As an elementary school science teacher, I find this not easy to admit, but some of my students’ most rewarding and meaningful classes over the years have happened when I have taken a back seat and let my students “tinker.” Whether they want to dam up a stream during a water study, build nests with mud and sticks while investigating local bird populations, or, after completing a set of Lego models, independently design and build spinning Lego tops from which energetic battles ensue, students love having time to explore and investigate independently.
This fall, for example, I let a third-grade class have a “free choice period.” I gave them a list of things that they could do, such as making crystals, handling pet rocks or having a dance party. Instead, they came up with their own idea: they wanted to make boats. So, I gathered materials and allowed them to use handsaws and hot glue guns (which they’d already been taught how to use safely).
Of course, many teachers allow and encourage students to engage in creative play: we know that young children need the chance to explore, daydream, imagine, play and build without an outcome or even a product in mind—a place free from failure, because failure is not even part of the equation. But this often takes place outside the classroom.
So, when given time to tinker with their boats, they tried out various materials and shapes, used different tools and designs, and bypassed the standard engineering process of researching components and drawing up plans. The students were self-motivated, engaged, and because there was no fear of getting it “wrong” or risking a bad grade, they collaborated and shared ideas. This is an important lesson, as communication and collaboration are such an integral component in the world of science. For a teacher, this was a joy to witness.
My own love of tinkering began during childhood, when my parents moved from New Jersey to northern New Hampshire back in the 1960s. We moved to an area called (improbably enough) Tinkerville. There my years were full of unstructured time and experiences as we tried, as greenhorns, to live a fairly self-sufficient farming lifestyle. Among the many important influences on me was an uncle, who was a consummate tinkerer himself (later, during his retirement years he became a master of “puttering around,” a well-known offshoot of tinkering).
We were also part of a community filled with loggers and farmers, who by necessity were always tinkering with different ways of putting chains on log skidders or finding the best way to stack hay bales or getting a balky engine to fire up. I remember well the farmer down the road who, when the fuel tank in his tractor started to leak, simply took a plastic gas container, bungeed it to the side of the tractor, and fitted it with a long fuel line—a quick, efficient fix by an experienced tinkerer. Those years left a lasting impression on me and certainly influenced my career as a science teacher and the way I approach teaching.
Tinkering is not a word that many educators use, and for good reason: parents and administrators have come to expect us to use certain educational buzzwords when discussing our strategies, approaches, lessons, concepts or skills that are to be taught. To an elementary teacher, there seems to be a steady push to engage students at a younger and younger age with more structured and teacher-driven processes, and so I am increasingly worried about their lack of unstructured time. Between busy home lives and schools that expect more of children at younger ages, students are not given the chance to just tinker.
As an educator for over a quarter of a century, I urge parents and educators to consider giving young children the opportunity and time to help establish a foundation of creativity and imagination. Tinkering is, by definition, “to work with something in an unskilled or experimental manner.”
Alec Foege makes the point in his book, The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great, that in the past, traditionally, tinkering was considered an important “skill” and a stepping stone to creating innovations. And Stephen Hawking, one of the most creative scientific innovators of all time, praised tinkering in his own book Brief Answers to the Big Questions. "As a boy,” he wrote, “I was passionately interested in how things work. In those days, it was more straightforward to take something apart and figure out the mechanics. I was not always successful in reassembling toys I had pulled to pieces, but I think I learned more than a boy or girl today would, if he or she tried the same trick on a smartphone.”
Hawking’s ability to daydream and tinker with both physical objects and ideas helped him become one of the greatest scientists that ever lived. Not many of us have the ability or freedom to spend time in this way, but we should consider it an essential and valuable part of our children's lives. Yes, we give our children and our students kits that allow them to construct wonderful models of a spacecraft or Ferris wheel. Some can even be programmed to make sounds or to stop and start—but all of this just requires kids to follow step-by-step directions. Why not allow them some free time to just imagine and create instead?
Much of what we ask students in STEM classes has to do with problem solving—but in order to problem-solve you need to know about the physical materials and systems you’re dealing with, and you need to be flexible and creative. Tinkering develops precisely these skills and abilities. It is a stepping stone for what kids will face in higher grades and college—in maker spaces, innovation labs, fab labs, or science and engineering courses. Tinkering is not just a physical activity; it is also a way to develop thoughts and ideas that lead to the next step, whether that is a more detailed drawing or prototype, or even pure scientific research.
Our children and students are increasingly engaged in a very structured and busy world that does not allow for the development of the valuable skills and growth mindset that come with time to tinker.
We should give them that time.