Matt and I classify ourselves as “reasonably handy”, and decided to build our own DIY Rainbow Rocker to gift Harry for his first birthday. It can be used as a rocker, flipped upside down to crawl under, or onto its side. With imagination, it can be a boat, a cave, a stage, or a bridge. That’s the point of this toy…it’s supposed to have open-ended possibilities. We used tutorials for guidance, and learned a few lessons on the way to this project’s completion.
I’d never heard of a rainbow rocker before meeting @crunchymamaoffive on Instagram. “Crunchy Mama” is a fellow Project Pomona Mama and we became acquainted through our common participation. We’ve only ever met online, but I have followed the pictures of her family’s European adventures, her hand-crocheted amigrumi toys, and her children’s wooden Montessori-styled toys with delight.
Her photos always catch my attention, since they include photos of toys that are beautiful, rugged, and can be played with in many creative ways (consider this your invitation to search “open-ended toys” for further inspiration).
While Matt and I are capable of composing such a project, we’re not handy enough to do it completely “on the fly”. Pinterest resulted in a lot of visual inspiration, but it was this “Instructables” tutorial we found most helpful: http://www.instructables.com/id/Kids-Rainbow-Rocker/
Per most first-time attempts at things, there are a few things we’d do different, and I’m sharing them so you can learn from us.
1. Food Colouring: Non-toxic? Yes; Colourfast? No
Using food colouring to gain a “rainbow-effect” is one thing most tutorials have in common. We decided to use a more muted colour scheme to go with the rest of our house. Food colouring is non-toxic, and food safe should your little one decide to sink their teeth in.
However, it is going to run and bleed onto EVERYTHING when moisture gets on its surface. Think clothes, carpet, skin. A Google search reveals anecdotal reports that even beeswax does not seal food colouring enough to prevent a mess.
- Use a regular stain and supervise playtime until your child is past their “chew on everything” stage.
- Trial other natural dyes (and let me know how it goes!). I’ve come across many posts for fun-coloured natural dyes for Easter eggs and fabric (coffee, purple cabbage), but limited reviews of using such on wood.
2. Position bridge pieces wide enough to accommodate fingers
We rationalized when building our DIY rainbow rocker that closely positioned pieces would make it hard to get fingers stuck and subsequently injured during play. We neglected to consider that one primary purpose of this item is to actually climb on it… which you can’t do if there’s nowhere to grab to engage in said climbing.
- Space the pieces far enough apart that fingers can safely fit through for climbing without getting stuck
3. Don’t varnish it
My compulsive tendencies struggled and won out with this one. Internally, my brain tells me: a wood project isn’t finished if it isn’t “finished”.
I wanted a project that would last, and sealing it would prevent stains and rough spots from catching on clothing. The aforementioned food-colouring incident also made it necessary to seal it and prevent dye on our white carpets… Unfortunately, sealing it also makes it incredibly slippery, and tough for a little guy to keep his seat. If I were to do a DIY rainbow rocker again, I’d still varnish the side pieces (the bits that touch ground), but I’d leave the bridging,
- Use high quality wood, sand adequately, and leave it alone
- Finish only the side pieces or plywood edges, leave the bridging pieces unfinished for traction
4. Use Thicker Plywood
As it turns out, we “flubbed” this one. We trialled using 1/2″ plywood for the side frame rather than the recommended 3/4. We wanted it to be lighter and easier for a kid to maneuver. In retrospect, you don’t actually want it moving…other than rocking, this is really meant to be a stationary toy. 1/2″ has too much play, and may break once Harry gets bigger and more boisterous.
- Follow the instructions and use the recommended plywood thickness
5. Why handles?
We added handles since all the examples contained them, but watching playtime occur, they don’t strike me as particularly necessary. Harry holds onto the edges just as easily, and in our design they are a weak spot. If something were to break, that’s where it would be. They are also A HUGE PAIN to cut out, sand, and finish because of all the angles.
- Use proper thickness of wood so they are not weak relative to the rest of the structure
- Just get rid of them
6. Think about the size you really need
We used the spec’s we found on http://www.thomaswoodcrafts.com/shop/play-rocker/ and it wound up MASSIVE compared to a lot of the other examples we saw online. It is definitely something to grow into, but if I were to do it again, I’d go much smaller. Larger is fun for playing together on it, but smaller would lend itself more to independent play at this stage.
- Shorter and wider?
Harry enjoys his DIY rainbow rocker these days with parental participation. He’s a bit young for the “creative play” opportunities that can be had with this toy, but it’s the sort of toy that is supposed to be adaptable over time. The goal of an open ended toy is to promote imagination, and someday I hope Harry will look at this hunk of wood and get down to playtime with his “mountain”, “ship”, “lemonade-stand”, “horse” or any number of things a small mind can come up with to use this toy.
There are a few things I’ve identified that we would do different in future, but so far this toy works just fine. Hopefully it will endure and grow to be a loved and well used toy for our son as he grows.