working overtime to dream up a new, no-contact summer program in place of their usual offering. “Whitney Workshop@Home” will launch in June with “take and make” projects designed for themed camp weeks for kids aged seven and up. Much like camp-as-usual, Whitney Workshop@Home will put small groups of kids around virtual tables with apprentices for a morning of projects, which their parents will have picked up the weekend before. There’s even a laser-cutter class, in which older kids will learn how to design projects to send electronically to the cutter for production. Some of the class themes “we were able to salvage from our original summer programs,” Hill says. Others are brand new. Families who had already registered will get first dibs before the camp is advertised to everyone else. And this year, camp will be mornings only (and half as expensive) because everyone knows, Hill says, that “too much screen time” isn’t good for kids. The workshop will consider afternoons if there’s enough demand.

In the meantime, until camp starts, you can order from the takeout menu, forgetting the world’s troubles and your own for a spell as you give your attention to dowels and O-rings and perhaps a bottle of wood glue. Nobody’s too old to play—or to learn.

Takeout Menu at Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop
915 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
(203) 777-1833 | sh@eliwhitney.org

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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