Bob Nickles has volunteered nearly 1,000 hours since 2011.
What’s your background?
I grew up in New Jersey and went into the Marine Corps for four years
after high school. Then I worked as a laborer, in digital electronics
and as a welder and steel fitter. I went back to school and got a
degree in elementary education and taught second grade in one of the
poorest districts in San Antonio for four years. I worked as a handyman
and janitor at the Children’s Museum in Pawtucket in 1991, before it
moved to Providence. I fixed exhibits and when kids saw me with the
tool belt, they would come and talk to me. Later I went back to
steelwork but, when I retired a few years ago, I knew I needed something
to do and came back to the Museum. I think being involved with kids is
the best job in the world for me.
How did you play as a kid?
With anything we could find! It was a big deal when we got roller
skates – the kind that you could put on your shoes – and we skated on
the dead-end street in front of our apartment. For 5 cents, you could
buy a big box of chalk and we would draw giants and dinosaurs on the tar
street. It was beautiful – just like a blackboard, it was that
smooth. We’d go into the woods and play anything – we were kids of the
streets. We had a
lovely growing up. When I was 10, we moved to Long Island and lived
near the beach, which was great – the beach is always different, the
water is always changing, there’s always something for a kid to play.
What ways do you like to play in the Museum?
I play what [the kids] are playing, and I try to expand it in some way.
An example: I came into Water Ways and some of the smaller white pipe
was in the pool with the big pipe stuff and I thought to myself, "that’s
in the wrong place." Then I realized I was thinking like an adult, but I
should act like an adult and think like a kid! So I made some
structures with the smaller pipes and left them there to see what
would happen. When I came back later in the day, the structures were still
I’m always playing looking for a slightly different angle. The Water
Ways pools are so curved that the waterwheels won’t sit in them. So I
stacked three of them on the floor, on top of the drain. Two girls were
right on it with watering cans, and the water flew out. By observing
kids, I can see what they might need.
What have you gotten from the experience?
I’m thinking more, I’m discovering more, I’m making little inventions at
home. Just practical things. I’m honestly more creative. Now when I
see a problem, I think up something new, and that’s new for me. That’s
happened because I’ve been here, I’m sure of it. It’s been an epiphany,
and kids are the catalyst.