Calling All Tinkerers!

January 26, 2016

By Tiffany Kwong

After reading Niña’s recent blog post about the Maker movement and Maker Faires, I was reminded of the importance of hands-on learning, making, and tinkering for kids in and outside of the classroom.  In elementary school, I remember my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Smith, presented our class with the Egg Drop Challenge.  The rules were simple; using household items, package a raw egg in such a way that if dropped from the roof of a one-story building, it would survive unscathed and unbroken.  My classmates used all kinds of materials including cardboard boxes, Styrofoam peanuts, bubble wrap, masking tape, drinking straws, pantyhose, and even uncooked rice!  One by one, we watched from the ground floor as Mr. Smith carelessly flung each of our eggs off of the roof.  What excitement!

It was such a simple experiment, and yet, so engaging, thrilling, and fun, which brings me back to the importance of learning-through-doing.  Our current education system relies too heavily on standardized testing and content delivery, and arguably, not enough on project-based and experiential learning.  However, with the rise of the Maker movement, we are beginning to see schools, libraries, children’s museums, and science museums respond by creating making environments or “makerspaces” and incorporating making and tinkering into their curricula and programs.

But, what is tinkering?  Tinkering is an approach to making; it is curiosity-driven, it helps us understand how things in our everyday lives work, and inspires us to innovate and “think outside of the box.”  In their article, “Designing for Tinkerability,”  Resnik and Rosenbaum (2013) define tinkering as:

“A valid and valuable style of working, characterized by a playful, exploratory, iterative style of engaging with a problem or project.  When people are tinkering, they are constantly trying out ideas, making adjustments and refinements, then experimenting with new possibilities over and over and over. […] Tinkering can be hard work, and sometimes it might not seem like play.  But there is always a playful spirit underlying the tinkering process.”

For children, the values of tinkering are seemingly endless.  To start, it can create venues for children to:

  1. Think creatively.  Tinkering encourages children to reimagine everyday items and utilize them in new or uncommon ways.  Suddenly, those corks from Saturday night are no longer bottle stoppers, but are now floatation devices for a mini boat!
  2. Embrace setbacks.  Tinkering also allows children to learn how to accept unforeseen challenges.  In fact, those from the Maker movement encourage the celebration of setbacks in their designs and view them simply as drafts or iterations of the final design/product.  Things do not always work out the way we intended and tinkering gives kids a chance to take risks and develop persistence toward achieving their goals in a safe environment.
  3. Problem-solve.  Along with unplanned challenges, tinkering provides children opportunities to work through their frustrations, think critically about the issue at hand, and confront the challenge.  If a child’s balloon-powered vehicle does not travel as far as she hypothesized, encourage her to assess why it did not travel farther.  What worked and what didn’t work?  What are ways she can adapt or redesign the vehicle to increase its distance?  Perhaps using materials that are lighter in weight, repositioning key components, or redesigning it completely from a four-wheeled vehicle to a three-wheeled one.  The possibilities are endless!
  4. Take ownership.  Such opportunities for problem-solving and overcoming obstacles provide venues for children to take ownership of the entire process.  There is a kind of freedom that comes with tinkering, which allows children to create things from their own imagination, explore their options, make educated decisions, and feel empowered while doing so.
  5. Have fun.  The value of tinkering relies less on the final product than the actual process.  Learning by doing can be fun and exhilarating especially when it’s driven by designing, creating, refining, testing, and analyzing.  It creates a connection between imagination and real-world application.  What can be more rewarding than making your ideas become a reality?

After all, as Make Magazine founder and Maker Faire creator, Dale Dougherty reminds us, “We are all makers.”

Here a couple of TEDTalks to help inspire the tinkerer in you:

Jay Silver’s Hack a banana, make a keyboard!

Dale Dougherty’s:  We are Makers.

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