For ages, children have made things out of unconventional materials and have taken things apart. Tinkering can satisfy a child's natural curiosity about life and how things work. Tinkering is, without a doubt, lots of fun—but what are the benefits of the “demolition crew” running around your house or in our classrooms?
Above: Self-portraits made of materials found in a Tinker tray on a Styrofoam base.
(1st–3rd grade students)
Tinkering involves open-ended exploration with different materials. It develops the capacity for innovative problem solving skills, as a group or individually, and stimulates creativity and critical thinking. Students are required to think like inventors: creating a plan and then adjusting it if and when the conditions change. Tinkering develops grit and perseverance; students must be flexible and resourceful when instructions are not available or do not exactly match the problem that is being addressed. Tinkering also offers a great opportunity for the development of fine motor skills in younger students, involving the coordination of small muscles in the fingers and hands. Strong fine motors skills are necessary for delicate tasks, such as writing and cutting.
The long-term benefits of tinkering time are immense. Tinkering is not just a hands-on activity—it is also a way to develop thoughts and ideas that can lead to the next step, whether that is a more detailed design drawing or a possible prototype of a future innovation. In many ways, tinkering resembles cooperative learning and project-based learning, both of which are proven to have long-term positive effects.
Above: Students take apart an old sewing machine, using a variety of hand tools. Tinkering activities build peer relationships in children of all ages. It supports teamwork, collaboration, and the development of confidence, while stimulating creativity.
At NMS, all students are learning how to use basic hand tools safely and correctly during the woodworking unit offered in Design Lab, which starts in 1st grade. Many students start earlier if they choose to take a woodworking class as an after-school enrichment activity.
Tinkering is offered in a variety of ways in the NMS Design Lab class. During the Up-cycling unit, students were challenged to create a planter out of plastic materials that were donated by the community. The students love the idea of giving a “second life” to unused and unwanted objects as a way of protecting the environment and reusing what could otherwise be considered waste.
Today, much of what we ask of students in STEM classes has to do with problem solving and collaboration. However, in order to successfully problem-solve, students need to be familiar with a variety of physical materials, in addition to being flexible, creative, and working well with peers. Tinkering develops these skills and abilities. It is a stepping-stone for what students will face as they grow and continue on in their education. Students are increasingly engaged in very structured and busy school and home lives, which does not allow for the development of the valuable skills and growth mindset that come with unstructured time—as well as time to tinker. We should make a conscious effort to give them that time!
So what will you do the next time you find that your child has taken apart his old game? Or when she’d rather build a lemonade stand from cardboard boxes than play with the new kitchen set you bought for her? Encourage it! When you allow your child to take something apart or build something of their own from scratch, it “cures” their interest with feelings of confidence and discovery. Tinkering is, by definition, “to work with something in an unskilled or experimental manner,” and it is incredibly valuable to the development of the human mind.
Tinker Tray: Creating a tinkering tray is a great way to introduce tinkering to children for the first time. It encourages them to explore and create in an open-ended way, with various materials to manipulate and put to use. A tinker tray fosters independence, problem solving, and promotes creativity and decision-making.