Hanukkah family fun, night 7: Making tracks with a small gift that has an outsized impact

Read about our celebration of Night 6, here.

I’ve learned over the years that more gifts can lead to less joy, at least for my little not so little boys. Spacing out the individual presents helps, and so does avoiding too many extravagant gifts at the same holiday.

This has been one of my hardest parenting lessons to internalize: don’t overwhelm the kids with gifts that attempt to quantify your infinite love.

  • It’s impossible.
  • You’ll spoil them.
  • Your house will overflow with stuff at a cost far exceeding its value.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. I also try to alternate bigger impact gifts with simpler pleasures, and spread out amongst all eight nights the presents I believe will most please different members of the family.

Yes, that’s right: I had a plan all along. Could anyone who knows me think I just wrapped this stuff up and grabbed boxes at random to throw at my family? There’s a spreadsheet, of course. It’s all about the pacing.

Hanukkah 7 simple track on table - 1Night seven was one for simple pleasures, and enjoying what we’ve already got.

The boys opened two boxes of additional Lego train tracks (Flexible & Straight Set 7499 and Switching Tracks Set 7895) for our Winter Holiday Train and its Station. You’ll want to begin with Nights 1 and 2 to hear more about those.

We spent the rest of the evening building circuits and inventing ridiculous scenarios for the minifigs and trains on the table.

Hanukkah 7 minifig throwing switch - 1

What’s she up to? No good!

I thought about providing the track right after the train, but this seemed to be a better plan. For one thing, we often but not always get a set built in one evening. Why rush the extra track onto the scene if the train wasn’t ready to roll?

More importantly, my little guy has had several days of marveling over the Station’s details and pushing the train up to the platform on its simple loop of track. Each time he immersed himself in the scene, he became more aware of how much he would enjoy expanding it and connecting it to another part of his imaginary world.

He’s been musing to himself for a few evenings:

“Wouldn’t it be cool to have a track that led to…”

Now, he can make that happen, and he’s ready to put in the effort to make it happen with no other distractions for the evening. The boys even dug into our existing Lego sets and pulled out an older, motorized train Grandma bought for a Christmas past.

This led inexorably to the aggressive shunting of steam engine and holiday trucks by a Diesel locomotive. Shades of the Island of Sodor, anyone? If you don’t get the reference, commence reading the Reverend Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine immediately.

A few pieces of track don’t make an extravagant gifteven at Lego prices, but today it has an immediate value to my younger, somewhat more materialistic son.† He also receives the gift of a modest object that gratifies his imagination above all else.

Too many toys are too easily forgotten in the chaos of more, more, more. The right accessory on Night 7 served to reignite all the excitement from those first, bigger gifts.

At least, that was my nefarious plan, which will be discovered if my kids start reading my blog.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 7 hanukkiah lighting - 1

חגחנוכהשמח

Stay tuned for the final night of Hanukkah, Night 8.

The big kid just loves to build. He always sees the value in a gift of parts to expand on a modular set. The trick with him—and, it must be noted, with Mommy—is to remind him to graciously allow the younger child to assemble some tracks and learn for himself why symmetry and careful planning are so important when it comes to engineering a system of moving parts.

We didn’t mean to make the little guy cry! Sigh. And, eventually, he did get to play, too.

Hanukkah family fun, night 3: Lego Train heading into the Winter Holiday Station!

Go back to Night 2, here.

If you read yesterday’s post, you probably saw this gift coming, and full steam ahead at that.

That’s right: the Legoset 10254Winter Holiday Train has arrived at Winter Village Station. Thank heavens we got the platform built in time!

Hanukkah 3 train gift

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. I’ve gone on at length about our family love for Lego toys, but I think this photo might best express the joy a train can bring.

Hanukkah 3 train fans

That’s joy, I promise, and not terror (that the gift was a Trojan Horse promising to unleash a conquering army while we slept?)

Hanukkah 2 train station barista espresso - 1

Commuters into Bricklyn have received the greatest holiday blessing of all: Espresso! Okay, that’s a little blasphemous. So sorry. But it couldn’t be helped. Or, rather, I won’t help myself.

For those of us with espresso obsession, I’d also like to point out that the Winter Village Station has finally brought to Winter Village that most essential of services: a coffee window with barista working her espresso machine.

Lest you think these gifts are getting too predictable, I’ll share one hint about what’s coming tonight: it’s something the whole family will enjoy, but with a much greater focus on the long-held dreams of the grown up boy in our household, my darling husband.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 3 hanukkiah

חגחנוכהשמח

Click here for night four.

Hanukkah family fun, night 2: Let there be Lego of the Winter Village variety

Go back to Night 1, here.

On the second night of Hanukkah, our family received the gift of Lego set 10259, the Winter Village Station.Hanukkah 2 - Lego front

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. While some parents may think Lego is just for the kids, those of us who still love to build would argue that a Lego set is a great starting point for creative family togetherness.

It is possible that I threaten the kids on “one gift shared by two brothers” nights by saying they should either enjoy their collective present peacefully, or the joy of building reverts to Mommy.

I may as well admit right now that I’m a tyrannical dictator albeit with benevolent intentions. I’m supposing that’s been obvious for about as long as I’ve been writing about parenting.

We’ve been collecting the “Winter Holiday” series from Lego since it was introduced a few years ago. While it is true that their “seasonal” decor leans more “Christmas-y” than secular, it is also true that the classic holiday look reflects fairly closely what we see in our community.

Hanukkah 2 - Lego back

Reflects our New England community, except maybe for the steam engine. Our local commuter rail employs modern diesel-electric locomotives.

It’s not hard to construct our own hanukkiah* to add to the Christmas tree in the winter village square.

Considering the number of aliens and other non-traditional types who populate our Lego scenes, we consider Bricklyn** to be a tolerant and accepting community where every minifig can worship or not as s/he sees fit.

And this particular contribution to the Winter Village? A train station? With a level crossing?

Oh me, oh my, there was no chance I would let this set slip by.

This mom likes trains. I like to travel by train, and I like to build toy tracks. I’m a sucker for the romance of the rails.

My oldest child was a Thomas the Tank Engine nut as a tot, and he still enjoys model railroading. To this day, he can name more of those little wooden trains than I would think possible. He’s our greatest engineer, and will build the best layout for our space, with our tracks.

DH is less an enthusiast, but will play with any radio controlled (RC) or motorized vehicle when given the chance. The trick with that man is keeping him within the bounds of our Lego city and the established decorums. He never builds according to the rules! We appreciate his creative nature, but sometimes have to reign in his wildest innovations.

And DS2? He’s a natural storyteller. You could give him a bowling set to play with, and he would weave a complex tale of the pins’ interrelationships and the great tragedy of the upcoming ball. Seriously! He might already be the most compelling narrator I’ve ever met, a fabulist in the best sense of the word. I often see my role as protecting him from having his boundless talent for spinning yarns educated out of him by a well-meaning system run by dull-witted bureaucrats. This little boy breathes the breath of life into Bricklyn, animating its subjects, and inspiring everyone else’s constructions to add dimension to our shared story.

Someday, we plan to have a model train—probably of the Lego variety—permanently set up around an open atrium in our living room. Blame it on my early exposure to Mr. Rogers and his trolley, but it’s been a dream of mine since I was a child, and my family seems equally keen on the plan. In my most elaborate fantasy, we will sandwich a Lego public transit system between two layers of acrylic sheet and create an entire subterranean level for our Lego city. My heart flutters when I think of it!

But, for today, we have a Winter Village Station to build. I promised the little guy that DS1 and I would get the main building assembled before he got home from school; he wants to make the old-fashioned truck by himself.

With the holiday school break approaching, we should have some serious hours to spend together in our invented winter wonderland.

Happy Hanukkah!

 

חגחנוכהשמח

Click here to go to night three.

*The nine branched candle holder used specifically for Hanukkah is a “hanukkiah.” Notice the raised position, in the center of my hanukkiah, for the helper candle, or “shamash.” We use the shamash to light the other candles.

A “menorah” is a (now purely symbolic) seven armed candelabra that dates back to the days of the First Temple in Jerusalem where it would have been lit by the priests in a nightly ritual. Our Temple was destroyed, so we now make religious observances together in a house of prayer or “synagogue” instead of the Holy Temple.

**Read more about our family Lego project and its pride of place smack dab in the middle of the living room in this post.

I love Lego, and I built a platform on an IKEA base to host a city where I can play with my growing kids

I love Lego

True confession time: I love Lego.

I don’t just mean love in that generic, parental, “I love to buy Lego for my kids so they will grow up to be engineers and support me in my old age” way. No, I love Lego in an “I won’t share my bricks with my kids” way.

Lego is one medium with which I still know how to play.

I had a few bricks as a child, but I really started collecting Lego sets when I  was a young professional. Living alone and working long hours as a software quality engineer, I sought a relaxing pastime to keep myself off the computer for a few hours a day. It started when I discovered ancient Egyptian themed Lego sets during a spontaneous trip to Toys “R” Us one evening after work…

I won’t share my Lego with my kids

I hoard my Lego bricks, and I store them separately from the children’s toys. They don’t sort their bricks properly the way I prefer. Also, I like to keep the parts for my favorite sets together, though I don’t keep the boxes or treat them as collectibles. I just enjoy the option of re-building without too much digging for specific pieces.

Family Lego city display MOC in progress

My modern office building MOC in progress. I need over $100 worth of grey and clear bricks to turn my vision into a reality, so it’s on hold. A construction site is a fun spot for creative play in Bricklyn

My spoiled little darlings own enough Lego to stock a store, but I could fill a large Rubbermaid tub with my own bricks. Actually, maybe two tubs. And, realistically, I wouldn’t desecrate my greatest builds by stuffing them unceremoniously into a bin.

I guess I’m a little spoiled, too.

I love model cities

I’m geeky enough to admire model train sets. I grew up thinking how cool it would be to build such a thing in my future home. I’d love to have a toy train running from room to room on a suspended track like I saw once in a small town Maine restaurant.

I love Lego builds on a grand scale, too. I not-so-secretly identify, just a little, with the dad (spoiler alert: a.k.a., Lord Business) in The Lego Movie. I would never glue my bricks together, but I would expect a cohesive vision to be respected by my family as a labor of love, at least for a while.

family-lego-city-display-front-e1493311369289.jpg

“Bricklyn” main street; battle carnage courtesy of DS2

I absolutely adore the modular Lego City Creator sets. They have an early 20th century downtown vibe that’s aesthetically pleasing to these adult eyes. I own a few now. I enjoyed building them, and I really wanted to display them instead of putting them away.

I’ve found that kids are drawn to the finished buildings in an adult space. They just cry out to be played with, but I didn’t want to be constantly policing children or tempting them with untouchable objects on a coffee table. That’s just mean.

Here’s how I found a way to keep my sets intact, for my own enjoyment, while also creating a fun, inter-generational play space for my family and friends.

I built an “open source” Lego “platform” for family sharing

We set up a fairly large (48″ x 66″), counter height surface on the library side of our great room. I assembled four IKEA kitchen cabinets for a base, then used a sheet of plywood for a level platform. It isn’t beautiful, but it is tolerable in a space that also functions as our “formal” living room. Obviously, our lifestyle isn’t really very formal!

IKEA Lego display platform cabinets

I have the veneer to finish the ends of the cabinets to match, but that’s also waiting for “someday.” I’d rather play with my Lego sets than finish my home improvement projects…

Someday, I’ll get a proper counter top to replace the plywood we edged with packing tape to reduce splinters. Most of the surface is covered with base plates anyway, or will be when we’ve added a few more buildings. A simple edge treatment would improve the looks of this project more than anything else.

The IKEA cabinets below “Bricklyn”, as DS2 dubbed our little town, created storage space for all of our board games. Two cabinets each at 24″ x 30″ and 24″ x 36″ hold a lot of family clutter. I opted to use drawers on one side, and cupboards with doors on the other. The drawers are easier to keep organized, but much harder to assemble if you’re an IKEA novice.

To add stability and prevent dangerous tipping over of the heavy cabinets, we fastened the same-width units back-to-back. We also keep heavy objects on the lower shelves and in the bottom drawers so the unit isn’t top heavy. The plywood top extends across multiple cabinets to further cement the units together. Even with every drawer open on the back side, the unit doesn’t budge.

Three rules keep the peace during playtime

There are just three rules for our play table, and even visiting children have been willing to abide by them.

  1. Each family member “owns” some of the baseplate “lots” that cover the table; we each get to define our part of the neighborhood. We can build anything that fits the confines of our plate. Roads are public and may be used by everyone.
  2. Whoever built a structure or vehicle controls the rights to modify that structure or vehicle.
  3. Anyone may move vehicles and minifigs within the cityscape without fear of reprisal, but no one may remove vehicles or minifigs from the display unless s/he put them there.

It helps that my kids are old and mature enough to have some respect for private property. Each has a smaller table in his room set aside for personal building that is sacrosanct. Bringing something to Bricklyn is an agreement to share.

It also helps that the cabinets keep Bricklyn about 40 inches off the ground; our rare infant or toddler visitor can’t reach what s/he shouldn’t take! We keep a step stool handy for our small friends (usually around kindergarten age) to see the display and join in the play. So far, our youngest participants have shown a sort of reverential respect for what we’ve built, and they’ve played by the rules.

Mother’s Day is coming up, which is one of those holidays when I just might be lucky enough to receive a new Lego City building. If I do, I’ll build it in Bricklyn.