The Art of Tinkering

Open the junk drawer and see what your kids can create. it&s not only fun, it&s good for their brains.
By Melody Warnick
Oct 06, 2014



The Art of Tinkering

Oct 06, 2014

When 6-year-old Soren Walck of Kutztown, PA, wants to see what makes an old phone work, he runs for the tinkering kit he got for his birthday from his mom, Kathleen, a former art teacher. Far from turning him into a destroyer, the shiny red toolbox — tricked out with pliers, screwdrivers, a hammer, a hand drill with interchangeable bits, and other small tools — has rendered Soren a budding MacGyver. He’s used a plastic yogurt cup to create a backyard bird catcher and designed a hamster run for the family pet from cardboard and plastic mesh. Not every project works out of course, but the power, says his mom, is in the creating: “Having the freedom and space to take things that he sees in his environment and turn them into something that he sees in his imagination gives him self-confidence and independence.”

Channeling that spark of creative problem-solving and invention is at the heart of what Karen Wilkinson, the director of the Tinkering Studio at San Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum, describes as “thinking with your hands.” Tinkering, a mix of exploring and experimenting, is “all about building tangible things through engineering, math, and art,” adds Wilkinson, whether kids are designing homemade machines, creating art from recyclables, or just puttering around.

Tinkering’s value is most evident when kids follow their curiosity to construct something new. “Having kids see their work and watch their skills grow over time boosts confidence and competence,” Wilkinson says. Other benefits include: heightened creativity, longer attention spans, stronger problem-solving skills, and an increased ability to persist through frustration.

Sound good? Then get your family started with these tips and fun projects.

Setting Up Shop

Create a Tinkering Toolbox
Stock yours with scissors, a low-temperature glue gun, wire cutters, and safety equipment like goggles and work gloves. Consider a small hammer and screwdriver, too. With supervision, kids as young as 4 can use both, says Kami Wilt, founder of the Austin Tinkering School in Austin, TX, while 10-year-olds can be taught to safely manage a saw or a power drill, as long as an adult shows them how to use it — for instance, by clamping down wood with a vise. Whatever tools you’re working with, make sure they’re in top shape. “Weak, dull tools can be frustrating and sometimes more dangerous,” says Wilt.

Leverage your Junk
One person’s trash is a gradeschooler’s treasure. Wilt stashes corks, string, Popsicle sticks, plastic lids, cerealbox toys, wood scraps, cardboard, VCR and cassette tapes, and other potential cast-offs into bins. Other items to hang on to: binder clips, string, zip ties, duct tape, and rubber bands. After all, successful tinkering requires a wide range of supplies!

Embrace the Mess
It’s one thing to say you’ll be zen about your kids’ tinkering messes, quite another to actually practice it. If you fear the potential disorganization, designate an out-of-the-way space as a work station, like a corner of the basement or a part of the garage. If space is tight, protect your kitchen table with a sheet of cardboard, or work outside when the weather’s right.

Step Back
The best projects start with “a kid-generated idea,” says Wilkinson. If your child needs inspiration, try a project on the next page. (You can find more ideas at

Wait until your child asks for help or gets upset before you offer advice. When Soren gets frustrated, his mom asks open-ended questions like “What materials do you think would work for that?” If an experiment isn’t gelling, she recommends focusing on the activity’s positives (like the cool tools your kid got to use). Remember that kids learn through failure.

Tinkering Projects to Try

Going Geo
Good for ages 4 to 8
To start little ones on tool use, let them create a geoboard, a square board with pegs. First, kids paint a square of scrap wood (½" plywood works well), then hammer nails in even rows to form a 3 x 3, 5 x 5, or 10 x 10 grid. (No worries if younger kids put nails wherever they want.) Afterward, stretch rubber bands or string from nail to nail to form shapes or make cool designs. 

What it teaches kids: The boards themselves are great for helping kids master math concepts like area, perimeter, and multiplication, but making one also requires arithmetic and measuring to get the grid right. Plus, it’s a low-stakes way to practice pounding nails safely.

Machine Creation
Good for ages 6 to 12
Kids love building their own contraptions — especially when they actually work. One to try: a scribble machine (like the one in the photo on p. 26) — part art, part science, and part silly, says Wilkinson, who features this machine (and others) in her book, The Art of Tinkering. Start by connecting a small motor (salvaged from a toy or bought at a hobby shop for a few dollars) to a battery with tape. To weigh down  the motor so it creates a vibration when it runs, attach a piece of clay, a piece of wood, or a glue stick. Next, tape the motor to the top of a plastic yogurt container; then add marker “legs” around the sides of the container. When you turn it on, the motorized machine will shimmy across paper and leave colorful scribbles.

What it teaches kids: By creating a motorized machine, your child will put physics and engineering into practice. She’ll start to think on her feet and feel proud of building something that actually moves.

Daring Disassembly
Good for ages 6 to 12
Don’t toss the ancient talking Elmo — at least not before your kids have a chance to do a little home surgery. “Taking something apart is one of my favorite first tinkering steps,” says Wilkinson, who favors using scissors and tiny screwdrivers to disassemble battery-operated toys like remote-control cars or mechanical plush animals. Old VCRS, CD and DVD players, telephones, or computers are also good candidates if you cut off the plugs and cords first. Just skip microwaves, TVs, and computer monitors, which may contain high-voltage components that can emit a potentially lethal shock.

What it teaches kids: By developing an eye for detail and thinking like an engineer, kids can figure out how appliances fit together — and maybe even discover why an old toy doesn’t work anymore.

Time For a Class?
If your child has outgrown the space and supplies you can provide at home, look for a workshop, camp, or afterschool program that scores high on the following:

Each child should come up with her own ideas and figure out her own way of solving problems instead of doing cookie-cutter science projects.

"Wow" Factor
Little projects are fun, but kids love to work together on something big that they can’t do on their own, like a tree house, boat, or go-kart.

Your kid should use actual tools to make something that really runs.

Before touching any tool, each child should learn how to use it properly — which includes knowing when and how to wear safety glasses and work gloves.

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Photo Credit: Melody Warnick

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