Hobbies For Kids: Building A 3D Model Space Ship

When your child wants to make a model space ship, where do you start? Learn how to plan and build a unique homemade space ship from your child's fantasies.

Rockets and outer space are part of many children's fantasies. From "Buck Rogers" to "Space Ghost" to "Star Wars" and beyond, popular media images are often part of their interstellar visions.

Before planning and designing a model space ship with your child, there are several questions to ask your child. First and most importantly, does the child already have an idea--a picture in his head or even on paper--of what he wants the space ship to look like? If so, you may simply need to create his vision in real life. Or, modify the design to suit available parts and how you'll attach the parts to each other.

If your child doesn't have a clear picture of what he'd like to build, there are many points to consider. The first is how the child defines a good space ship. Should it look real--like a space ship sent up by the U.S., Russia, or another country--or from a fantasy? Should the space ship resemble one in a particular movie or TV show? Is he dreaming of a "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" or "Harry Potter" style car that can enter outer space, or something funky from "Mystery Science Theater"?

You'll need to know whether your child wants a big space ship, or something small and ornate. It would be too bad if you two created a space ship using a foil-covered mailing tube and cut cardboard, and then discovered that he really wanted something that would fit in a pocket of his backpack, and was hand painted in X-Files green.

Time can be important when you're working with a child. A younger child may want a five-minute project using an empty paper towel tube and a couple of bathroom cups. An older child may be satisfied with nothing less than a full-day project that he makes on his own, with metal parts from the hardware or automotive store.

The kind of adhesives (or other attachment methods) that you use may determine the materials used in the ship. A preschooler may work best with white glue and tape, while a gifted older child could want to use industrial strength glues and wire to attach the parts together. A high school student may want to add battery-powered colored lights and noisemakers salvaged from thrift shop toys, and quirky metal elements secured with a soldering tool.

The function of the completed space ship is also a consideration. For example, a space ship that will be used in enthusiastic play among energetic children needs to be more durable than a clever, futuristic design that's intended for display at a science fair or art show.

Will the space ship seem to fly, gliding as it's suspended from several feet of string suspended between two walls? Is this a fancy housing for a model rocket, and will you need to think about how flammable the materials and adhesives are?

Once you've established the goal, you can start planning. You'll want to consult your budget and the materials at hand. If you can wait a week or so to build the space ship, you'll have time to collect odds and ends that might work for your project. Here are some suggestions, and possible sources:

PAPER AND KITCHEN DISCARDS: Cardboard tubes (paper towels, toilet paper, mailing tubes) and plastic ones (containers for toothbrushes, some pens, craft beads). Containers such as egg carton in paper or foam, and yogurt cups. Decorative papers from gifts and junk mail. Twist ties.

PLASTIC PIECES AND PACKAGING: Stiff plastic packaging from irregular-shaped items such as toys and hardware. Individual bubble-style packaging from vitamins such as some iron pills, and over-the-counter medications.

METAL AND REFLECTIVE ITEMS: Foils of all kinds, from the kitchen to packaging from junk mail and from computer parts. Cans from food items such as vegetables and some fruits. Heavy foil and metal parts from juice cans and frozen dinner items. Wire and foil-like tape, including duct tape. Discarded CDs. Odds and ends from the workbench area, or the garage. Bits of automotive parts from parking lots.

OTHER MATERIALS: Tape of all kinds, from masking tape (you can paint over it) to holographic tape (especially at holidays), to variations on the classic duct tape. Wood scraps from the local lumberyard or your own discards. Fabric and bits of paper, streamers, or other decor. Quirky additions from the hobby shop or crafts store, such as battery-powered holiday lights, figures, and odd details such elements for an on-board vegetable garden that can be seen through a clear plastic window in the ship. With some paint or other embellishments, Christmas tree ornaments--the shiny globe or ball kind--can be nice additions to your design.

You'll also want to consider glues and stronger adhesives, for projects with older children. Wood glue and white glue are good choices for paper, while solder and industrial adhesives such as E-6000 are good for metal if a supervised child is old enough to work with these, or watch an adult assemble the more tricky parts. Solder and industrial glues should be used only in well-ventilated areas, and with a drop cloth or other surface covering to protect your desk or work table.

Hot glue--particularly the low temperature kind--can be fast and useful with older children and adult supervision. But, if you are using rubber, Styrofoam, or some plastic parts, you'll want adhesives that won't melt them.

With your materials assembled, it's time to plan your approach to this project. You may want to sketch the finished ship, generally or in precise detail. If you're putting together metal pieces or elements that will fit "just so," you may want to use graph paper and a ruler to plan precise measurements and placement.

Or, you may prefer to start with the fuselage and improvise with the wonderful parts you've gathered.

For most children, a space ship needs to have a long, perhaps skinny body, a pointed end or nose, and fins or tripod-style base. Doors and windows may be optional, as is something suggesting an engine or flames at the base of the space ship.

To find more precise plans, the children's section of your public library has books about building homemade models of all kinds, including ideas for space ship designs. Many libraries use the Dewey decimal system to organize their nonfiction collection, and crafts books are often in the 745 section of the library.

Also, publications--from the Sunday comics to homeschooling books and magazines--may have great suggestions for space ship projects. Hobby shops can offer plans that include parts or models that they sell. Toyshops sometimes offer kits that include a variety of mix-and-match elements for imaginative models.

Planning your space ship and collecting the parts of it may take far longer than the construction of the model space ship itself. But, no matter what your approach, this can be a great project for adults and children alike.

Your only limits are your dreams, and today's homemade space ship by a kid who is wild about outer space, may be the spark that leads to a career in space exploration or ideas for a future science fiction novelist.

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