When it comes to play, Isabel (3) sits in the driving seat – and she has a team of supportive, enthusiastic adults at her side, including her dad.

Playcentre bubbles with interesting, vibrant people, big and small, and Jessica and Isabel from Linwood Playcentre are two examples. Mum, Jessica, is warm, animated and intuitive. Daughter, Isabel (nearly 4), is industrious, creative and determined. ‘Very determined’, says mum. As Jessica explains, ‘Isabel is always very clear about what she wants to do and how she wants to do it’. And, lately she has been busy building a car.

When it comes to play, Isabel is used to being in the driving seat – exactly where kids ought to be. Rewind three years and she and Jessica started at Babies CanPlay in Rangiora. Then, when the family moved to Christchurch, Isabel graduated from Babies CanPlay and started at Linwood Playcentre.

Isabel’s interest in cars was ignited at Playcentre when she spotted some logs at the carpentry table that had bark around the edges. ‘She got a slice and nailed three milk bottle tops to it, and then announced, “it’s a steering wheel for a car”’. After session, Isabel brought the steering wheel home, and in the weeks and months that followed she proceeded to build her car. One part at a time.
Jessica asks Isabel to explain what she has been doing. ‘I got a banana box and glued a bit in the back’, the nearly-four-year-old explains. ‘So I could lean on it, so that I could actually drive.’ Then, pointing to the wipers, Isabel says, ‘they are screwed here and here, so I can turn this bit and wash the car.’ As for the motor, she points to a piece of fabric: ‘what I need to do is hammer this out then put it back under there… It will make a nice fluttering sound when I drive.’

This is a story about connections – which is ‘a recurring interest for Isabel’, says Jessica. But it is about more than simply attaching cardboard, fabric and wood with glue and nails: it is about strengthening a special connection between Isabel and her dad, Brent, who suffers from Motor Neuron Disease.

Brent’s good friend Barry, an engineer, visits regularly and helps Isabel to put the components together. Brent watches on – able to engage vicariously in the all-absorbing enterprise. ‘Brent says that Barry gets to interact with Isabel in ways he would like to, but can’t’, explains Jessica.

Inspired perhaps by her dad’s electric wheelchair, Isabel’s machine is no less complex or innovative in her sparkling eyes. In its own fantastic way, Isabel’s car affords Brent access to a world that would otherwise be beyond his reach – the endless world of play as it evolves in his beloved daughter’s mind.

This three-year-old car-builder is creative and ambitious and has the confidence and resolve to carry out her plans. Added to this, she has a rich array of resources at her disposal: she has wood and paint, hammers and nails, yes; but, most importantly, Isabel has a team of enthusiastic, supportive grown-ups on hand.

And the thrill and satisfaction of building today – while Barry hands her the tools for the job and Brent looks on – will, as she gets older, imbue memories of her childhood with a golden hue.
Going forward, as they say, this project does not lack momentum – despite lacking wheels. Of course, when Jessica asks her daughter what her car still needs, Isabel makes no mention of wheels. ‘It needs a roof’, she remarks.

Isabel’s is a mind-in-motion, and this banana-box car promises to take her and her passengers wherever they’d like to go – with or without wheels. But, what’s more important than any destination is the promise of adventure that it represents and the process of creating it.