For the past two weeks, kids have been crazy about making lightsabers. Red ones, blue ones (no one has ventured for a green one yet...). Watching kids make them has provided me with a really concret example of why making your own things (in this case, toys) is such a powerful thing to do.
Soon I'll post an amazing picture of two kids with theirs, but for the time being, I'll just write about it.
I helped a child find parts for one last week. The main burst of lightsabers had been two weeks ago, when Jason -- the counselor came up with the idea -- had been making them with kids. That was his last week at camp, so this week kids had to figure out how to make them on their own. The initial plan had been to make handles out of PVC, spray painting them silver, and the blades out of clear plastic. They were light up by a stick of LEDs -- the connections made and structure held by bare wire, so that the project could be done without soldering. We do have the capacity to solder at camp, but we only have a set-up for one child to work, so it would have been slow going for a group of 6 - 10 kids.
This past week, we didn't know if or where any materials for a lightsaber were, so this boy and I set about looking around camp to see if we could find the materials, or appropriate substitutes. There's a really pleasant mental space one gets into, tromping around camp, trying to solve a problem (in this case, materials to use for a lightsaber), and knowing that there's so many possiblities with all of the materials and tools around that there's got to be a clever solution. The handle in particular seemed easy to replace: we realized that if we didn't find any PVC, we could have made a handle out of clay, or cut off the end of a tennis racquet we found and used that. Eventually, though, we found some PVC.
We didn't find any clear plastic for a while, and then we realized that a few days ago, a bunch of kids had made rockets out of clear mylar (a thick plastic.) Wrapping this around a thin pipe and taping it with clear scotch tape, we had a decent substitute! We eventually found some of the original plastic, and the boy liked it better -- our substitute was slightly conical as we hand't figured out how to roll it perfectly -- but it was neat to come with a substitute for that too.
The kids made their sticks of LEDs, soldered on a switch and a battery pack, assembled it, and had lightsabers! Their were some improvements that other kids made: putting in wax paper to diffuse the light from the LED, so it would look like the whole blade was glowing, rather than having 20 sources of light. One child took a motor and wrapped a wire around it to make it into a vibrating motor (similar to a cell phone's), and then placed it inside the handle so that when the saber was turned on, it made an all-too-satisfying "bzzzzzzzz" sound.
This deep engagement with making a light saber lends itself naturall to the world of modifying it: once you've gone through the construction process, it's easy to think about what you would do to make it even cooler, or what you would do if something broke (like the lights didn't turn on.) This level of engagement with the lightsaber is far different than one purchased at a store -- where it is no longer automatic to think that it would be cool to rip open the lightsaber, stick a vibrating motor in, and reassemble it. (A child could of course see this idea from hand-made lightsabers and bring their store-bought saber in to mod at camp...)
The deeper point is that this shows that lightsabers, like any object that can be bought, can be made by people. They don't have to come from the magical toy factory. If it can be thought of, it can be made. As simple a lesson as this is, I think it's a powerful one, and an empowering one. In college, I'd taken several classes in programming, and it wasn't until until my last year, in taking a class centered around Scratch, that I realized that *I* could make video games. This idea that the objects around us are ones that we can understand, change, make, and make better is a huge one, and it's one that I think kids get when they make things like lightsabers.