Learning Through Tinkering

SAN FRANCISCO — My 9-year-old daughter is in the midst of a “pioneer” unit in her third grade class. It’s a great example of a project-based curriculum: The kids are developing math skills by determining what and how much they can pack without overloading wagons for a cross-country trek. They roll a “twist of fate” die that presents (virtual) obstacles they might have faced in the late 19th century — bad weather, loss of livestock, etc. — and then have to problem-solve to get their trek back on track. They’re reading a variety of historical perspectives, such as Louise Erdrich’s “The Birchbark House” and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. And perhaps most important, they’re learning about self-sufficiency and resilience — and how even the youngest kids needed it in spades.

Before the Industrial Revolution really kicked into high gear, people had to know how to do everything, from navigating routes to preserving food, building homes to sewing clothes. You couldn’t head to the nearest supermarket or mall, you had to figure out how to make it, catch it, build it or grow it. For contemporary kids used to streaming video, play dates and even drone delivery, it’s illuminating to learn about this. And it’s not something easily — or typically — conveyed through grade school homework.

I’m not nostalgic for pioneer days. I’m a huge fan of modern conveniences. But as we’ve become so disconnected from where things come from, from the knowledge, resources and effort required to fulfill even the most basic needs, I believe we’ve lost something essential (if intangible). That’s why I want to talk about two amazing endeavors geared toward cultivating that sort of resourcefulness and creativity.

If we want to raise kids to be independent thinkers and change-makers, one of the best things we can do is give them the tools to figure stuff out for themselves. And a terrific manual for that is “50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do),” by Gever Tulley, a self-taught software engineer.

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A Tinkering School instructor and a student collaborate on a project. CreditTinkering School

“There are not enough opportunities in a child’s life to be taken seriously, to be given autonomy and to learn authentically,” says Tulley. “I think they need learning opportunities that respect and incorporate their ideas.”

Tulley’s book presents 50 challenges (with instructions), each utterly at odds with today’s rampant helicopter parenting, such as Stand on a Roof, Taste Electricity (by licking a 9-volt battery), Dam a Creek and (I’ll admit I’m not ready to allow this one yet) Cross Town on Public Transportation.

“50 Dangerous Things” emphasizes the importance of introducing risk, facilitating autonomy and letting kids know that with danger comes discovery. This book comes to life at The Tinkering School, a program Tulley started here in San Francisco in 2000. (There is also a K-12 school, Brightworks, and a sleepaway camp down the coast; the program has recently expanded to Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin and Buffalo.)

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My daughter works on a ticket booth as part of a project by Tinkering School students to build structures for a carnival. CreditTinkering School

At the start of the week, children are given a project: to design and build a Yellow Submarine, perhaps, or to construct a Monster City and a mechanical King Kong to destroy it. Starting as early as age 6, kids are taught how to use tools (hammers, orbital sanders, skilsaws) safely and responsibly (and to put everything back the way they found it at the end of the day). They form teams, determine tasks and timelines and, with guidance from an expert crew of instructors (the ratio is about one adult to four kids), are entrusted as project leaders designers and heads of a construction crew.

This isn’t just a bunch of kids messing around with stuff. Behind the chaos you can see the gears turning. There is no template, no set of instructions (and no screens). They need to be attentive, engaged and curious. As they begin a project, they’re learning how to collaborate, identify the skill sets of their group and deploy those talents accordingly, and problem-solve creatively. “The use of real tools dramatically increases agency,” says the Tinkering School’s manager, Joshua Rothhaas. “It’s like learning Spanish and suddenly realizing you can talk to about 400 million more people in the world than you could before you knew Spanish. It fundamentally changes the way your kid thinks about the world, how it works, and what they are capable of.”

All these children need are tools, materials and guidance. From there, their imaginations take over and creative problem-solving commences. They are still young enough not to have totally surrendered to that horrible adult trait of second-guessing. They’re given parameters and deadlines, which they take with the utmost seriousness. And at week’s end, the kids take the project apart; the materials can be reused and recycled, so they’re also learning about the life cycle of products and materials.

“When I started 10 years ago, I had the strong sense that kids were not being treated as competent people,” says Tulley. “It was as if no one expected them to be able to actually do anything until they graduated high school. I knew that they were capable of more, and wanted to create a place where they could show themselves and their parents that they could tackle a big problem.”

The Tinkering School ethos is echoed across the bay at Project H in Berkeley, Calif., where, says its founder, Emily Pilloton, “There’s no reason in the entire world to be bored.”

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Project H students with the frame of one of two houses they are building for the homeless. CreditProject H

After graduating from architecture school, Pilloton quickly became disenchanted with what she was being paid to design while working at a for-profit design company. So, in 2008, she established Project H, a nonprofit that merges design and hands-on building to inspire youth, transform communities and improve K-12 public education from within. She and her small team teach 200 students at the Realm Charter School in Berkeley (it’s part of the regular curriculum). She also runs a summer camp for girls, and recently added a weekend workshop program for adults. (I couldn’t let my daughter have all the fun — I took welding with Pilloton last year and can’t wait to do it again.)

Her young crew is currently building two tiny houses that they designed. In the process, they’re looking at housing through a social, economic and environmental lens: upon completion of work, the students will donate the homes to Opportunity Village, an organization that helps the homeless in Eugene, Ore. Pilloton had wanted to donate locally but this group is the only one she could find that uses houses of this size (175 – 200 square feet) to house the homeless legally. Her students learned another valuable lesson as aspiring designers/architects — you’ve got to learn to work with zoning restrictions.

Creating something as ubiquitous as a house, says Pilloton, makes these kids look at the things around them in a different way because now they understand how they’re put together. (By the way, this all happens on an annual budget of $200,000. I think the greater challenge is the inability to clone multiple Emily Pillotons.)

“Every student in our class has something to contribute,” says Pilloton. “When you put a tool in the hands of a young person there’s the instinct to use it in a really creative way. It’s super powerful for a kid to say I drew this thing and now I’m building it.”

As Pilloton describes what and how these kids, and the young girls in particular, are learning, her observations jibe with what I’ve seen with my own daughter. “It’s powerful and necessary to give girls the opportunity to do something unexpected,” she says. “There’s nothing you could say to them that they wouldn’t try.” In short, they’re true pioneers.

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