Inventions with junk modelling – Nonfiction Monday

One of M’s favourite rainy day or “quiet time” activities is making inventions out of junk. I supply her with a box full of whatever recycling / rubbish I’ve saved up, a roll of sellotape or masking tape (the latter being easier for her to tear rather than cut), and a small supply of “bling” – maybe stickers, or beads, some scraps of fabric or ribbon. She’ll put on an audiobook and then happily spend an hour or more lost in her inventive world creating machines or robots or sculptures out of the various bits and bobs supplied. I love seeing what she comes up with – this play is totally undirected, with as much fun gained from the process as from the end result – and I’m always amazed by her vision and creativeness.

Here’s the most recent selection of junk I gave her:


And here’s what she turned it into:

A machine for capturing Zurg (from Toy Story)
A machine for capturing Zurg (from Toy Story)
A machine for making yoghurt
A machine for making yoghurt
A machine for clipping your nails
A machine for clipping your nails

When I was in the library last week I found two (non-fiction) books that I thought would go well with M’s inventions: Three Cheers for Inventors by Marcia Williams, and Owning Up by Janine Amos and Annabel Spenceley.

I have previously bought home several books by Marcia Williams – I love her comic book way of introducing readers to various classics (eg. The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). Although an older child (say 8-12) might get the most out of these books, M has also enjoyed them a great deal, especially Greek Myths. She loves pouring over the details in the pictures, and of course the stories are often very intriguing or exciting. So when I found Three Cheers for Inventors I didn’t even browse through it, it just came straight home with us.


We didn’t read this book cover to cover, but rather dipped in and out where M saw an illustration which appealed to her. She was fascinated by all the things that were invented – she found it quite puzzling thinking that somebody had invented things like biros, helter skelters and toothpaste, and then we entered into a great game imagining the things we would like to invent (M particularly wants to invent a machine that builds lego (Me: “But you build great things out of lego, M” M: “Yeahhh, but it takes me so long, a machine would do it much quicker“)) M wasn’t too taken by the stories of Edison, the Wright brothers, or the other highlighted inventors but it did get her thinking about what things have been invented and what things there are still to be invented.

As ever I loved Marcia William’s illustrations full of humorous and interesting detail. I also like the fact that she a special section devoted to women inventors.

I was intending to review only one book today, but when Ali (our wonderful Children’s Librarian) suggested Owning Up when I told her I was looking for a nonfiction book to read to M and J, I burst out laughing – I don’t think she could have known how appropriate it was.

Owning Up is part of the “Growing Up” series – a collection of books which are “about everyday situations in every child’s life, [and] show children ways of working things out together”. Other titles in the series include Being Kind, Sharing and Taking Turns.

None of these books particularly appealed to me; although the short stories they tell through photos with real kids in apparently real settings are short and simple I found the whole concept of this series a little didactic. They might work well in a nursery school (preschool) setting if you needed to do a topic on personal/social issues (you know, to meet some government requirement…), but for a home setting, where we read a great deal and issues such as friendship, sharing and taking turns all arise in much more imaginative ways in the fiction we read, I didn’t feel at all enthusiastic about any of them, including Owning Up.


That said, J clearly enjoyed having these books read to her – I think this was because she liked the use of photos rather than artwork to illustrate the stories; real kids, real toys, real people. AND then in spite of my personal indifference to the books, the opening story in Owning Up made picking up the book worthwhile (and provided me with a reason to include it here on Playing by the book): The family kitchen is in a right state. The wonderful Dad in the family cleans up the mess, but doesn’t realise that the “rubbish” he has thrown out was actually a specially crafted model made by his daughter. The Dad owns up to what he has done, and finds a way to make amends with his daughter, by clearing out a cupboard where in future she can store her models safely… Yep, this story has been played out many times in our family, so I include it here as a word of warning, should you be inspired to let your kids do some junk modelling having read this post!

owning_up_frontcover Owning Up:* (1 star)

Songs to invent by could include:

  • The Invention Song by Danny Quinn (Uncle Danny)
  • Invention by Raggs Kids Club Band
  • Edison by The Bee Gees, and (just for fun)…
  • Lily the Pink by The Scaffold (because she invented medicinal compound 🙂 )

  • There are loads of links about inventions and inventors from this page at Kennesaw State Univeristy. For children a little older than M and J, NASA also has some activities to encourage kids to start thinking like inventors. The Community Learning Network also has a good Inventors and Inventions Theme Page.

    Thanks for sticking with the long post today! To find (or contribute to) the roundup of all today’s Nonfiction Monday posts please click here!.

    11 Responses

    1. beth

      My 3rd grader’s class just did an invention fair, with the kids showing off their ideas. We were proud that Paulos provided an actual working model for his Fizz Defender.

      Another good song to build to is “Johnny Works with One Hammer.” Maybe “He’s Got High Hopes”?

    2. Zoe

      An invention fair – what a great idea! And great suggestions for more music – thanks so much 🙂

    3. Sarah N.

      I love M’s inventions. We keep a big plastic bin in our craft room that I fill with junk (things that would otherwise go in the trash of the recycling) and my M has a great time using them for various type of art. We’ll have to check out Three Cheers for Inventions.

    4. Tarie

      Sigh. I wish I were M’s age again. I want to get lost creating things out of junk!

      P.S. I also don’t like didactic books!

    5. Dawn Riccardi Morris

      I LOVE how you made connections with books, art, music, history, and technology! Picture books can be used as springboards to many different forms of learning and creating. Bravo!

      I really had to laugh when I saw this post, because I reviewed a related book today as well, which I included in your nonfiction links.

      Thanks for the effort you put into this post; you really went above and beyond, which I really appreciate.

    6. Maggi (Mama Librarian)

      Wow! I love her inventions and I love this idea. As my daughter Ivy grows, I look forward to introducing her to a similar junk box! Thanks for sharing those books. I bet M would like The Way Things Work (if she hasn’t already devoured it).

    7. Kellyi

      Love the inventions!!

      Another book along this line is the Charlie and Lola “I’m inventing a usefulish invention”

      An online invention fair would be really good….

    8. Kristine

      M’s creations are so detailed. I bet she can tell you a lot about them.

      I’m glad you share your non-fiction books. I must say I find it challenging to find good non-fiction for little kids. It’s either too simple or the language and vocabulary are to complex. We’ve borrowed some dinosaur books recently and I’m finding that it works best for us just to flip through until my daughter finds a picture that grabs her interest and then we just talk and talk and talk about what we see, our hypothesis and wonders.

    9. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Kellyi and Maggi – Thanks for the book suggestions – we’ll certainly look them up!

      Kristine – I could have written your words – I too find it hard to find non fiction that the girls will enjoy, although through Nonfiction Monday I’ve found some good suggestions that have worked. At the moment we’re enjoying “Poo” (yep, that sort) – which was reviewed here: (Called “Poop” in the US edition)

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