We enjoy making things in the Children’s Room. Catapults for rubber band balls and elaborate paper airplanes. Colorful chemical reactions. Louise Nevelson-inspired shadow boxes. Hand-sewn pillows stuffed with lavender. Even sushi and super delicious doughnuts topped with cinnamon sugar. But as delightful as we’ve found stirring, stitching, and sculpting–and designing projectiles of all shapes and sizes–we’ve recently discovered how much fun we can have unmaking.
For a recent program we called “Taking Things Apart* (*No reassembly required.),” we collected old computer system units that we begged from a university IT department, where offices constantly update and swap out their CPUs. With a few screwdrivers and pliers from around the library and a few others brought in from home, we set up the computers on card tables and gathered fourth to sixth graders in small groups around each unit. And then we asked them to find out what’s inside.
This wasn’t an electronic scavenger hunt–we provided no specific objectives or procedure to follow. We talked about safety, though, and reiterated our goal to disassemble the computers, not to break them. (There’s a reason we didn’t give them hammers, after all.) Because the power sources can occasionally hold a dangerous charge even after unplugging the computers, we showed the kids how those components are labeled and instructed them not to touch the batteries. As they got further into the guts of the machines, we came around and removed the power sources ourselves. And we’re proud to report zero electrocutions.
Once they pried open the computer casings, the kids required no additional prompting to explore the electronics. They delicately unscrewed hard drives, unhooked data cables, and plucked segments from the motherboard. Many of the larger pieces have their own serial numbers, and when students wondered about the purpose of a part, we offered them a (functioning) computer to enter the number and read about the component’s use. And they cooperated! Passing around the tiniest screwdrivers and holding sections steady for each other, they rooted around in the guts and held out their micro-trophies for everyone else to admire. “Can I keep this part?” one asked, over and over. “What about this? I want to take this piece home with me.” (No one took anything. Everything went to hazardous waste at the dump the following week.)
Near the end of the program, one girl who had spent half an hour dismantling a DVD drive plopped into her seat. As I scooted over to check in with her, she set her tools down and yelled: “This is so much fun!” So, we had no projects to take home. And we spent the hour deconstructing and not creating. But we definitely made a good time.
Robbin Ellis Friedman is a Children’s Librarian at the Chappaqua Library in Chappaqua, NY, and a member of the ALSC School Age Programs and Services Committee. Feel free to write her at email@example.com.