Especially for Parents: The Value of Tinkering

My late uncle loved to tinker. At his beloved cabin you would most often find him in the garage amongst his tools, trying to figure out (often with success) how to repair any number of broken items: lawn chairs, doorknobs, kitchen utensils, and more. While he believed that something broken could and should be restored instead of thrown away, I also think that he simply loved to explore how things worked.

The definition of tinkering is to “attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory way, often to no useful effect.” The last phrase of the definition is deceiving, however, because while the object that is being tinkered with may turn out to have no particular use, the process of tinkering is highly valuable.

For children, the opportunity to tinker with real-life materials can help them build problem-solving and creative thinking skills. Through tinkering, they develop fine motor skills by manipulating small objects. It can help them gain confidence by making them familiar with the physical attributes of various materials and by building an understanding of how things work. When done in groups, tinkering builds social skills and cooperation.

How can adults foster this valuable process (which is becoming more valuable in a busy and digitized world)? The answer is relatively simple. Children need time and real-life materials. Do you have an old VCR, DVD player, or even a computer that could be taken apart and used for tinkering? What about some cardboard, tape, and toothpicks? Or you could take the tinkering process outside, using natural materials such as sticks, rocks, and water, in combination with tools. Then, give your child a substantial amount of free, self-directed time during which they can tinker. While it may be tempting to help your child create something that has a function, it’s important to remember that tinkering is about the process rather than an end product with any useful purpose.

You can find inspiration and resources online on how and why to foster tinkering at your home. Here are a few places you might start:

Why is Tinkering Important?

And if you are ready for a tinkering field trip, check out:

The Studio