KAREN, Kenya -- Alex Muthuma is just 9 years old. But he can make his own toys.

Sometimes, Alex makes a ball out of rubber bands and plastic bags. Other times he and his 12-year-old sister, Yvonne, make cars from old wires and empty milk cartons.

"I like building things," said Alex, who wears jeans, a warm sweater and Velcro Harry Potter sneakers. "It's nice for playing."

Alex lives in a neighborhood outside Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, where he and his friends can find spare parts to almost anything.

His father has a refrigerator repair workshop in a one-room store next to a busy road. Uncles and family friends work next to his dad in their own stores that sit in a row. They use iron and wood to make chairs, bed frames and sofas, all spread out in front of the stores for passersby to see.

The children often help their fathers build things. Alex worked with his mom and dad until he started school last year.

Children who don't go to school still are taught many skills by their parents.

"My father is smart," Alex said in Swahili, the language of much of eastern Africa. "He taught me many things." Alex also speaks the language of his tribe, Kikuyu.

Many countries in eastern Africa don't offer free public schools for children. Alex's family couldn't afford the tuition. A little more than a year ago, however, the government announced that every child in Kenya could go to school free. More than 1.5 million students, many of them barefoot, showed up in the first week.

Most children in Kenya want to go to school because they get to be with their friends and learn how to read. Plus, they don't have to do as many household chores.

"I don't like washing clothes," Alex said. "That one is the most difficult job for me. Now I don't have to do it as much."

Last year, when he was 8, Alex attended a pre-first-grade program to learn the alphabet and start reading. Now he is in the first grade and he thinks school is fun.

"I like math and learning English," he said. "I want to be a doctor. I can study very hard."

Alex doesn't mind waking up at 6 every morning for school. He drinks some orange juice, eats some bread and walks with many of the neighborhood children for 20 minutes. After school his family eats rice, Alex's favorite food. They also eat cooked green vegetables and pounded corn that looks like mashed potatoes.

Fresh eggs and lamb stew are expensive, so the family eats them only on weekends.

In his free time, Alex loves to ride his bicycle. But two month ago both his tires went flat. His father saved some money and now the bike is getting fixed.

Alex also loves watching American wrestling, which is shown on Kenyan television once a week.

His house has just two rooms, and no running water. But it does have electricity. Alex shares a room with his aunt and his sister. His parents have the other room, which is also the kitchen and living room. The roof is made from tin, and the rain makes a fun puttering noise that makes Alex and his sister feel cozy inside.

Alex would like his own room, but doesn't mind sharing. "It's okay for now because my aunt makes me nice juices," he said. "I like that."

-- Emily Wax

Alex Muthuma, 9, enjoys learning math and English in first grade. He also likes to help his father, Geoffrey Murigu, make things.