Monday, June 16, 2014

Making the Basement a Fun Zone

A little over a year ago I took the kids to the free open house at a kids gymnastics and play center near us. The space wasn't massive, but they managed to fit in a whole bunch of gear, including trampolines, a ball pit, monkey bars, crash mats and -- most popular of all -- the zip line. It was a lot of fun, but I couldn't see us paying the monthly membership fee plus program fees to bring our kids to this, especially when we could build our own version at home for less money. And so it began.

Our basement was a D-I-Y job and I think I can safely say it was a learning experience for whoever Did-It-Themselves. We figured it was only a matter of time before we would tear out a good portion of it and do it over again. In the meantime, we don't really care if a few holes get drilled here and there. We pulled out the big old TV and one of the couches to clear space and went to work.

The first thing we bought was the trampoline. I had to drive out to Airdrie to grab the very last one on sale at Toys R Us for $180. It is 8 feet across and and the deck is only 18 inches off the ground, so it's perfect for 2 kids (or 3 little kids). We crammed it into one corner so it doesn't totally dominate the room. Scott likes to use it to jump rope. Katie likes to fill it with pillows and stuffies. One time we covered it with a tarp and it doubled as a tent for some downstairs camping.

The next thing was the grocery checkout stand. We got this idea from the Children's Museum in Las Vegas, where they had a miniature grocery store with lots of plastic produce and empty food containers. You could load up your basket and bring it to the checkout stand with a cash register that you could push the buttons. It was quite well done. We saw similar configurations in children's museums in Salt Lake and North Carolina, but they were all missing the best part of a checkout stand: the conveyor belt. I got an old treadmill off Kijiji for free and removed the handles and the motor, adding a hand crank to let kids drive the belt manually. Then I raised it up on a wooden frame to be the right height for kids and added a cash register complete with coins and various bills. It was a bit of an iterative design, and I need to partially disassemble it before I can finish it off, but it is serviceable. We also got a used grocery cart and what seems like a truckload of food items that kids can shop from.

After you finish shopping for food, you need somewhere to keep it and cook it, right? The corner of the office was converted to a kitchen area, with a toy fridge and stove and a sink and all the standard equipment. There is also a little baby bed nearby and a stroller, just in case. This area gets lots of use.

Also in the office is the dress-up center. We have a huge bin full of princess dresses, a trunk full of crowns and tiaras, a drawer full of shoes and another filled with swords, masks and superhero garb. There are A LOT of dresses. Pretty much every princess you can name and then some. Plus, the drawers of items are in a the bottom of a padded bench that doubles as the stand for a puppet theatre -- although the curtains have not yet been created.

We inherited the the old pool table from the cabins that R's family used to own at Windermere. It has a heavy top cover so it served as the kitchen table in R's home for a number of years while they lived in Hawkwood. In addition to playing some somewhat non-level pool, we clip a retractable ping-pong net on it and play mini-table-tennis. Scott is getting pretty good and Katie can hit it if I serve it up just right. I wonder if they will struggle to adjust to a full-size table when they first encounter it.

For Christmas the kids got a cool present from the cousins -- it's a construction set that they can use to build the frame of a fort and then cover it with a blanket to make a fort. It's like having jumbo-sized tinker tots.

It is one thing to do something cool in your basement. It is another to watch yourself do it on TV. So we mounted a TV on a pivot that will swing 270 degrees to be visible from anywhere in the basement. I hooked up our old digital camera to it so you can watch or record yourself doing whatever activity. I stole that idea from the Airborne jump center in Draper that we visited last summer, where they had cameras everywhere on a short time delay, so once you jumped off something, you could immediately check the screens and see what you just did. I will need to work on the technology a bit to make that system a bit more seamless.

In the meantime, there are some cool camera apps that essentially turn your TV into a hall of mirrors. It is hilarious, until someone decides that their little sister is taking up all the good spots to stand. Then it is just another reason for an argument, but creepier than most.

We also can hook up the tablet to the TV and show videos or use the karaoke app that I downloaded. The kids can sing along and copy the dances to a lot of simple children songs, while singing along into two microphones that I have connected into the ghetto blaster that I bought from Costco when I was 12. Yes, that first-generation cd player lives on. I would have thought that the kids would have loved singing away into the microphones, but they seem really self-conscious about it and hardly sing loud enough to pick up on the mic.

And yes, there is a zip line. I picked up the zip line kit online at (I even got a discount because the packaging was damaged). I used a pair of eye-bolts with a lag bolt down the center to anchor each end to the wall, running the line diagonally across the basement. You launch from the top of the treadmill/checkstand and land in the corner on a legit crashmat that we also picked up online.

The slope is very gradual, so small kids have very little velocity coming into the end. Bigger kids figure out how to push off at the top to get a bit more zip. This is probably the most popular activity among Scott's friends. He is a little tired of how they ALWAYS want to go on the zip line, actually, but he's found new ways to make it fun... like crashing through a big pile of empty cardboard boxes and tackling a dummy at the end.

There is a climbing wall, as mentioned. We already had the crashmat in the corner, so all we needed was the wall. I got a starter kit from MEC that had essentially everything to get started but the lumber. I built a frame according to the directions, giving it about a -5 degree incline.

We got a box of another 100 T-nuts so that we could cover more of the wall and have more options in configuring our holds. Scott helped me mark the holes, drill them and hammer in the T-nuts, which was a HUGE mess on the carpet.

There were enough holds in the box to make 2 panels for experienced, fully-grown climbers, but we just jammed them all on our one panel and then used different coloured tape to mark off some harder routes for Scott to try. He has no trouble getting to the top if he can grab any hold he wants, but the marked routes can be quite challenging (read frustrating). Katie was scared to go very high at first, but she is getting braver all the time.

I have a pool noodle wrapped around the end of the zip line cable to minimize interference when climbing -- that metal cable snags hair like nobody's business, but I can remove the zip line cable in just a few seconds if we are going to do a lot of climbing. We are already planning the next panel and we have the wood in the garage.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Oh my goodness! This has got to be the coolest idea ever. You guys are the best parents!