Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors

Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide For Little Inventors
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A practical book to help parents set up creative spaces, to learn ways to allow children to play, create and destruct, in ways they might not have yet thought of. Beautiful images, inspiring ideas enjoyable to peruse. Ideal for ages 3-7.

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I love it when someone else puts one of my own values into published words:

“Accept boredom as a tool for self-discovery.”

It’s so easy to use TV, tablets, apps or even just children’s toys that do the thinking for them, to distract our kids as soon as the first sounds of grizzly discontentment hit. But Tinkerlab presents a different option, allow a little boredom, but make room for creativity.  I see this as a personal challenge to my parenting, so this morning instead of Thomas the Tank Engine on TV, Action Man (age 3) and I painted circles on paper plates.

A toddler fully engaged in creative play

Action Man painting plates in the sunshine

This activity time involved a much bigger commitment of my time than him being entertained by the TV would, but the benefit is ongoing, as since we have finished painting, his creative play is continuing without me (he’s currently running around the house chasing a dragon). And I have had the benefit of some one-on-one quality time with someone I love, doing something fun. Why should preschool teachers get all the fun!

So what is Tinkerlab? Tinkerlab is a book full of specific creative suggestions, helping parents to put into practice creative activities or jump-off ideas for kids to learn through doing. The book says:

“A tinkerlab is a welcoming space that celebrates the processes of experimentation, exploration, and critical thinking. Turn your home into an environment that supports creativity and creation and you’ll encourage your child to become an independent, flexible thinker and innovator who tackles life’s problems and opportunities with gusto.”

There are two very practical parts to this book. The first section is “Prepare” which has chapters that walk you right through the process of setting up a simple but useful creative space in your house, which will look different for each family.

I love the idea of having materials for making/creating always available. It allows kids to get on with being creative, without needing adults. However, I struggled with how to set this up, with a toddler and a preschooler, so last year our creative shelves were in a cupboard that needed to be opened by an adult, just to contain the chaos.

Creation Station

One year on, I’ve included a picture of our very basic creative shelves. On top we have the paper box which has various scraps of paper and regular white printer paper, and sometimes colouring pictures. There is space on top too, for the Young Engineer’s school reading folder. The second shelf has something inspiring, a box of felts, crayons, pens, and kid scissors and a box which changes (think it has stencils at the moment). The bottom shelf has our library books in one box and the other is our “Maker box.” Thanks to Mr Maker’s drawers this is a familiar concept to my boys, and it gives my recycling another chance before it ends life in the recycling bin.

“Prepare” also includes a chapter on “Tools for Tinkering” and the third chapter “Ten Tinkerlab Habits of Mind” which explains in more detail the rationale behind the following statements:

Ten Tinkerlab Habits of Mind

  • Habit 1: Make room for creativity
  • Habit 2: Encourage questions
  • Habit 3: Listen actively
  • Habit 4: Be curious
  • Habit 5: See mistakes as gifts
  • Habit 6: Embrace a good mess
  • Habit 7: Accept boredom as tool for self-discovery
  • Habit 8: Step back and enjoy the flow
  • Habit 9: Spend time outdoors
  • Habit 10: Think of everything as an experiment.

The second half of the book is labelled “Experience” and claims it has 55 creative experiments. But each activity has multiple variations, so there must be hundreds of starting point ideas.

This book is based on a website, so I did wonder if it was worth the cost of a book when I can just find inspiration online.  I bought it as the Young Engineer, at 5, does not have access to the internet for ideas. While this will be happening soon enough I’m sure, I love that this book has such great photos of real activities taking place, that they inspire him to try something new. And the pictures also inspire me, without me getting bogged down by the very many options available on the internet buffet of creative kid ideas.

When reading about such inspiring projects, it can be easy to get caught up in the myth that to be a good parent you need to be constantly providing one-on-one high quality art projects. And that these projects all result in something beautiful in the end. And that you should take your measure of successful parenting from this.

Thankfully, the philosophy the book works from is actually the opposite. That a good parent encourages independent, creative play and that minimally supervised play outside in the mud is just as good (I hope so because that kind of play sure features heavily here). That allowing space and resources for children to come up with their own creative ideas is important. And that process of creating is more important than final product.

We haven’t used this resource as much as I would like, because as the book is aimed at age 6 and under, many of the ideas do involve parental involvement, as that’s the nature of teaching new ideas to preschoolers.

So, how’s my dragon catcher going? He’s stopped several times to “read” a Thomas the Tank Engine Magazine, and once I did need to join him on an epic journey down the hallway, with my hose because the dragon’s fire was getting too hot for him to handle. But creative play has definitely been the winner here today.

Awesome or Average: Awesome

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