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Tinkering as a Way to Encourage Deeper STEM Learning

Jun 18, 2021    |   STEM Learning
Preschooler tinkering with hammer nail and wood

Tinkering is a popular term used in many early learning circles to describe a kind of open-ended learning and play. This article explains the benefits of incorporating tinkering into an early learning classroom to promote STEM learning and offers ideas that you might want to try with the children in your classroom or program.

Defining Tinkering

Rachelle Doorley, educator, author, and founder of TinkerLab, shares her definition of a tinkerer: “one who experiments with materials and ideas to fully understand their capacities, and who further iterates on their learning to find better solutions to current problems. Tinkering is about hands-on experiences, learning from failures, and unstructured time to explore and invent.”

There are many definitions of tinkering that float around the world of early childhood education. But, generally speaking, tinkering refers to the kind of open-ended, hands-on, focused exploration of a variety of different materials that often leads to new ideas and discoveries.

An NAEYC article explains, “Children initially use their senses to explore the physical properties of materials. They tinker as they take things apart, put things together, figure out how things work, and attempt to build and make creations using tools.”

Tinkering and Early Learning

One of the cornerstones of tinkering is an emphasis on process over product. The end result is less important than the children’s experiences. Tinkering often looks like children making and creating new things, or exploring different parts to investigate how they work together.

To enhance the tinkering experience, early childhood educators will want to offer a variety of materials for exploration. Tinkering can be supported by asking children open-ended questions like “I wonder what would happen if…?”, by encouraging children to try a variety of approaches, and by reinforcing the satisfaction children can experience when they learn how things work.

For older children, tinkering can be done in a group setting. This offers an opportunity for children to work together and learn important skills in teamwork, problem-solving, collaboration, experimentation, and perseverance.

Tinkering, Making & STEM

Venn diagram of Tinkering for STEM including Tinkering, Making and Engineering

Often, you will hear the word tinkering in conversations related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning,  specifically the engineering component of STEM. According to NAEYC,  “tinkering is the more playful relative of the more serious activity of engineering…Engineers solve problems by making things that work or by making things work better.”

The work of an engineer follows a process of brainstorming, building, testing, revising, and sharing. Children can follow similar steps as they work with different materials while tinkering. This facilitates a rich, hands-on learning-by-exploring experience that is full of real-world applications.

While tinkering, making, and engineering are similar terms, they describe unique approaches.  To better understand the differences, check out the diagram above from the NAEYC article, which explains that, “Tinkering and making are often used interchangeably, but making lies somewhere in between tinkering and engineering. Tinkering is using stuff. Making is using stuff to make stuff (that sometimes does stuff, but sometimes is just cool). Engineering is using stuff to make stuff that does stuff.”

An Environment for Tinkering: Creating a Makerspace

A “makerspace” is a term used to describe a dedicated space for tinkering and creating. The space is shared by all children, with opportunities for both individual and group projects. Whether you have a small makerspace area in your classroom or an entire makerspace room in your program, children will enjoy an opportunity for creativity and project-based learning.

What kinds of things might you find in a makerspace?

In a makerspace, you will usually see a variety of different materials children can

use to explore and create. The materials will be easily accessible and displayed so that children are able to view all of the different items that are available to use.

Of course, educators should always consider the age of children in their care and ensure the materials used are safe and developmentally appropriate. Smaller pieces are best for children who are older and less curious about exploring items with their mouths.

  • An art bar is a table or shelf that displays a variety of art materials for children, such as markers, tape, paper, crayons, stickers, paint and brushes, yarn, or any other materials you have available that children can use for artistic expression.

  • Legos, or other blocks and building materials are commonly found in makerspaces. Children love to build with open-ended materials that allow them to use their imagination and creativity. Legos and blocks made of wood or foam are great for children to practice building. You might even use empty cardboard boxes or plastic containers for children who want to construct on a larger scale.

  • Books about science, construction, electronics, or influential people from the STEM field can be a great source of creative inspiration for children. You can make the books feel more accessible to the little ones in your classroom by displaying them upright with the book covers at the children’s eye level.

  • Recycled and found materials, such as paper towel and toilet paper rolls, empty plastic containers, egg cartons, corks, and other found materials are great for children to create with — and they offer an opportunity to engage in conversation about reusing materials!

Inspiration for setting up your own makerspace

To see a makerspace in action, you might enjoy the video below that features Fairsite Preschool near Sacramento, California. The video shows children exploring a makerspace classroom while educators and parents support children in their learning and exploration:



If you’re looking for more inspiration to create your own makerspace, Tinkerlab recently shared a series of makerspace tours in the article, Tinkering Spaces. The series includes interviews with makers and tinkerers of all kinds: parents, teachers, librarians, and artists.

Tags:   STEM & numeracy
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