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  • Writer's pictureBy Jeni Ann Flores

Explore the joy of tinkering

I don’t think of myself as a tinkerer. I tend to tinker mostly in my mind through mental abstractions that often use up a lot of my time and lead me to many rabbit holes that end up nowhere.

The last actual tinkering I did — if you can call it that — was folding and cutting newspapers as a child. My friends and I cut them into wads of paper money which we put inside big purses, also made of newspapers. We also folded them into little plates and bowls, and cut them into pretend noodles and condiments with bits of leaves and twigs.

My late husband John was a tinkerer. He crafted many little things to make life easier for us at home. I remember especially the clasps he made for containers. For example, he had many Chess sets and one set did not have a container. So he got a box and to secure the pieces inside, he cut two round “buttons” made of cardboard, sewed them into the top of two sides. A small string would be wound up on the two buttons to hold the top together. Voila! His Chess pieces were secure inside the box. He made many different kinds of clasps for me to secure my many teacher stuff.

“Tinkering is both a manual and mental labor, perhaps even a labor of love,” wrote Dale Dougherty, editor and Publisher of Make Magazine and author of “The Art of Tinkering.”

“Tinkering is the essential art of composing and decomposing physical things to suit a variety of purposes, from practical to whimsical…In spirit, it is close to hacking,” wrote Dougherty.

Cate Heroman, education chair and vice chair of Knock Know Children’s Museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and nationally recognized educator and author, differentiates tinkering, making and engineering.

In her National Association for the Education of Young Children webinar titled, “Making and Tinkering with STEM,” tinkering is just using stuff. Making is using stuff to make stuff that sometimes does stuff. And engineering is using stuff to make stuff that does stuff (or, I might add, solves problems with stuff). When I used newspapers to make wads of play money and big purses, I was doing all three – tinkering, making and engineering.

Tinkering is open-ended and has no parameters. It combines play and inquiry. (“What are we going to play with today, girls?”) Making has an end product in mind. (“Let’s make some money and purses and cook some food.”) Engineering solves problems, uses engineering design process and has parameters. (“But we only have these old newspapers. How much money will we make? How big should we make them? How will we cut them if we don’t have scissors? Where will we keep all our money? What else can we make with the newspapers?”)

According to “The Fundamentals of Tinkering” (Exploratorium Tinkering Studio in San Francisco) tinkering, making and engineering develops creative thinking, problem solving, taking risks, resourcefulness, inventiveness, imagination and persistence.

Students who tinker see themselves as makers and producers, defined more by acts of creation than consumption, according to Dougherty.

Although I am not a trained artist, I love doing art activities. Art is especially needed now to ease the souls of children during the pandemic. So I started an Art Club. I don’t have an engineer’s mind but if I had my way, I would segue my current Art Club into a Tinkering Club.


To start, I would ask my students to find a small machine — a broken clock, a broken telephone, a broken typewriter. Then I will ask them to try to figure out how they work. How do the hands move? What makes that ticking sound? What makes it ring? What makes the letters go up?

Then, the best part: we will smash the machine’s outer shell. And no, this is not because their teacher has increasingly become more demented of mind, but so we can look at the interior parts of the machine and try to conjure what went where, what did what, what caused what. After that we will cannibalize the parts, repurpose them into something else lovely or useful, like a necklace, a toy or a tool.

Although any future activities might seem anticlimactic after that smashing session, I am still researching for other things to do in this club. If you have any suggestions please let me know.

If you have a child or children at home, may I recommend that you encourage them toward tinkering projects. Years from now they will look back and tell their friends about their crazy cool parents who taught them to tinker. Make it a family affair. You can make lots of money or keep your stuff from spilling on floors. It could be a smash hit.

Jeni Ann Flores is a cool teacher - a robotics coach, aspiring drone operator and wanna-be writer. You may read more of her writing at Send feedback to

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