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Finding the Right Level of Parental Involvement In Pinewood Derby Building

I really enjoy the Pinewood Derby. In fact, my level of enjoyment is
probably greater than that of my children. Add the fact that I like to work
with my hands, and you have the classic recipe for an over-involved parent.
Yes, I admit I have been guilty in the past of doing way too much work on my
children's cars.

By contrast, I have seen cars at our weigh-ins that were clearly built by a
younger child with little to no parental involvement. Generally, these cars
place poorly, sometimes not even reaching the finish line.

I believe that neither of these extremes is the appropriate level of
parental involvement. Building a car is a great opportunity for a child and
parent to spend time together. Opportunities to interact with your child
are too few and far between to let one slip away.

So how much should a parent be involved? I suggest that parents should
serve mostly as a coach, allowing their child to do as much work on the car
as he/she can physically and safely accomplish. Clearly, the level of
involvement must vary based on age and physical capabilities. For example,
my 12-year-old son's latest car was built on his own with only some coaching
from myself. He got frustrated a few times, and when he did I showed him a
different way to hold a tool, clamp his car, hold the can of spray paint,
etc., but he did the actual work. On the other hand my 9-year-old daughter
also built a car. She did a large majority of the work, but I helped set up
the tools, and assisted when she needed a little extra muscle power and

How can you most effectively be a coach to your child? There is no one
answer to this question, but here are some ideas that might be beneficial to

Designing the Car - A few years ago I asked one of my younger children what
they wanted their car to look like. I believe the response was an
'elephant' (or some other large land mammal). I don't know about you,
but making a car look like an elephant would be an impossible task for my
child or myself! So instead, I sketched out some possible ideas, and fairly
quickly we had a design that was much more practical. The point is that
children often have unrealistic expectations of what they can create given
their (and your) skills, the limitations of the car dimensions, the time
remaining to the race, and the sophistication of your household tools. So
here are a few ideas to help you and your child arrive at a reasonable

1. Dig the Matchbox/Hot Wheels cars out of the toy box and find an
interesting design. Then sketch the profile of the car on paper,
simplifying it where needed.

2. Have your child sketch a rough drawing of their ideas. Then work with
them to make it practical.

3. If your child wants the car to represent an animal or other complex
object, suggest building a flat and thin car with a plastic animal(s) or
object fastened on top. This is much easier and will likely satisfy your

For example, a few years ago my oldest son wanted to build a 'rocket
car.' He ended up building a 'rocket carrier' using a very small
rocket from the hobby shop (see the picture at:
http://www.maximum-velocity.com/timothy2000.jpg ).

4. Look on the Internet for car design ideas.

Working One Step at a Time - Children generally want to skip the 'boring'
steps and get right to attaching the wheels. But to get the best results
the building process should proceed in a step-by-step manner. Coach your
child to take one step at a time. The resulting car will not only end of
nicer, but your child will begin learning the valuable skills of
organization and patience.

Using Hand Tools - Training experts tell us that people learn much more
quickly by performing a task themselves, than by watching someone else
perform the task. So, if your child is unfamiliar with using a tool (you
can assume that your child is unfamiliar unless you have previously
shown them how to use the tool), place their hand(s) on the tool in
the proper position, and put your hands on top of your child's hands.
Work with your child, using your hands to guide and add a little
muscle power. This is especially useful when a younger child is
sawing. To saw along a line takes a certain amount of strength and
technique, and young children can become frustrated very quickly. By adding
your hands, your child will not only be involved in creating the car, but
they will also become better at working with their hands.

Sanding - Kids generally don't like to sand (I don't blame them). But to end
up with a nice paint job, the car does need to be virtually smooth. In the
past, my kids would sand for a minute or two and then come to me and say,
"Daddy, is this enough?" I would tell them no, they would go back to
sanding for another minute, and the process would repeat many times over.
Then someone shared with me an amazing technique. Take a pencil and
scribble on all of the surfaces of the car that need to be sanded (lightly
on surfaces that are almost done, and heavily on very rough surfaces.
Then tell your child to sand until all of the pencil marks are gone. At my
house, this eliminates a lot of whining!

Scheduling - If left up to my children, all of the work would be done on the
night before the race. Although last minute jobs do occasionally perform
very well, this is not the best recipe for building a nice car. So, instead
sit down with your child and write out a simple schedule. For example,
if there are 4 weeks before the race, write down what needs to be done
in each of those 4 weeks. The schedule might be:

Week 1 - Design and rough cut
Week 2 - Shape, sand, primer coat of paint
Week 3 - Final coat of paint, prepare wheels and axles
Week 4 - Attach weight, attach wheels, and align

If your child is a noted procrastinator, a daily schedule might be

Good luck in coaching your child. When you get the urge to jump in
prematurely, put your hands behind your back, grit your teeth, and count to

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 1, Issue 2

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