Kid-Tested, Designer-Dad Approved

Creaive Parenting Lunch Posts

Rob Kimmel stirs his son’s imagination by sticking a Post-It note containing an unfinished illustration and caption to his son’s lunchbox every day. The results—sumo-rats and killer mushrooms. See more Lunch Posts at www.wandermonster.com.

Designer dad Rob Kimmel offers 7 games to kick-start any kid’s imagination with creative play.

My 7-year-old’s lunchbox is a hostile environment. An oozing PB&J wrestles with browning apple slices, while a wounded juice box bleeds out. But I know that if I dig through the wreckage at the end of the day, I’ll find Bigfoot’s ghost, a zombie t-rex or a singing cactus.

Every school day for the past three years, I’ve stuck a Post-it note to the inside lid of my son’s lunchbox, each with a half-completed drawing and a half-written caption. I anxiously look forward to picking him up at the end of his day to see how he’s finished these miniature comics. Some are mutilated or covered with spilled juice; others never make it back. The ones that do, though, are spectacular, bursting with imagination and ridiculous humor.

These Lunch Posts grew out of a back-and-forth drawing game we invented to fill long subway rides. In kindergarten, when he was learning how to write, I started popping them into his lunch. It became a ritual, a way for us to stay in touch in the middle of the day. Why stop playing just because we’re not together?

Play has always been part of my design process. Just as scientists are kids who never forgot how to explore and ask questions, I think artists are kids who never stopped playing or drawing. My best work has come not from sweaty grid-building and pixel-pushing, but from experimentation. I try to bring this attitude to my design students at Pratt Institute, reminding them that sketching is playing, and that interesting failures are better than mediocre successes.

It wasn’t much of a leap to apply that way of creative brainstorming to parenting. Having a child has been an opportunity to share some of my methods on another level, to train a collaborator.

This is a great time to be a parent. We aren’t so hung up on old-school conventions of adult behavior and traditional roles (especially for fathers, who get to participate in our kids’ lives to an extent rarely seen in previous generations). Imaginative play is getting the respect it deserves, with ideas like “multiple intelligences” unlocking the potential of kids who may have been bored or ignored in the past. After a couple of generations when people forgot how to make things, many are rediscovering tool benches and sewing machines. Meanwhile, the economy has forced us to buy fewer things off the shelf, driving the DIY ethic into the mainstream. All these factors combine to validate creative parenting. Making stuff together—whether with a camera or clay, a stove top or power drill—bonds us in a visceral way. It also gives children the experience of direct control over their world, a vital counterpoint to the abstract, texture-less, digital environment they’re immersed in at an increasingly early age.

It’s a running gag that kids prefer the thrill of ripping off wrapping paper more than the expensive birthday present inside. We should absorb the lesson and join our kids on the floor with the scraps. Here are some activities, including the Lunch Posts game, that my son and I have created or borrowed. Each one’s been tweaked and hammered as we used them, so tailor them to fit your kids’ interests, ages and abilities.  And remember—have fun.

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Creative Parenting Lunch Posts

Through the creative play introduced to 7-year-old Ben, the father-son duo have made the Lunch Posts a treasured part of their routine. Post-It illustration above shows how the budding creative Ben Kimmel finishes the drawing and sentence started by his designer dad Rob Kimmel. www.wandermonster.com

1. Lunch Posts
Of course, one of the downsides to enjoying  your children’s company to this extent is that eventually they go to school. Some parents reach this point earlier, with daycare, nannies or grandparents entering the scene. Others have to suffer the separation at the elementary school door. Either way, there’s this long stretch of time when we are cut off from our kids, large parts of their lives that we have no access to. The urge to call or text them creeps up, irrationally, in the middle of the day.

My solution came disguised as a way to teach my son letters and numbers. As explained earlier, I pack his lunch with a Post-It note stuck to the inside lid of  his lunch box, each with half of a drawing and a simple spelling or number puzzle. The picture would be, say, three flying saucers, along with a line where’d he fill in the number ì3,î or a picture of a lion and the letters “L I _ N” for him to fill in the “O.” The rest of the image was up to him to complete.

He loved it, and the little piece of colored paper bearing a half-completed drawing and a half-written story has become a treasured part of our daily routine. I anxiously await picking him up after school to see how he finishes these miniature comics. It’s a great way for us to feel connected, and it has proven to be rich fertilizer for his imagination.
Though there’s no sense of competition, we do enjoy surprising each other with the constant stream of invention. Over time, his drawings and writing have become increasingly sophisticated. I started to post the results on our blog, WanderMonster.com. I see it as a shared art project, but he sees it as a fun activity.

Creative Parenting2. Treasure Map
This is a game that needs two adults, but not at the same time. Two teams, each with a kid and an adult, is even better. I’m the son of a geographer and am married to a travel junkie, so I’ve been eager to get my son comfortable with using maps. This game is a superb way to equip a kid with a sense of power over maps, which can be intimidating.

First, you need to prepare a piece of paper. We go a little overboard, choosing a high-rag sheet, soaking it in tea, crumpling it and abusing it with dirt, coffee and rust, even burning the edges to give it a pirate-y feel. This part isn’t necessary, but it’s a fun way to make a creative mess, and you can make enough in one session to last for many adventures. Then, page in hand, one adult takes the kid to a park or other outdoor space, mapping a path through the environment, finding features that stand out, made as fantastical as possible, though still recognizable. Fallen trees can be sleeping giants; mud puddles are pools of lava; jungle gyms appear as ruined castles. The kid draws pictures and labels them, placing them in a sequence roughly equivalent to their real positions. A “treasure” is hidden at the final location, and the second adult (or team) follows the map to find it. You can do this at large indoor spaces, like churches or schools, too.

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Creative Parenting3. Alphabet Chase
This is one of several games we invented while working on beginning reading and writing skills. It’s best done on a large sheet of paper, like 18 by 24 inches, though we’ve done it on everything from index cards to huge sheets cut from rolls of seamless paper.

The setup is simple, but important. Draw an even number of boxes in a rough grid, with arrows pointing between them. The last box in the first row leads to the farthest-right in the second row, and the last in the second row leads back to the first. It’s possible to do longer versions (our favorite is with four rows of four boxes), and the weaving back and forth is easier when drawn by hand. The boxes can vary in size and shape without affecting the game.

The first player draws a picture of something and writes its name in or beside the box. The second player draws a picture in the second box, whose FIRST letter is the same as the LAST letter of the first drawing. The final box is tricky, needing to end with the first letter of the word in the first box, so it is often best to have the kid start the game off, leaving the adult to figure out the final move. The adult can choose subjects with easy names for smaller kids, or mix it up for older ones. For example, a recent Chase went:
PiratE>Escape poD>
DinosauR>RapidS>SnapE>ElephanT>TeenageR>
RoboT>Terror birD>DragoN>NarwaL>LeaP (the last one tying back into “pirate”).

4. Exquisite Corpse
There is probably a more G-rated name for this game, which comes from the Surrealists and is named after a line in an AndrÈ Breton poem. My kid just loves the name, since it conjures images of zombies, and he enjoys the reaction of adults when he cheerfully asks, “Hey, do you want to play Exquisite Corpse?”

It’s simple: A piece of paper is folded into thirds and passed among three people, each drawing a portion of a character. As the head, torso and then legs are added, the body parts remain hidden under the folds from the other players. Two people can play if the paper is divided into quarters, with the arms and upper torso given their own panel.

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Creative Parenting5. Storyboarding
Storyboards are an excellent introduction to cinematic storytelling. Their comic book-like format and straightforward conventions are well-suited to kids. I made a blank storyboard sheet in InDesign and I printed out a stack of them for my son and his friends to use, but it’s easy to draw them out by hand. The simplest version is a box, around 4.5 by 3.5 inches, with a series of lines underneath for dialogue and directions, two-up on a page, with a space to label the scene and number the sequence.

The kid draws the action in the box and adds necessary descriptions, camera movement, sounds and visual effects in the space underneath. Kids eat up cinema language like “SFX” for “sound effects” and quickly absorb describing action in this shorthand form. I find my son’s attention span is well-suited to mapping out a movie in storyboards. Attempting to film them is a mistake, at least at this age. It takes a lot of time and skill to make a movie that competes on any level with what they imagine, especially with the bar set so high by contemporary special effects.

6. Call-and-Response Drawings
Living in Brooklyn has meant many hour-long subway rides, and I’ve been compelled to invent ways to keep my son occupied on these journeys. One of our favorites is sharing a sketchbook in a back-and-forth drawing game.

One of us will draw an element, and the other adds to it, until it grows to cover a whole spread. Usually, we create landscapes populated with vehicles and creatures, but my favorite variant is when we draw people on the subway with us, which the other person has to identify.

7. Restaurant Survival Kit
It only takes an idea to transform something everyday into something extraordinary. Whenever we go out, I bring a small survival kit, made up of Post-its and 3-by-5-inch index cards, tape, pens and scissors. With just this equipment, a table can be transformed into a chill playground without disturbing other diners.

Wrap an index card around a condiment bottle and tape it in place. Let the kid unleash their imagination to create their own potions, lotions or sauces. Sympathetic servers will often contribute more bottles, and a budding package designer (or mad scientist) is born. Index cards are the perfect weight to hold a crease and make 3D paper toys. As long as a quarter inch or so is left beneath a drawing, it can be cut out and the bottom folded back to make a base: instant action figures. Two folds—one at the top, one at the bottom—makes an excellent car. Just a few index cards can be transformed into a menagerie of creatures or a fleet of vehicles. Older kids, adept with scissors, can create wardrobes of costumes to clothe their creations.

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4 thoughts on “Kid-Tested, Designer-Dad Approved

  1. eoe

    That is so cool, Rob. My father was ahead of his time I suppose. He used to play a rhythm game with me by tapping out a sequence of beats on my leg and I had to repeat them on his leg, in the correct time, including pauses. We’d keep going until he stumped me. He also made a point to ask me every morning what I’d dreamed the night before. Of course this got me into the habit of remembering my dreams to report them. I still remember my dreams vividly and almost nightly, to this day. Thanks Daddy.

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