Tinkering is more than a collection of activities. It is a constructivist approach to learning based on the premise that all learners are competent and capable of making meaning of the world. As such, everybody belongs in tinkering, and everyone can contribute their own unique perspective to learning through making.
In the last three years, we have focused on the youngest learners by working with early childhood educators throughout California to co-create a set of online professional development modules called STEAM Starters. The course will support center and home-based educators who want to implement a tinkering practice, and will be administered by the California Department of Social Services.
The Tinkering Together multimedia festival and conference was a field building effort aimed at surfacing future research recommendations related to tinkering, making, and STEAM in early childhood. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Tinkering is a versatile whole-learner approach, employing informal learning practices to serve parents and the community ecosystem that support young children.
Whole Child Approach
Fosters all areas of child development and sets children up for lifelong learning. Considered best practice in PK-3 education in California.
Tinkering = equity
The tinkering approach is inherently equitable and benefits both children and educators
Each project had several components that articulated the principles of tinkering as an inclusive practice.
In my daughters’ Spanish Immersion preschool classroom in San Francisco, children have daily opportunities to visit the art studio, or “taller,” to try out new mediums for representing their world.
Each May, in preparation for the end of the year celebration, children are invited to choose sea animals they wish to represent on paper and through movement.
In the taller the children are given resource texts to begin sketching their sea animals, using black permanent pen on white paper. Teachers support the children in noticing the details in the photographs and transfer those details into their drawings.
Having been exposed to the Glowforge in the Tinkering Studio, I wondered how the children might experience having their sea animals cut out and engraved in wood.
The teachers and parents agreed to share the images with me, and I began working on scanning and printing the images on the glowforge.
I collected all of the children’s images and made photocopies of them to bring to the studio.
The first step in the studio was scanning the images on the glowforge, using the glowforge’s trace image tool. In most cases, the trace was simple.
In some cases the glowforge had a hard time knowing what areas to cut, and which ones not to. On this shark, the machine wanted to cut out each tooth individually.
In these cases, I thickened some lines with an orange sharpie to help the Glowforge understand where to cut and where to engrave.
The cutting itself was straightforward, using the Glowforge app to place as many images onto each plywood panel as possible.
Finally the animals were complete. Back in the classroom the children were excited to see the animals, but confused about the process. I wished we had visited the machine directly so the process was clearer for them, and so they could inspect and ask questions about the machine.
Back in the taller, each child had the opportunity to paint their animal. The teachers again invited the children to look at books for color inspiration, and to notice small details.
Each child painted their original drawing and their wooden animal.
The etched lines from the ink drawings made separating colors into sections of the drawing easy, and children noticed how differently the wood soaked up the color.
At the end of the year celebration, the children posed in front of the mural they created with their drawings and compared their wooden and paper creations.
Every child took their wooden animal home with them at the end of the celebration, a piece of art to display, play with, and remember.
After this small exploration of the Glowforge’s capacities in the early childhood setting, I’m eager to explore more. What if these children had drawn self-portraits, had them cut in wood, and used them in the block area throughout the year? Once exposed to the technology, what ideas would occur to them next? Eager to explore this opportunity with more teachers and classrooms.
We have recently embarked in the second half of our STEAM Starters project to explore tinkering practices in the context of Early Childhood education. This time, Lianna, Steph, and I are co-developing tinkering approaches to Light Play and Marble Machines at two new preschools in San Francisco. This case study focuses on Modesto* and his exploration of shadow tracing.
Our tinkering series of investigations began with Light Play, an activity we plan to continue exploring for about eight weeks. We followed a more structured approach than we normally do in the context of the Tinkering Studio, focusing on different aspects of light and shadow each week. This week we decided to focus our investigations on shadow tracing. This was a topic that emerged the previous week from an exploration that Nancy * and Lianna began, when Nancy wanted to trace the patterns made by her shadow caster. We decided to pick up that investigation again and expand upon it for all the kids: we introduced the idea of tracing shadow by demonstrating how I could get two different-looking shadows from the same object just by moving the light a little bit.
Each kid worked with their own light, shadow maker, and a large piece of chart paper as projection/drawing surface.
Modesto was focused on animals, and specifically tigers. He started with a small figurine of a tiger, and showed me that he understood the relationship between distance and size by moving the tiger really close to the paper when he wanted a small shadow, and close to the light when he wanted a big one. For a while he worked independently tracing various animals.
When I checked in with him again a while later he has switched to a larger figurine of a tiger, and was starting to trace its tail when something appeared to be bothering him; he couldn’t find the words to express it, so both Richie and I tried to understand why he was so upset.
Richie: “Are you having a hard time copying it?”
Luigi: “Is your shadow in the way when you’re tracing it?”
He drew three small arcs on the paper and pointed repeatedly to the shadow, then to the tiger. Suddenly I understood: he was showing me that the shadow of the tiger was lacking its stripes!
I immediately considered the importance of this moment, Modesto had just made a connection between the shadow caster and its shadow that was not about what was there, but what was lacking!
In this apparently simple moment there is the seed of a big idea: the surface elements of an object do not become part of the shadow that it projects. This is quite a sophisticated idea, having to do with the difference between a shadow and reflected light, and although Modesto’s understanding of it is certainly still in its early stages and will surely develop over time, he encountered it and grappled with it in the course of pursuing his own investigation, and because of that it was a powerful moment.
This is, to me, the true power of a tinkering approach; whereas this concept might have been a difficult one to “teach” if teachers had set up a lesson specifically to communicate it, it was readily explored and understood when the context was conducive to it.
* All kids’ names are pseudonyms.
This project is supported through a generous grant from the Early Learning and Care Division at the California Department of Education.
Yesterday the team spent the afternoon just… playing around with lots of bright lights and various materials to make shadows, reflections, and refractions. It was free-form playful experimentation without a particular goal in mind, and it felt refreshing and energizing, a good reminder of how important it is to make time for “just play.” Here are some observations from it, in no particular order.
The overlapping caustics (sharp light lines) in the center of the magnifying glass are amazing, but it is the perfectly graduated shades of gray in the left of the image that caught my eye.
I love this simple Mylar light box encased in a circular frame with a wooden handle. It looks like a magnifying glass but for noticing the chaotic ballet of caustics and colors created by multiple reflections.
RGB lights in a circle create a very interesting and smooth gradient that reveals pinks, purples, teals, etc. And light escaping from the cracks between the blocks reverts back to RGB rays.
Simple explorations, like two lights and a pegboard, can become very interesting with a simple shift in perspective.
Speaking of pegboard, it can serve as a projection surface that also lets light through, creating interesting “pixellated” versions of the projections in the background.
Earlier in October, Deanna and I traveled to Milan, Italy, for something that has become somewhat of a tradition for us in the Tinkering Studio: we hosted a workshop at the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (MUST from now on). We have been working in partnership with the museum in various forms since 2012, averaging a workshop every couple of years, and there opportunities have transitioned over time more from Tinkering Studio-led introductions to tinkering, to a collaborative effort to guide specific audiences that MUST works with locally, and help them implement a tinkering practice in their respective institutions. This time we focused on an audience primarily of secondary school teachers, and tried a couple of new things in our tried and true 3-day workshop approach that are worth reporting on.
We usually devote the afternoon of the first day in the workshop to an exploration of circuits in various form. We typically start with our Circuit Boards activity, and very deliberately and slowly scaffold it so that participants follow a steady progression, from simple basic circuits to more advanced connections with multiple outputs and different types of switches. This is a structured exploration of a problem space that meets learners where they are but quickly allows them to leave familiar territory and try more ambitious connections. However, it doesn’t allow for making in the stricter sense of the word.
We decided to transition from Circuit Boards to another activity that focuses on circuits but more directly asks participants to make their own personal and inventive switch. We call this activity Homemade Switches, and although we have done it before in professional development workshops, recently we have discovered that it is a good complement and progression from Circuit Boards. We quickly introduce the idea of a switch being a break in a piece of conductive material (like aluminum foil) that can be restored when the break is connected again, and briefly show some examples that explore with the concept in playful ways. Then we ask participants to think of a switch that has a function or solves a specific problem, real, imagined, or silly. Like “a switch to detect if someone steals your food from the fridge,” or “a switch to alert you when it starts raining so you can bring in your laundry.”
What I like about this approach to deepening the exploration of circuits, aside from the fact that it is an activity where learners gets to make something, it is that it feels like a quick prototyping session. Because participants only have about an hour to create something, and because of the nature of the materials we make available — cardboard and other easily manipulated materials — rather than focusing on making something polished we found that most people rough out their ideas, they build objects that approximate a finished product, hint at what it could look like and work like without necessarily trying to solve allthe problems with their idea, and rather concentrate their efforts on the switch part of their contraption. I like that attempted solutions are as easily discarded as they are generated when they don’t work, and goals for the activity shift fluidly according to what is tried, what works, what’s too hard right now, and what people have time to accomplish.
I think this approach has created a comfort level with the idea of creating switches, rather than trying to focus on developing expertise. Thanks to the narrative framing it has infused a playful approach into a difficult topic, which is a big win in my opinion.
Another notable change stemmed from a specific request from the MUST team to touch upon the topic of computation and computational tinkering in this workshop. Deanna and I decided to introduce a new activity that we prototyped within the last year or so, called Programmable Pets. The idea is to animate a real stuffed toy using Scratch and a connected micro:bit device. We knew there would be a wide range of expertise level when it comes to programming, with some participants approaching it for the very first time, so Deanna prepared a more intentional introduction that felt almost (but not quite) like a demo, in which the basics of what Scratch is, how you control characters, snap together blocks, and talk to the micro:bit were covered.
All participants delved into the prompt with enthusiasm, and although for some the connection to the toy came later into the activity than others, eventually everybody worked on some idea that translated a real world change into a digital event. Once again narrative played a big part in providing motivation, inspiration, and helping push ideas over the inevitable bumps. Programmable Pets took the spot that traditionally has been reserved for Toy Dissection in the workshop progression. I really liked that, similarly to Homemade Switches, this took an activity that was more about de-construction and made it more about construction, while remaining in a similar domain aesthetically and thematically. It also seemed to support a rich conversation about Learning Dimensions and how they applied to this activity specifically, so for me it is something to revisit in future workshops for sur
Connecting to Chain Reaction
Typically the culmination of a three day workshop is a large collaborative Chain Reaction activity, and we structure the activity in the preceding days partially in order to build skills that can be applied to it. We were hoping that adding a computational element to day 2 would bleed into Chain Reaction for some participants, and we were not disappointed!
As part of our general introduction to the activity, Fabio (one of the MUST facilitators) mentioned that one could use a combination of micro:bit and a WeDO motor via Scratch to translate a physical input (like a block falling) into a physical output (a motor pushing something else, for example) without a physical connection between the two. One group took up the challenge and spent the entire time trying to implement such a connection, with positive results.
I really love being able to iterate on something already solid and established like our Professional Development workshop; it is an opportunity for us to tweak slightly the goals to better fit the audience we are serving, and expand our own definition of tinkering and our image of the educators who come to us for their own professional growth.
Over the last couple of years the Tinkering Studio embarked in the exploration of a rather challenging topic: how can we meaningfully make use of digital technologies in the context of a tinkering learning environment? The question we have been and continue to be intrigued by is how to think of technology and computation as a means to expand and deepen the investigations and possibilities of tinkering, rather than thinking of it as an end in and of itself, something to be “taught” to children for its own sake.
We’ve dubbed this approach computational tinkering, as a riff on the computational thinking approach, and explored it largely thanks to a project called Tinkering in the Digital Age, or TiDA for short. Our explorations spanned many different phenomena and approaches, and we produced six documents at the end of the project that summarize our experiments and findings, and provide some ideas for trying these lines of inquiry for yourself. So this is a roundup of all the guides that resulted from over two years of work with the Tinkering in the Digital Age project!
This work was supported by a grant from Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation
This project was made possible through the generous support from the LEGO Foundation
Recently, while having a dialogue with colleagues visiting to learn more about tinkering, the conversation shifted toward the specter of “science misconceptions,” and what our philosophy is about them. The worry, as I understand it, is that in a hands-on museum—and even more so within a tinkering practice where the exploring and learning of scientific concepts is left to the learners’ discretion—that some people could come to scientifically inaccurate explanations for a phenomenon and then carry around that “wrong” idea with them, or even worse, maybe pass it on to their children. What can we do about that? How can we prevent the emergence of scientific misconceptions?
“At least they saw something and figured it out, and got something that nobody had given to them. Something that was just their own.” – Frank Oppenheimer
This is a big question, and one that doesn’t have an easy straightforward answer for me. I think misconceptions in science are always a possibility, at all levels, and full-time professional scientists themselves are not immune. Our own understanding on scientific “truths” is always evolving, so I don’t think we can ever say that we know that something is 100% accurate. That’s why science deals in theories rather than in statements of certainty.
Children and lay people should be allowed to go through that same process. For me what’s more important is to set up a context in which people are encouraged and are given tools to figure things out on their own, ask their own questions and probe a phenomenon directly to try and reveal some answers. It is that process and spirit of curiosity that I care most that visitors come away with, not a narrowly-defined “correct” understanding of a scientific concept.
To give a real practical example: we often offer in the Tinkering Studio the chance to play with our Circuit Boards activity, where visitors get to tinker with electric components and try to make working circuits with them. There are no instructions. In my view, visitors will be richer after exploring the activity if they have engaged with interest, agency, and even joy in making circuits, testing ideas, getting things wrong (and right, of course); it is not so important that they can recite back correctly the textbook definition of series and parallel circuits. If in the process of figuring the world out for themselves they somehow land on a misconception, that’s ok, that’s part of the process of doing science. We want to set up a context where those misconceptions can then be probed, tested, and hopefully debunked—and of course if facilitation is available that’s another powerful tool to offer ways of going deeper when a misconception arises.
To stay with the Circuit Boards example, we have a bunch of multicolored alligator clips freely available; this is important so people can use different colors for different parts of their circuit if they need to trace what goes where. But sometimes children come to the conclusion that the color of the wire matters, that this particular connection will only work with white wires, or that they need to find a black wire to go with the black motor lead, and a red one for the red. Is that bad? It’s a minor misconception, and a facilitator can pick up on it and easily offer a way to test it (“Can we try this other wire and see what happens?”). But getting hung up on the fact that they are “getting something wrong” I think overshadows the fact that here is a child forming their own theories and models for how circuits and electricity works, with autonomy, agency, and even enthusiasm. And that’s much more exciting and longer lasting!
Encourage and feed that aspect, and the experimentation will continue, and eventually the misconceptions will take care of themselves. We are playing the long game, and that kid might even, because of that process—misconceptions and all—start thinking of themselves as a science enthusiast, and eventually, perhaps, a scientist.
This short documentary from 1974 shows various aspects of life at the Exploratorium. It's worth watching in its entirety, but there is a particularly relevant bit starting around 13:30, where Frank Oppenheimer gets into an argument with an exhibit developer about the risk of kids coming to the wrong conclusions. It's so strong that it concludes the documentary. Here is the relevant bit transcribed:
“Alright, what’s wrong with that? That’s science. For them. That’s science: they’re figuring something out. They’re not just getting someone out there dishing it out for them. There’s enough in there that they actually made a connection themselves. Now, they don’t go ahead and do a whole another lot of experiments to see if it’s right, but that’s hard to do in a museum. But at least they saw something and figured it out, and got something that nobody had given to them. Something that was just their own.”
As Lianna mentioned yesterday, we have been exploring the idea and practice of expanding some core Tinkering Studio activities for an earlier audience, specifically thinking about how to create an environment and set of materials that would encourage exploration and investigation for 2-6 year old tinkerers.
The first activity we tackled was Marble Machines, perhaps the oldest and most established of our core activities. We typically invite learners to explore this activity in professional development workshops, where we are able to dedicate a long period of time to it, have lots of expert facilitation on hand, and can offer an expanded palette of materials to work on daring and unusual ideas. On the other hand, we also have an unfacilitated area on the floor of the museum, outside of the Tinkering Studio proper, where visitors can immerse themselves (literally!) in a collaborative Marble Machine wall; however, the tradeoff there is that there is no facilitation, and the materials available for building are drastically reduced—the most conspicuous change being the absence of tape. How do you go about homing in on a set of materials that is appropriate for younger tinkerers while still allowing for a rich exploration of physical phenomena?
As our R&D process often goes, we started with what we had available, provided an expanded palette of materials and options, then noticed what worked and what didn’t, rich areas for refinement and further exploration, and then proceeded to simplify and eliminate options that were confusing or difficult to use.
Initially we set up a commercially available product called Haba blocks on a couple of custom-made table tops that were at the right height for younger visitors; we also added a few big blocks that were left over for Kazu Harada’s After Dark event a few months prior.
We noticed some interesting explorations, like comparisons of size and weight of balls, exploring the sound-making properties of some of the materials, and some problem solving when trying to make sense of some of the more complicated materials on offer.
But we also noticed that the Haba tracks presented an unexpected element of confusion for this age range: they are meant to be stacked flat on blocks, so the slope of the track is built into the block itself. This is counter-intuitive to a young learner, who intuitively wants to angle the track itself downward (and often very steeply so!) to make sure the ball runs down, and it resulted in very unstable and frustrating constructions.
In the end we decided to simplify, go big, and reduce the number of variables to focus investigations better.
We narrowed down the set of materials to:
Big and simple tracks—a combination of wooden tracks and long cardboard tubes cut lengthwise—available in three different lengths
Lots of Kazu Blocks™, which we produced with a standard base for all of them, and in three or four different heights
Three sizes of otherwise identical wooden balls
A couple of sets of stands with holes in them, a commercially available item from Kodokids, affectionately nicknamed Swiss Cheese
A few elbows to allow for 90 degree turns in construction. We initially made them form corrugated tubing but later switched to smooth plastic pipe connectors because balls kept getting stuck
A few metal bowls to hold marbles and provide an implied end goal for the marbles, should the kids choose to do so
We immediately saw improvements in the types of investigations kids were doing, the scale really encouraged immersive engagement with the activity and a broader range of ages could find ways of getting into goal setting and problem solving.
We also cut holes in the sides of the Kazu Blocks to encourage alternative uses for them, and indeed we saw quite a variety of solutions using the holes. It also made it possible to create small sandbags that could be dropped into the blocks to stabilize them if necessary.
And we occasionally found them used in ways that we couldn’t have anticipated but which nonetheless delighted us and the kids in the space.
It’s been an interesting process to be very intentional about the kinds of interactions and investigations that we want focus on with this activity, and how effective reducing the available materials has been to achieve that goal. Next I will talk about a couple of special elements that we created specifically for the lower end of our young tinkerers!
This project is supported through a generous grant from the Early Learning and Care Division at the California Department of Education.
The Tinkering Studio presents some unique design challenges when it comes to creating experiences for visitors to the museum, but perhaps the most pressing is time. We allow visitors to choose the length of their engagement with us, which impacts design in two major ways. On one hand, we have to design activities to have a quick entry point which allows visitors to have early successes; we refer to this as providing a low threshold for the activity. At the same time, we have to design activities to have enough depth that over the course of a prolonged engagement — say, 1 to 2 hours — a visitor can “complexify” their exploration as they get deeper into it; we call this providing a high ceiling.
To accomplish all of that in a drop-in setting, we have found that it is crucial to rely on abundant examples in the space. As visitors approach the Tinkering Studio and then start building and making, examples serve both to inspire and spark their initial curiosity — to get them in the door, so to speak — but also as quick starting points to guide initial experiments and directions. Without examples, visitors don’t know what the activity is about and why they should dedicate a good chunk of their time to it; but also, as they sit at the table to make something, having a few examples or models can soften the “blank slate” effect, that feeling of not knowing where to start and what to do with the materials available.
However, there is an art to creating and displaying the right kind of example for a tinkering activity. It is tempting to come up with and display beautiful, clever, polished pieces so that visitors can fully grok the potential of the activity and be inspired to create their own equally ambitious project, but we have found that this can easily backfire.
We were confronted with this phenomenon with particular force during this winter’s long engagement with Cranky Contraptions, an activity that by nature skews a little more product-focused than others. Our initial approach to offering examples was to try and go for interesting, stimulating, and whimsical contraptions that showed a variety of ways to work with simple mechanisms and linkages. Unfortunately, we saw that a high percentage of our visitors took them as models to copy rather than starting points to generate their own ideas.
Inspired by one of Keith Newstead’s Trash Automata I made a cranky contraption version of an elephant that rears up when the handle is cranked. The mechanism is interesting, with the pivot point being all the way at the back of the elephant and the crank slider at the front, so it’s a good example to include. But the elephant is too complete a narrative element, it looks like a finished piece and so it can function as a substitute for creative expression rather than a spark for it.
In an effort to minimize copying while preserving the mechanism I made a version that used less “attractive” materials, like plain cardboard, a less polished construction and general appearance, and what I thought was a weird enough look — some sort of vaguely rhino-esque beast but with feathers? — that nobody would want to make another one of that specifically. I was wrong. It got copied verbatim too!
A frog, a penguin, and pipe cleaner flowers all got copied many many times. Of course, this is somewhat unavoidable: providing inspirational examples is important and some percentage of people will always choose to make life easier for themselves, or simply feel more comfortable starting by copying something as a way to develop expertise and facility with the activity. But it is worth thinking about the balance between those kinds of examples and other types, which don’t lend themselves to copying so much while still providing valuable information to visitors.
So, what are the qualities of a “perfect” example? I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and here are a few thoughts:
I think a very good example should contain a hint of narrative, the equivalent of an opening paragraph, but leave the ending very open. The bowler hat example above has a little bit of a story in it (“man says hello by lifting his hat,” perhaps) which could be reinterpreted with different characters or props — it intentionally doesn’t have a face, and following versions also did away with the suit decoration to leave just a plain cardboard trapezoidal body.
It should show an interesting idea, but one that can be expanded or adapted in many different ways, not a closed finished piece. The penguin example looks great and moves beautifully, but it’s very complicated and hard to understand as a system. It’s hard to isolate just one element of all the linkages and movements in it and adapt it to a different idea. The bowler hat man does one thing, so if you need that type of motion in your unrelated project it’s easy for me as a facilitator to bring this example over and suggest it might be adapted to your needs.
It’s easy for a visitor to see how it could be improved upon. This is a big one: the best examples have fairly obvious shortcomings that generate ideas for improvement. An ideal reaction from a visitor is to think: “Oh, cool. But look, you could also just do this…” Which indeed means that the perfect example is, actually… imperfect.
The example itself can be tinkered with and used as a model to work out something about your own project. This is not always possible, depending on the activity, but for Cranky Contraptions I tried to make a couple of examples that were meant to be working models to figure out relationships between pivot points and constraints — this idea was also inspired by the way Keith works out his own automata.
This strange little device offers little in terms of narrative, there isn’t much that invites copying, but the three articulated pieces are made with several possible pivot points (the various holes in the craft sticks) and the constraining wires can be anchored at different points along the base — by moving the skewer sticks around — and at different lengths (notice the double loops at the end of the wires).
In fact, the whole idea behind this was that it could be manipulated by visitors to experiment in a low-consequence way with those relationships until they got to a movement they liked, then translate that into the narrative of their choice, as you can see in the examples above. Nothing in the example suggested “fish,” that was completely learner-driven, but I would say that without spending a good amount of time familiarizing herself with it it would have been almost impossible to create the amazing articulated fish that resulted.
So, somewhat painfully, we decided to go on an example purge and put away all the ones that only showcased how clever the person who made it was, and only kept the ones that allowed room for the learner to "fill in the blanks" with their own ideas, imagination, problem posing, and personal expression, and the experience of the activity on the floor was better for it. As you set up an environment for tinkering, it is worth thinking carefully and critically about what type of examples you populate it with and why they are there.
We are hosting automata maker Keith Newstead in conjunction with the newly opened Curious Contraption winter show at the Exploratorium and, in Tinkering Studio style, we immediately put him on the spot. During our first group meeting everyone went around writing down one idea for an automata — suggestions included “man lifting a car,” “a luchador,” and “vote them all out.” Keith picked the winner, which was “Man drinking tea and sticking out his tongue because it’s too hot,” and immediately started sketching the way he would go about building it. Watch the video for a glimpse into the mind of a master automata-maker, and stick to the end to learn the secret he sworn he would take to the grave, but ended up revealing.
It's amazing to me to see the facility with which Keith transforms abstract ideas into a concrete plan of action, the language and vocabulary he has clearly developed for thinking through his ideas, and expressing them in visual form. Now all that's left is to actually build the thing!