The Transformative Power of Tinkering With Gever Tulley

10 years of Tinkering experience has taught me that kids can build anything, and through building, learn anything.  But it can be hard to bring open-ended Tinkering into homes and classrooms.  I’m creating the Tinkering Labs Catalyst kits to give parents and teachers a convenient and affordable option, but there are many ways to integrate Tinkering into the activities you and your children are already doing.

So what is Tinkering, why does it matter, and how can you make it a fun, educational, and maybe even transformative part of your kids’ lives?

Tinkering is serious play.

Ten years ago, a group of seven-year-old kids took part in a week-long experiment at my ranch south of San Francisco. The question was: if you give kids a big challenge, real tools, time to think, work and play, and just enough guidance to prevent serious injury, what can they get done? What will they learn? And how can it change the way they see the world and themselves?

The answers came in the form of a functioning roller coaster big enough for an adult to ride on. In the five days that it took the kids to build it, they not only experienced the sense of accomplishment, but they picked up some important 21st century life skills. Not just things like how to measure properly and use power tools safely, but skills that will help them face life’s inevitable challenges down the road: teamwork, resilience, creativity and adaptability. 

Why are these skills an increasing rarity,
and how can Tinkering help?

I believe our increasingly virtualized and electronic world creates amazing opportunities, but it also takes kids out of the context that millions of years of evolution has prepared them for.  Tinkering helps by waking up a dormant part of kids’ minds and bodies through serious play. It’s like what happens when a herding dog raised in the ‘burbs suddenly finds itself in a field of sheep. Unused but highly refined parts of its brain and body turn on, and it starts doing what it was born to do. I’ve seen the same thing happen to kids when they're Tinkering. Given a real world challenge and the freedom to address it with real tools, their bodies start moving, their brains light up, and the pure joy of deep, creative engagement with the world powers them. 

Parents often tell us stories
about the power of Tinkering. 

To the parents, a transformation is clear in how their kids learn to see the world (people invented and made all this stuff!) and changes in how the kids see themselves (I can figure out how to fix that!). Tinkering changes these kids because it plants the seeds of competence: the ability to overcome setbacks (resilience), the habit of thinking past the obvious solution to the non-obvious solutions (creativity), and the confidence to change course when things aren’t working (adaptability). Tinkering also teaches kids how the world works, frequently in the form of “STEM” knowledge—e.g. what happens when you short a circuit or how to account for shear strength vs. compression strength, but I still think the primary driver of the transformation is the experience of engaged, creative work in the real world.

Three easy tips
to get your kids Tinkering 

1.  Bring Tinkering to what they already love.

Create a space or bin with a bunch of materials—a hot glue gun, measuring tape, basic tools like a screwdriver and hammer, rubber bands, spare pieces of wood, etc - and challenge your kids to make something.  If your child likes to play with Legos, see if she can make a bridge that will hold her soccer ball. Or, if he likes to cook, encourage him to make up his own recipes and see what happens (it’s amazing what ¼ cup of baking powder can do!). Or try using string, levers and pulleys to get ingredients in the pan for dinner (if they figure this out, please send them to my house). And man oh man, what could they do with a sprinkler, hose and some balloons? This is the heart of innovation—if kids imagine how things could be instead of simply accepting them the way they are now, they will create a better world.

2. Be the assistant, not the boss.

Tinkering is incredibly fun for both kids and adults, but resist the urge to do it yourself or take over your kids’ projects. Instead, help with the mechanics: if your child isn’t coordinated enough to cut in a straight line, help them. If they don’t know how to use a screwdriver, show them. But don’t interfere with their designs or experiments—the learning and skills come from ownership and the ability to bounce back from failures and solve problems on their own.

3.  Spread the joy of Tinkering.

Talk to your school and camp programs about bringing in Tinkering activities. This doesn’t require a ton of money, supplies or even Tinkering know-how. For example, check out for a kit I just created called the “Electric Motors Catalyst.”  The kit includes a bunch of materials I’ve designed and selected—like real hardware, wood parts and electric motors—to enable kids to solve 20 challenges like “Build a machine that can climb a string” or “Build a machine that can scramble an egg” in countless ways.

Most of all, just give your kids the trust, freedom and time to explore and create—I guarantee they will surprise you with their natural ingenuity. Together, we can create the next generation of innovators—Tinkering For All!

Gever Tulley’s work has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, and The Atlantic, among others, and his TED Talks have over 4 million views. He is the author of 50 Dangerous Things (you should let your kids do), founder of Tinkering School summer camps, K-12 school Brightworks, and now Tinkering Labs, a company that designs Tinkering kits for use in homes, schools and groups. Learn more on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.