Takeaways from Tinkering at Lunch

Lunch time tinkering turned out to be extremely popular. Though I didn’t know what to expect going in, these are a few of the takeaways I came away with:

To get started, all you need is cardboard and tape. Far and away, the most popular lunch time tinkering activity was constructing with cardboard. When I offered up the chance to design and make robots using any of the materials in the tinkering space,  the overwhelming choice was cardboard. Have a good supply of cardboard and tape on hand.


You will see children at their best. When we started, I set three simple rules: 1. Everybody cleans up. 2. Everyone is invited to join in. 3. Everyone helps solve problems. Except for one incident, where a special needs child was initially excluded (and other children immediately spoke up for him) there was never a problem with behaviour. We all worked together.


Children want to explore their own ideas. On a day when we were making cardboard arcade games (as inspired by Caine’s Arcade), I wasn’t sure how the youngest children in grade one would fare. Did they even know what an arcade game was? I printed off examples of cardboard arcade games ahead of time for inspiration. Not one child looked at them. After we had our initial discussion (which we always did to remind students of the rules and the day’s task) the children got started. You could tell they wanted to build something and test it, to see if it would work. If it didn’t, they made changes and tested again.

You don’t need unlimited materials. Not having enough materials became part of a problem to solve. When we ran out of cardboard, the question became, what could you use instead? The students were never stuck. They always figured out another way to come at the problem.

Not everyone wants to tinker and that’s okay. As the weeks went on, there were “regulars” who came as often as they could. Others I never saw. I knew they were the ones who needed to go outside and run in the fresh air over the lunch hour. Tinkering did offer, for those children who needed it, a chance to putter and play in ways that suited their personalities.

Kids of all ages are capable tinkerers. One of our tinkering activities was taking apart old appliances and machines we gathered up. A grade one student had the challenging task of taking apart a broken stopwatch. With perseverance and focus, and the use of a tiny screwdriver she opened the stopwatch and organized the parts:


Pretty amazing for a six year old!



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Assessment Leads to More Tinkering


I’ve been working at a K-3 school to introduce tinkering as an extension of the learning commons. One of the greatest challenges for teachers of children, even at this age, is meaningful assessment. But how do we assess tinkering? In Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of Stem Innovators, a chapter of the book is devoted to this. Entitled, “It Looks Like Fun, But Are They Learning?” the authors identify four qualities of tinkering as evidence of learning. These include:

Engagement: active participation

Intentionality: Purposeful and evolving pursuit of an idea or plan

Innovation: New tinkering strategies that emerge through growing understanding of materials, tools, phenomena

Solidarity: Sharing, supporting, and pursuing shared purposes with other learners in the Tinkering Studio, or with the artifacts they have left behind” (Petrich, Wilkinson, & Bevan, 2013, p. 53-54).

We recently designed a tinkering opportunity with Grade 2 students around magnets. For the first few sessions, we allowed the children to simply play. We photographed, videoed, and discussed important ideas with children. Next, we asked the children to create a toy or game, using magnets.

To assess the students’ knowledge of the scientific concepts surrounding magnets, we created a performance assessment. This is where it got interesting. Even with all the tinkering, there were students who did not meet the scientific outcomes for grade two.

For example, one student, when shown a group of items, and asked to predict which would attract to the magnet as part of a performance assessment, had great difficulty identifying the items that might do that. However, this same student, in creating the magnet game, showed Petrich, Wilkinson, & Bevan’s qualities in spades.

This leads me to think that as teachers, we need to tinker with our project design.

Some questions I have been thinking about are: Should we involve more direct teaching as part of the project design? How can we support student learning of scientific outcomes within the context of tinkering? How will we record and manage evidence of the four qualities of tinkering?

Patrick, M., Wilkinson, K., & Bevan, B.  (2013). It looks like fun, but are they learning? In M. Honey & D. E. Kantor, (Eds.), Design, make, play: Growing the next generation of STEM innovators (pp. 163-181). New York, NY: Routledge.


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Tinker Time at Lunch

We began just recently offering Tinker Time over the lunch hour. I wasn’t sure how it would go, so basically decided to dive in and make adjustments as needed.

A few decisions were made at the get go: we are a K-3 school, but wanted tinkering time to be multi-age. To make numbers manageable, we invited three students from each class to join us in free tinkering, often with a materials theme.


Students creating insects from Lego.

So far we have offered building with straws and connectors, Lego, marble runs, Scratch Jr., and making with cardboard and plasticine for starters.

Our rules are simple: include and help each other, everyone cleans up, and be on time for class.

Feedback from teachers has been very positive. The students love the opportunity to work with different students, and mess around with materials in an unstructured environment.


Older student working with grade one.

Upcoming ideas include making with paper (origami), cardboard arcade games, practising with tools (hammers and screwdrivers), taking things apart and putting them back together, tinkering with magnetic poetry kits and cameras to photograph poetry, to name a few.


When I have asked students if they would like specific ideas for tinkering, they are adamant in their response. No.

I am wondering because their lives are so structured they are happy to have time throughout the day to just play with materials.

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Onward: Thoughtful Organization of the Tinkering Lab

Included in the move from library to learning commons, is a tinkering lab, where students can test ideas they are questioning or researching, using physical objects.

The school already has a good selection of purchased tinkering materials including Lego, K’nex, Straws &  Connectors, Gear Sets, and Zoob, just for starters. The problem, as is often the case, is that in the past, specific kits were geared to specific grades and curriculum topics. Boxes of materials were labeled by grade, giving other staff the impression that they were off limits. As well, the materials were not well cared for by all staff and were often left so disorganized, they were often unusable. The result was that many teachers did not use the materials, and those that did often kept them in their classroom where they could


Buckets of straws and connectors labeled Grade 3 building.

The staff, led by the learning commons committee, is taking a leap of faith by moving materials out of grade specific cupboards and boxes, and opening them up for all in the school to use. Lego and K’nex will no longer be organized in kits with specific directions to address specific learning outcomes at specific grades, but will be available for everyone to use as potential tools for solving problems. As Curt Gabrielson says, “The essence of teaching with tinkering is to get tools and materials into the hungry hands of your students” (2013, p.93). Letting go of control of materials, while remaining thoughtful about their use, will be part of the learning for teachers. Given a problem, students may wish to use several different kinds of tinkering materials to search out answers. They will now be able to do that.


Lego will organized by size of pieces, not grade levels.

We are just beginning the process of organizing materials. Rachel Doorley suggests making it “child-friendly, by establishing self-serve zones where kids can access safe and engaging materials on their own” (2014, p.8).


Clear bins house Lego and K’nex parts are easily accessed by children.

This is a work in progress that will take time, along with modifications, as we figure out the best way to encourage and invite students to learn by tinkering.

Plastic boxes with handles to house tools can be carried by students to where they are needed.

Doorley, R. (2014). Tinkerlab: A hands-on guide for little inventors. Boston, MA: Roost Books.

Gabrielson, C. (2013). Tinkering: Kids learn by making stuff. Sebastopol, CA: MakerMedia.

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Thoughts on Tinkering


Bubbles (Flickr)  by Dominique Cappronnier under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs Generic Licence

As part of the move to a learning commons, we have set aside space on the mezzanine for tinkering. There is a big buzz in education circles about tinkering, and several resources we are using not only present practical ideas, but also explain why tinkering is important. They are:

Gabrielson, C. (2013). Tinkering. Sebastopol, CA: Maker Media.

Honey, M. & Kanter, E. (Eds.). (2013). Design, make, play: growing the next generation of STEM innovators. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Martinez, S. & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

Kelly, R. (Ed.). (2012). Educating for creativity: A global conversation. Calgary, AB: Brush Education, Inc.

The biggest shift has to be in the way we think about teaching and learning. It is a move away from curriculum driven, product focused, teacher orchestrated work. The 20th century factory model of education does not sync with current thoughts on tinkering.

“In most school activities, structure is valued over serendipity. Understanding is often “designed” by an adult committee prior to even meeting the students. Play is something you do at recess, not in class . . .The structure makes it easier for one teacher to teach a one-size-fits-all curriculum to large numbers of same age students. None of the constraints of school are for the benefit of learning – they create a more manageable, homogeneous, efficient platform for teaching a predetermined bit of content” (Martinez & Stager, p. 36).

As Martinez and Stager state, tinkering helps create a “mindset for learning.”

“When we allow children to experiment, take risks, and play with their own ideas, we give them permission to trust themselves. They begin to see themselves as learners who have good ideas and can transform their own ideas into reality. When we acknowledge that there may be many right answers to a question, it gives children permission to feel safe while thinking and problem solving, not just when they answer correctly” (Martinez & Stager, p. 36).

It is one thing to set up a physical space for tinkering. But we must also decide how to facilitate learning by doing, so that students can apply their ideas and mindsets in future work. Martinez and Stager suggest tinkering needs to start with “a good prompt, motivating challenge, or thoughtful question” (p.61). Further, they state, “The richest learning often results from getting in over one’s head or when encountering unforeseen obstacles. Teachers do children no favor when they spell out one way to solve a problem” (p.62).

We would like to design tinkering time around problems to be solved that may or may not connect to curriculum – they could relate to interests that children express in their conversations with each other and with us. We need to keep the problems short, and specific, while allowing for creativity. I am starting to build a bank of problems for use in the tinkering space. Ideas include designing something that moves easily on a bumpy surface, designing a structure that holds one kilogram, designing a marble run so that two marbles, started in different places, end up at the same place at the same time.

Right now, our tinkering space as learning lab is a prototype. We, like the children will be trying, testing, failing, and trying again. Essentially, tinkering. We are hopeful that this will result in deep learning not only for our students, but for us, as educators.

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Ideas on Innovation

I just finished reading Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, by Tony Wagner. His book is one of several, guiding our thinking in the creation of a primary school learning commons. Though a good portion of the book focuses on changing the way universities, colleges, and even high schools are structured to promote innovation, there are important lessons for teachers and parents of children of all ages. He suggests “. . . three interrelated elements central to intrinsic motivation, which is central to innovation: play, passion, purpose” (p. 26).Creating innovators

Wagner shares examples of schools that are challenging the status quo by reimagining education and bringing “play, passion, and purpose” to their students. One is the Olin School of Engineering:

“In classes at Olin, the primary goal is not the acquisition of knowledge. The goal is to develop a set of skills – or in Jon Stolk’s terms, competencies – by solving a problem, creating a product, or generating a new understanding. Knowledge is important, but it is acquired on an “as needed” basis” (p. 175).

From his research, Wagner suggests, “The learning culture in all of the schools and programs profiled . . . have similar characteristics. They are all organized around the values of:

  • collaboration
  • multidisciplinary learning
  • thoughtful risk-taking, trial and error
  • creating
  • intrinsic motivation: play, passion, and purpose” (p. 200).

This is what we envision for the learning commons. Though it sounds simple, creating this type of learning environment, given the complexity of learning needs in our classrooms, is easier said than done.

Wagner quotes Mitch Resnick, Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Research Group at the MIT Media Lab: “The challenge is to set up systems to follow their interests. People tend to dichotomize approaches in education: The teacher is either telling students what to do, or standing back and letting them figure it out. I think that’s a false choice: The issue is not structure versus no structure, but rather creating a different structure. Students need to be exposed to new ideas and learn how to persist. They also need support.” (p. 182)

And this is our challenge – to create a different structure that provides the scaffolding children need to explore possible passions through thoughtful, multidisciplinary play.

There is one important caveat – the characteristics outlined by Wagner need to be in place for teachers, as well as children. So, our second question is, how can we structure the learning commons so that it become a place of play, passion, and purpose for teachers?

Wagner, T. (2012). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. New York, NY: Scribner







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Designing Spaces: Writable Surfaces

We have incorporated some writable surfaces in our new space. It will be interesting to see how young children use them to communicate their ideas.

As Doorley & Witthoft suggest, “Install dry erase surfaces all over the place to create opportunities for capturing serendipitous sketches and outbreaking brainstorms.”

The cafe style tables we have ordered come with writable surfaces. As well, a talented carpenter within our school division came up with the idea of retrofitting an old movable Smart Board with pieces of dry-erase board he scrounged. We are hoping to use this as a tool for recording ideas. Because it is on wheels, it can be used anywhere in the school. It can also help define and separate work areas. There are a couple of other old Smart Boards kicking around. We will test this writable surface prototype and then decide if we would like more.


If we want to try other writable surfaces, we may consider painting some work tables in the learning commons using dry erase paint.

Doorley, S. & Witthoft, S. (2012). Make space: How to set the stage for creative collaboration. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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