Odds are if your child has access to a 3D printer, the very first thing he or she will produce will be, well not much — renderings of animals, sports team logos, or nondescript objects that could live as paperweights but will more likely just live around your house until somebody throws it away.
Parents strive to treat their families to amazing experiences. Catapult, in partnership with Intel, is the field guide for the modern mom, offering tech-based at-home activities that will build lasting memories.
But you and your kids can create objects using 3D printers that have actual practical use. Below are some great projects that you and your kid can do together to put that 3D printer to work.
Regardless of what you actually produce, there is inherent value in each step of the process, which includes brainstorming, offline prototyping (either by drawing or creating models), problem solving, and revising.
“[3D printers] push students to not only be creative problem solvers but use their analytical skills in a way that is more goal-based as opposed to memorization and repetition,” says Zach Kaplan, CEO at Inventables, which makes the 3D printers Carvey and X-Carve. He says that teachers have told him that once the 3D printer arrived at school, students suddenly began staying after class to use them. Students have even used 3D technology to help create prosthetic limbs for people and animals.
Some parents buy their children handheld 3D printers like 3Doodler, while many students access one in the classroom. If you think your kid could benefit from practicing 3D printing, call your local library; many have one on site where patrons can sign up online, upload their files, and then receive their prints, either free or for a nominal fee.
Could 3D printers replace the almighty mall kiosk? Using templates from sites like Thingiverse and Instructables, you and your kids can download programs to create small everyday items like phone cases, stands for Apple TVs, jewelry, sunglasses, and keychains.
If you can convince your child to merely fire off a few toys for his or her younger siblings, holiday shopping would become much, much easier. With a 3D printer and a simple program, kids can put together their own fidget spinners, make games like Tic-Tac-Toe and chess sets, crank out game spinners and tokens for their own games, create their own version of Settlers of Catan, or replicate Hot Wheels tracks or Legos. “I have heard through the grapevine that LEGO sees 3D printing as a dire threat to their business,” says Michael Una, a product designer who sometimes creates 3D-printed toys with his four-year-old son.
Is your kid into cosplay, anime, graphic novels, drama, or making his or her own stop-motion films? 3D printing can help here, too. Aidan Petroshus, a 15-year-old high school student in Evanston, IL, likes the way 3D printing’s hard resin lends itself to creating Fallout-inspired silver armor. To make his projects more realistic, he covers the orange plastic from the public library with metallic paint. “You can use 3D printers to make sets too,” he says. He lists the Youtube channel 3D Printing Nerd as a regular source of inspiration and sites like Punished Props and My Mini Factory as regular sources for gcode files that he uploads to his local library.
You and your kids can use 3D printers to create their own picture frames, templates for making stamps, as well as musical instruments — some classrooms use 3D printers to create rockin’ instruments in conjunction with Makey Makey electronic invention kits.
The printer can also be the medium for a young artist’s self-expression. You and your kids can use a motion sensing program like Xbox Kinect to conduct body scans and then print off figurines of yourselves. Those are cool by themselves, but they can also be attached to small boxes like Altoids tins, which your kids can then fill with representations of what they feel are inside themselves.
Printers don’t only make blocky, plasticky designs: They can also create delicate and quirky Christmas ornaments, festive garlands, and large-scale décor. A motivated kid with some foresight, good taste, hustle, and access to a 3D printer could probably do a pretty tidy business at a holiday bazaar — it’s like a modern version of a lemonade stand.
While you and your kid can make something truly useful with that 3D printer, don’t sweat it if all you produce are a lot of “things” — as long as you complete the projects together, with time, energy, and ingenuity, the finished product still has value.
Claire Zulkey is a freelance writer and mother of two in Evanston, IL. You can learn much more about her by going to Zulkey.com.
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