Santa’s Workshop: How Children Can Make Their Own Toys

POSTED: December 8, 2012

Hot glue gun in action. Photo by Inga Lim

Elves making toys is the quintessential image of Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole. It makes children dream and they order their presents to Santa with the assumption it will be lovingly assembled, nailed and painted by armies of busy elves with funny hats. Last year at our holiday party I had this crazy idea that I could set up my own Santa’s workshop where children of all ages would create their own thingmadiddy. I would provide all the tools and the materials – they would be their own elves, assisted by parents. Nuts? Yeah, in a way. But it worked wonders and the children were unusually creative and concentrated. Best party activity ever!

To create your own Santa’s workshop at home, here are a few pointers.

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The Materials

I’m a traditional girl and there was no going around it – the toys would be made out of wood. Wood is easy to drill, sand, paint, nail – it’s the perfect material and feels real. I had in mind basic toys the children could make such as toy trains, toy cars or toy doll furniture.  To make them possible, here are the materials I bought and where:

  • wooden wheels (wood parts shop – online)
  • axle pegs for wooden wheels. I checked the diameter 4 times before ordering to make sure they fit in the wheels. (wood parts shop – online)
  • wooden cut-out shapes such as butterflies, trees, faces, stars (local recycled arts material warehouse in San Francisco called SCRAP, absolutely wonderful)
  • small cuts of wood, rectangular or square (first, SCRAP. In addition, I called a local lumber shop and asked if they would donate wood scrap for my project. They were nice and agreed. I also asked parents to come to the party with scrap wood and my friend Ashley spent an afternoon sawing 2 by 4s into “kid-size” rectangles)
  • round, square and rectangular wooden bases and candle holders (separate. bought at hobby shop Michaels’)
  • wooden beads (I had a bunch and bought a few more on eBay)
  • wooden milk bottles, don’t ask me why but my oldest daughter thought they were very cute (eBay)
  • wooden balls, two sizes (wood parts shop, online)
  • wooden letters (SCRAP, thrift stores)

Now, as far as non-wood additions, I also provided:

  • pine cones, sticks and acorns (collected from the redwood forest next to us)
  • glittery star-shaped stickers (craft shop JoAnn)
  • pipe cleaners of all colors (craft shop JoAnn)
  • candles – of the same diameter as the candle holders (IKEA has the best selection of good quality and cheap candles you can dream of)
  • glass marbles/beads, the kind you see in aquariums and gardening shops (IKEA)

Gathering all the materials took me a couple weeks as I was expecting 40 to 60 children ages 3 to 9. Your project can be less ambitious and if you know crafty people, they may have wood scraps and shapes you can have for free.

Now as far as tools, you have to think it’s children handling these so make the tools appropriate for little hands.

Tools

After torturous debates on what was or was not “safe”, I decided I would trust the children to not hammer each other and prefer making toys instead. It worked! Not a single horror movie situation. I provided the following tools:

  • A hand drill – this was perhaps the most important tool because that’s how children were going to fix the axles and wheels into their toys. Hand drills are surprisingly easy to operate for children and don’t need a lot of physical strength. A must-have for any home toy maker.
  • Hot glue guns – the hand drill was the most important tool but the hot glue guns were the real stars of Santa’s Workshop. The children could not believe they were handed out electrified hot glue guns with as many glue sticks as they wanted. Seriously, they were in heaven. I plugged in 4 glue guns on a large table in our backyard and they were all busy all evening long. I should say that not a single child got burned or attacked another child with a glue gun. They were surprisingly mature about it and realized this was a one-off opportunity. In a world of extreme safety where children are seen as living in potential danger every second, this Santa’s Workshop gave them a chance to be their own toy makers with adult tools. Of course there was adult supervision but I knew the children would rise up to the challenge and they did. Extremely happy about the hot glue guns. Little ones who didn’t have the physical strength to push the glue stick through the gun were helped by their parents.
  • Small size hammers and nails – gluing parts is fine but for maximum solidity you want to nail in the major parts of your structure. Or screw them, but I couldn’t be sure the children would be strong enough to do that so I didn’t provide screw drivers or screws. Crafty moms and dads present in Santa’s Workshop knew how to use nails to reinforce structures and lots of children learned by watching other families and then doing the same thing. The nails had to be long enough to go through 2 wood parts so I picked up 2-inch long nails with flat heads at Home Depot.
  • Sanding paper – a fair share of the wood scrap was unfinished products. Though I’d sanded most of the pieces, a few still had rough edges and potential shards. I provided half a dozen sanding blocks with fine grain sanding paper and children picked the sanding up very quickly. This was one of the small children’s favorite activities.
  • Brushes – to brush off saw dust.
  • School glue – to glue simple things.

The Toys Made By Children

The children went wild and it’s fair to say a good number of parents did too! It was a huge success and almost every child came out of the party with a home-made toy that they could paint at home. Some children made more than one toy and spent the evening crafting things in between two quick runs to the buffet. Now to give you an idea of what children made, this is a short selection of a few fun pieces:

  • My oldest daughter made a milk factory, a platform with a round wooden base on a stick. On top was a big milk bottle.
  • Her friend Andrew made an elaborate tower/dungeon with several candle holders
  • Young Madeline made a richly-detailed fairy dining room with different levels, separate table and “food” items and tiny stools
  • My youngest made a toy pull cart with wheels for her stuffed animals
  • Ben made a toy car with wheels

Conclusion

In the end, almost all the toys were on wheels, including candle holders. All of them were things you would never see in a shop which I was very proud of. I loved how creative and concentrated the children were, how they thought very seriously about what they wanted to make and how their toys organically took on various shapes as time went. If you could have seen the young minds at work in a picture book, you would have seen a flurry of colliding ideas and unheard-of toys for unknown purposes.

You don’t need to build a Santa’s Workshop per se but letting children play with wood is great because it helps them use fine motor skills and learn about basic principles of architecture.

Happy toy making!

Resources on Toy Making

Do you know of any other good ones?

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