A Call to Tinkering

It’s been a busy summer for me this year: William and I were married four weeks ago, and when we returned I began working for the reDiscover Center’s Pasadena expansion of their Tinkering Camp project.

The idea behind tinkering camp is to teach kids to use tools, give them access to materials and help them generate ideas, and then just let them do their thing. The staff make sure everyone is using the tools safely, and we step in to help hold things together or advise when kids are stuck. But the ideas, the construction, the process all belong to the kids. Not every project is successful, and that is part of the point, but a lot of really, really cool stuff comes out of this environment.

Robot costume from cardboard at tinkering camp
One of our campers in the robot costume he and his team designed and made together. Yes, there is a tiny wooden robot taped to the head. It’s meta.

I went to a few “art” camps as a kid, and what I remember is this: the instructor had a sample project, and we all reproduced the sample project under his or her guidance. We made a dozen three-foot-tall green cardboard velociraptors, for example. Identical round clocks in woodworking class. I had no interest in making a clock at age 12, I hated it when it was finished, and the only thing I remember about the class was the endless sanding. That, and the fact that the only time I ever skipped class in my whole goody two-shoes childhood was to get out of yet another boring hour of sanding this project I couldn’t have cared less about.

My parents paid a lot of money for this.

At tinkering camp, we teach 8-year-olds to safely use power drills and hand saws, and they make something that’s exciting to them.

It’s tempting for me, when thinking about teaching a skill, to focus on a particular project of my own design that students of differing levels can all complete. I like the challenge of devising such projects, and as an instructor, I feel a responsibility to offer guidance and input at every moment and to ensure that everyone leaves with a project that meets my standards. And I suspect that, for a shorter format, these pre-programmed projects may in fact be ideal, especially if there’s a little flexibility built in. But watching kids explore their ideas in an unrestricted space is terrifically fun for us, and it is liberating to let go of responsibility for the quality of the finished project. For them, it is a growing experience. Building a project of their own design gives them visible satisfaction. When they are able to bring their visions more or less to life, they are so proud; dealing with challenges and failures can lead to frustration, but we also see this as valuable. As they progress, they become better at coping with these challenges on the fly, and sometimes they even try to plan things out beforehand. As adults, staff and parents regularly express regret at not having had such an environment as kids; suggestions have popped up about offering tinkering workshops for adults.

Although I never had a woodshop to tinker in as a kid, I did have sewing tools and I used them to explore three-dimensional space. I had some kits, but I also had time to explore my own ideas, and over the years I abandoned pre-packaged projects and worked entirely on bringing my ideas to life. It’s still exceedingly satisfying to have an idea, come up with a plan to make it real, and then follow through to the finished project.

plush pegasus horse tinkering sewing
A project I experimented into existence at 16.

It is also exceedingly satisfying to watch kids embark on this adventure. If your teaching environment can in any way accommodate such a free-form process, I encourage you to give tinkering a try. Free them — and yourself — from your expectations. See what they do.


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