I currently have several toddler-aged nieces and nephews, so I get a front-row seat to watch their development and behavior. One of my big takeaways from being in this position is that young kids get a lot of joy out of playing with seemingly boring non-toy household objects—possibly more joy than they get from playing with toys. My nieces are currently spending a large portion of their lives putting lids on jars and then removing them. They haven’t quite got down the action of a screw-on lid, but despite their obvious frustration with this they continue to spend literal hours trying to make it happen. Meanwhile my nephew (who’s younger) is incredibly interested in spinning wheels. Though he’s easily distracted by other exciting things happening nearby, the amount of times that he’ll revisit a spinning wheel in a five-minute period is kind of incredible.
Getting to watch these kids grow up under my nose has definitely given me a new perspective on babies and toddlers, and it was extremely helpful in designing this project. For those who don’t know, a toddler busy board is a board filled with non-toy contraptions that are mounted in place and perform basic functions. Most items on these busy boards are hardware—handles, light switches, and chain locks. When I was growing up, my doctor had one of these busy boards mounted to the base of an aquarium. It was the highlight of going to the doctor. I think there might be nothing more satisfying as a kid than being able to flip a switch back and forth as many times as you want—unless, of course, it’s the moment you successfully unscrew a lid from a jar.
My goal in creating this busy board was to design something that wouldn’t just appeal to one kid at a certain age. I wanted to include extremely simple mechanisms, like metal hooks that slide back and forth on a handle, and more complex items like a key and a lock. This way the board can be utilized for as long as possible with lots of kids. It can also be used like the jars to encourage that young, determined spirit to keep pushing until they have that breakthrough moment (the key and lock is already turning into that for one of my nieces). Feel free to adjust your busy board to fit the needs of the kid(s) in your life and to utilize whatever extra hardware you might have lying around.
Step 1: Select and purchase hardware
There are endless variations for making a busy board, but we wanted to reduce the need to shop in multiple places, so everything for our busy board came from Dunn Lumber (either directly or from hardware previously purchased and not used for other projects). Here’s the list of hardware pieces and the items we used to secure them to the board, as shown in the photo from top left to bottom right:
- A pull handle with “8” hooks
- A door chain lock
- A pair of soft door stops
- A combination padlock (secured to the board with a rope loop)
- A faucet
- A window sash lock
- A hook and eye
- A 1x4 door hinged and secured with a bar bolt (a variety of interesting things can be put underneath this door)
- Two pulleys secured with staples and some screw eyes to create a pulley system
- A white spring door stop
- A switch
- A keyed lock
- A barrel slide bolt
- A knob
- A door security guard
Step 2: Cut wood
Use a tape measure to measure and mark the specific lengths, then cut all pieces to size with a handsaw.
Out of the one-by-four, measure and cut four 16” lengths for the sides of each half of the board and four 12 ¾” lengths for the ends of each half. Also measure and cut one 6” length and one 2” length for the door and one 1 1/2” length for the latch. For the one-by-four, you can use a miter box as a guide for making your cuts. Clamp your board in place to make things easier.
For the one-by-twelve, measure and cut two 16” lengths to make up the two halves of the busy board. Because this board is too wide for the miter box, you’ll need to cut it freehand. Use a speed square or a combination square to draw a line straight across the board. You can also use a square as a guide to get your cut started.
Step 3: Sand
Now is the time I would normally encourage you to get away with minimal sanding, but because this is a child’s toy I’m going to instead break out the power sander and make sure that every piece is smooth and splinter free! I used 150-grit sandpaper for this.
Step 4: Assemble the two halves of the board
Each half of the busy board is going to be made from one one-by-twelve board, two 16” one-by-four sides, and two 12 ¾” one-by-four end pieces. First, pre-drill along the bottom edge of the 16” one-by-four sides near both ends. You don’t need to use a countersink bit here, but I’m using one because they’ve become my recent obsession in DIY. Secure the one-by-fours to the one-by-twelve with 1 ½” screws. Using a clamp to hold the pieces together makes this step easier to tackle with one person. Once the sides are secured, you can flip the board right side up and secure the end piece to the tops of the two side pieces—pre-drilling before driving the screws to prevent splitting. Repeat with the opposite end. Repeat the entire step until you have two halves of your busy board.
Step 5: Add hinges and latch
Now we’re going to attach the two halves together so that they can open and shut like a briefcase. Lay the two halves sideways on your work surface with the insides facing each other so they create one box. Position hinges over the seam between the two halves and secure in place.
Grab your 1” one-by-four and pre-drill a hole at either end. Position the piece on the inside of one of the halves, flush with the edge of the one-by-four side. Secure in place with screws and secure the male side of a double roller catch on top. Attach the female side of the catch to the male side and then close the two halves of the board almost all the way. Use a pencil to mark on the opposite half where the screw holes of the roller catch line up. Secure the female side of the roller catch in place and adjust the position until the catch is fully engaged.
Step 6: Arrange hardware
Take all of your hardware out of its packaging and begin to arrange it on both sides of the board, taking into consideration how things will hang once the box is set upright. Also keep in mind how the two boards will fit together once closed, and make sure that no two pieces of hardware are running into each other. Any larger profile items should be placed opposite lower profile items.
Once you like the look of everything, mark screw placement with a pencil and grab a quick photo so you can remember exactly where everything went.
Step 7: Secure hardware with screws
For the hardware that comes with ¾” screws and can be easily mounted to a flat surface, secure in place as directed on the package. For us, this was the pull handle with the 8-hooks (make sure the hooks are on the handle before you secure it to the board), the chain door lock, the keyed lock, and the barrel slide bolt.
For hardware with screws longer than ¾”, and for hardware that didn’t come with its own screws, you’ll need to replace those screws with ¾” screws in corresponding colors (if you care) and in the appropriate thickness. For us, this was the rope loop for the padlock, the window sash lock, and the door security guard.
Attach the spring door stop to the 1x4 side following the directions on the package. Side note: I grew up with one of these spring door stops in my room (I used to love to bend it and let it spring back and forth), and I had absolutely no idea it was attached to the wall with such a simple mechanism.
Step 8: Secure hardware with adhesives
This is a nice, easy step. The soft door stops have their own adhesive backs and just need to be firmly pressed in place.
The cord switch should be secured to the board and the one-by-four side with superglue.
Step 9: Secure hardware with pre-drilling
For the screw eyes and the hook and eye, pre-drill with a drill bit that is the same width of the screw shaft minus the threads (for us this was a 1/8” drill bit). Use a piece of tape around the top of the drill bit to make sure that you don’t drill through the back side of the wood.
For the knob, pick a drill bit that’s slightly bigger than the threads of the bolt (for us this was an 11/64” drill bit). Pre-drill a hole all the way through the wood, and thread the bolt through the back side. To prevent splintering on the back side, I first pre-drilled with a smaller drill bit from the front side of the board, and then drilled with the larger drill bit from the back side. Use a screwdriver to hold the bolt in place while you twist on the knob.
For the keyed lock, add a screw eye with some string to hold the key in place.
Step 10: Secure hardware with staples
The pulleys are secured in place by hammering staples around the loop at the top. I found that two staples on each pulley helped control the direction that the pulley faces. Make sure that the bottom pulley is facing down and the top pulley is facing up. Cut a string and thread it through the pulleys and the screw eyes and tie it together to create one continuous loop.
Step 11: Add door
The last gadget to add to the busy board is the one-by-four door at the bottom of the board. First secure hinges to the end of the 6” piece and then secure the hinges to the board. Next secure the striker plate (the slot that the bolt slides into to lock) to the end of the 2” piece. I found that this piece was slightly too tall for the bolt on top of the one-by-four to easily slide into, so I had to make some adjustments. I was able to shorten the striker plate slightly by clamping it on the edge of the table and cutting off about a ⅛” with a hacksaw. This was surprisingly easy to do, and because the cut edge will be facing into the wood, it didn’t create any unsafe sharp edges. Pre-drill the end of the 2” one-by-four before driving the screws in place to secure the plate. Slide the bolt into the striker plate and then secure on top of the 6” piece. Pre-drill through the 2” piece and then secure that piece to the board with screws, making sure that the bolt can easily slide in and out of the striker plate.
Once the door is secured in place, get creative with what to put behind the door. You can glue in a family photo, wood burn a message, add a mirror, or create some textures with fine sandpaper, fabric, or vinyl (think "Pat the Bunny").
Step 12: Add a carrying handle
The final step is to add a carrying handle to the outside of the case. Measure down the length of the board and mark 6” from either end. Place your handle inside these measurements and secure in place with screws.
We broke out our Dunn DIY brand and branded the door as a final touch. And lastly, I added some sticky protective bumpers to the bottom ends so that it’s less likely to slide around and the floor is protected. You might want to consider getting two packs and also adding them to the hinge side so that you can store it handle-side-up without the hinges resting on your floor.
We hope this project keeps your toddler entertained and allows you some time to yourself. For more kid-friendly DIYs, try these DIY kids blocks, this A-frame tent or something off this list of fun projects to do at home.