Tinker into Critical Thinking

The other day my middle son announced he shattered the screen on his (used) iPhone 5 and took out the sim card and put it in his brother’s less broken old iPhone. My first reaction was to say, “What?!” Then I was impressed. I would have dashed off to the local phone fix-it shop and dropped $100 to get the screen replaced. But he didn’t have any money and figured he couldn’t make it any worse than it already was.

Tinkering is not new. I’m sure many of your grandparents have shared stories of needing to fix things because throwing something away and buying a new one wasn’t an option. I find this is especially true of people who grew up during the depression of the 1930s. But tinkering is even older than that — it’s been around for centuries. All that fiddling with recipes, updating clothes and working in farm machine sheds is tinkering. However, a more complete definition comes from the dictionary (via Google, of course): “to work in the manner of a tinker; especially: to repair, adjust, or work with something in an unskilled or experimental manner”.

Why is tinkering so popular now?

Just the act of tinkering — taking something apart that’s broken to see how it works and possibly even fixing it — makes us think critically. When kids tinker they’re analyzing and evaluating. Essentially, they’re learning how to learn. The important skill is not how to fix change out a sim card, it’s how to look at a problem and devise a solution. Learning repetitive tasks won’t prepare our kids for careers that likely don’t even exist yet, but learning how to address increasingly complex problems by tinkering and testing plausible solutions will.

How to tinker

Let your kids play with that broken VCR in the garage or make a scale with nuts and string. Let them make a mess. Let them get stuck. Let them get frustrated. Ask some open-ended questions but don’t give “the answer” because unlike multiplication tables, there isn’t just “one right answer.”

Letting go as a parent can be scary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come home to find my daughter and her friends making slime in the kitchen or baking our pet chickens “treats.” I just keep telling myself that the tile is easy to vacuum and the chickens know better than to eat super-salty “cookies.” After all, they’ve learned baked goods generally needs some eggs and fat to bind all the ingredients together.

Another great resource comes from a local maker super-star, Dr. AnnMarie Thomas, an engineering and business professor from the University of St. Thomas. Prof. Thomas’ book, Making Makers, guides both parents and educators to help raise kids who are creative, lifelong learners. Incidentally, Prof. Thomas and one of her students invented squishy circuits, which the museum uses, to teach her own children the principles of electricity.

Tinkering at the museum

If your kitchen isn’t ready for a baking tornado, let your kids make their messes in The Studio. Every few months, we’ll offer new materials such as electric circuits made with copper tape or homemade playdough to tinker with along with recycled doodads in the inventor’s workshop to make “stuff” with. Drop in anytime for some fun and foster some critical thinking.

Sara Kerr, Director of Content and Communications
Mother of three


Thanks to the generosity of The Donaldson Foundation, the Tinker experience in The Studio features hands-on activities for children to explore electrical circuitry. These interactive activities in our maker space offer children open-ended play experiences in which they dream, design, and drive the discovery in making circuits come to life.

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