This summer, Tinkering School Day Camp launched a second location for younger folks (Junior Day Camp). It's an experiment where we have limited the age range of the Tinkerers and also limited their access to building materials and tools.
Our big important goals at Tinkering School are about collaboration, problem-solving, curiosity and perseverance. Fabrication is just the medium through which we explore those goals. Team problem-solving is the end, fabrication is the means.
But, sometimes it's worth thinking about the means. What, exactly, would we like kids to take away from their time at Tinkering School, with respect to fabrication? Here are some thoughts:
For Heavy Lifting week I was excited about building a Claw Machine! Claw machines were a big part of my childhood and I realized, while walking down memory lane, that they contain some interesting problems that would be hard to think about, but easy to build. There would be simple, sliding movement, but in three dimensions. I figured out the gist of how classic claw machines worked, so that our team could have a good understanding of what parts we’d need to build, and was ready to tinker out the details with the kids as we came to them.
In this series, we offer step-by-step breakdowns of how Tinkering School helps kids use tools safely and efficiently. Feel free to use, share, comment and re-mix!
Clamps are great--they hold stuff together. For young builders, clamps are even more than a way to keep work from moving--they're a path to self-sufficiency and a step away from dependence on adults.
Here's our approach to training young builders on clamps.
1. GIVE KIDS CONTEXT
At the beginning of clamp training, reiterate that all power tools the campers will be using are two-handed tools. Since both hands will be operating the tool, campers will need a way to hold their work in place, and (bonus!) maybe even hold tiny work to a larger, more stable object.
2. INTRODUCE THE TOOL
Give a quick demo of the two types of clamps--with emphasis on the superior of the twisty variety. (The operation of Squeezy clamps is more easily-guessable, so these are often the first choice of campers. However, the extra 30 seconds involved in learning the operation of the Twisty is justified by their superior holding ability).
Squeezy: Show and tell how the clamp has two triggers, one smaller and one larger.
Show and tell how pressing and holding the smaller trigger allows the jaw to slide backwards and forwards, making the opening larger or smaller.
Show and tell how repeatedly, firmly squeezing the larger trigger slides the jaw forwards, making the opening smaller, to grip work.
Twisty: Show and tell how there are two ways of interacting with the clamp--squeezing the tab to slide the lower jaw; and tightening the screw.
Show and tell how squeezing the tab allows the lower jaw to slide backwards and forwards, making the opening larger or smaller.
Show and tell how turning the screw makes the opening smaller, to grip work.
Be sure to show how either clamp can hold together two pieces of wood to be joined with screws, allowing the builder to use both hands in drilling. Also show how to clamp work to a workbench for greater stability. Actually screwing two clamped pieces together will add more context for the group.
4. MEANINGFUL PRACTICE
Let's face it--clamps lack the charisma and romance of the drills or chopsaw. After many years of trying to make clamp practice fun and exciting, we stumbled upon the Clamp-a-Ma-Jig! The challenge is to build the largest structure possible out of scraps of wood--held together only by clamps.
Build up, build out and use as many clamps as possible! Challenge kids to build something taller than themselves, taller than you; build a limbo, spell your name--anything to get kids using clamps. (Before disassembling Clamp-a-Ma-Jigs, be sure to remind kids that when you un-clamp two pieces of wood, they will indeed, fall!)
And, now for the real fun of clamp training: the clamp-a-ma-jig! Build up, build out and hold a whole lot of 2x3s together with clamps. Build something taller than yourself, taller than the collaborator you’re working with, build a limbo, spell your name, you get the idea. Remember: clamps are heavy and pokey; when you un-clamp two pieces of wood, they are no longer clamped together!
5. FINER POINTS
Think Before Clamping: Encourage kids to ask themselves: which two pieces am I trying to hold together? Are the pieces massive enough that they won't move after they're clamped, or should I clamp them to a large object for stability?
Use hand to model how the clamp will hold the two pieces together. This is a great strategy because it replicates the actual shape of the mouth of the clamp and can help keep clampers from clamping to nothing.
Keep Clamp Tails Out of the Way
The long, unused tail of the clamp can get in the way of work, or even give an unpleasant poke. When possible, make sure that clamp tails are facing away from people!
BLOOD BUBBLE: Intentionally-macabre name for the three-dimensional space around every tool where, if a body part should wander in, there is a greater probability of injury. Notable blood bubbles include:
Full-arm radius around anyone using a knife or hand saw.
The area forward of a spinning drill bit.
The manufacturer-marked areas on the chop saw.
TWO-HANDED TOOL: Useful phrase for reminding kids that every tool should require the use of both hands. For some big or heavy tools (like the circular saw or portable metal bandsaw), this is out of sheer necessity. For smaller tools that could, technically, be operated with just one hand (like the pull saw or a hammer), encourage kids to use the tool-less hand to hold the work firmly in place, or grab on to a stable surface. Unoccupied hands tend to float around, and are more likely to unconsciously drift into the Blood Bubble). Every tool is a two-handed tool.
VICTORY DRILLING: The not-allowed but seemingly-inevitable tendency of first-time tinkerers to hold a drill aloft and squeeze the trigger, just-for-funzies. Victory drilling is, undeniably, fun but is verboten here at Tinkering School--the risk of someone's hair or clothes or eyeball getting twisted around a drill bit does not justify the tiny dose of joy to be had from squeezing a trigger. Drills are power tools; power tools are serious--drills may be used for making holes and driving screws. Period.
WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT?
It was the last of 8 weeks of Tinkering School Summer Day Camp. As an experiment, we decided to do a service project. We partnered with Urban Sprouts (an organization that focuses on creating healthy schools and communities through garden based education) to help them create a giant shed and planters.
We had put most of our attention in the shed as it was one of the largest projects we have made in Tinkering School. The planters were a nice mid-week project to give the kids an opportunity to work on something else. We made the planters out of broken plates and cement and casted them in a giant sandbox box.
Danger and destruction, done well. Using safety gear, the kids got to smash a bunch of plates with hammers til there were a bunch of tiny pieces.
Cool end product. They got to create a mosaic planter.
Kid stoke. There was really great engagement and group cooperation.
Different materials from the other projects. We got to try some different materials: plates, cement and a sandbox.
Change of pace. The project was a much needed break in the week from the shed (the power of the mid-week project).
Service. The planters were for Urban Sprout, not us. The kids really bought in to the idea of community service, helping a client.
The tough part of clients. Is that it means higher standards of durability for the end products. One of the planters unfortunately broke (it’s hard to distribute the cement evenly!)
Messy, messy messy. The sandboxes created a nice big mess and was a ton of clean up. Long hours of clean up can be demoralizing for staff and kids.
We learned the power of introducing the mid-week project, it gives a nice refresher and an energy boost for both staff and kids. Chaos, well organized chaos, can be fun. Destruction and reassembly are really satisfying, especially since kids get the opportunity to live out the fantasy of breaking plates that they wouldn’t be able to beak at home. Opa!
--by Nikki Lau
WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT?
It was week 2 of Tinkering School Summer Day Camp, the theme of the week was "FORTS!".
We were throwing out a bunch of ideas and as my first love is clay I threw out the idea of making a clay fort. I came in thinking it would be so easy, as I have been working in clay for 8 years. A few things my hubris did not consider: we would be mixing our own clay due to ordering the wrong clay, tiny coil bowls are not the same thing as a 400 times larger upside down version, and a lack of structural support and thin walls does not make a strong foundation.
Making our own materials. We got to mix 300+ lbs of clay with the kids from scratch.
Responding to Unseen Problems by Changing Plans. The transition from our original idea--coils of clay--to bricks was a more structurally sound idea.
Modeling engagement. As long as you are working, the kids will observe you and want to join in. Your commitment is part of the buy in.
Perseverance. We finished the fort at the 11th hour.
Novel materials. Wood is really clean. Here, the kids got the chance to get messy and use a unique material in large quantities.
A tad tedious. Hand mixing clay took a lot of time.
Epic (structural) fail. The fort caved in by day 2 and we had to switch to bricks. The clay was still super wet and we didn’t build an internal structure, hence the fort caved in.
No documentation. We forgot to get a picture of the final product. It'd be cooler if those kids could have some reminder of how hard they worked.
I learned our motto by week 2 of summer camp and embraced it ever since then: “Failure is data collection.” It takes a lot of stubbornness and determination to finish a project. I learned the highlights and pitfalls of operating from a visual versus a structural perspective. It was a challenging project, but I am glad we tied it. Honestly, it was wonderful to look at myself and the kids at the end of the day and just know how happy we were to just get messy.
--by Nikki Lau
We asked the folks who run Tinkering Schools, "What are three awesome things worth sharing with other folks who build with kids?"
Their replies are below!
NAME: Mary Beth
TINKERING SCHOOL LOCATION: at reDiscover Center, Los Angeles, CA
THING WORTH SHARING 1: For early arriving campers, each morning provide a LEGO Challenge in a side room. We borrowed a 50 LB loose collection from a local Lego Club and wrote up a daily design challenge to build in LEGO that related to some of that day's planned building in the workshop. This gets the kids building and working with each other from the moment they arrive. It also keeps campers out of the main workshop, so last minute preparations can continue uninterrupted while one staff member or parents supervise the kids. And our Tinkerers loved the transition from playing with toys to "real" camp as they lined up as a group to enter the workshop.
THING WORTH SHARING 2: Slowly reveal tools through the first two days as campers train up on safe tool use. We put most of our hand tools on an island in the center of the workshop and leave sections (like the hand saws) of that island under covers for the first day so campers focus on the tools they have in hand. Same thing with the standing power tools (chop saw, band saw, and drill press), which remain covered until the afternoon of the second day, or for some groups, the third morning.
THING WORTH SHARING 3: Make clean up fun, organized, and predictable with a chore wheel. This was a new one for us in 2014 which I tried with a little trepidation that it would kill our cooperative vibe, but it worked really, really well. I made a chore wheel with each camper and counselor's name on one wheel and an equal number of cleaning tasks on the other, including: pick up dropped hardware, return loose tools, sort unused lumber, sweep power tools, sweep tool island, etc. I think hearing that other people will be cleaning other parts of the workshop helped our campers focus on the cleaning assigned to them rather than trying to "clean the whole room" for a few minutes then giving up, frustrated and bored.
TINKERING SCHOOL LOCATION: Austin, TX
THING WORTH SHARING 1: Stealing. I don't always use the word stealing, but I do find sometimes it's a great motivator for getting tinkerers to 'borrow' or 'share' ideas with others. In the group projects I'll often whisper in a kid's ear "You know, I noticed Team Picki solved that problem, do you want to sneak over there and see how they did it? Maybe we can 'steal' it from them!" I always try to explain that this is actually sharing ideas and all ideas are 'inspired' by other work, blah, blah, blah. But I do think the excitement of 'stealing' works for some kids.
THING WORTH SHARING 2: Hot Glue and the 3D printer. I always use "fancy hot glue gun" to describe how the extrusion based 3D printers work. I've also had success setting out a bunch of hot glue guns and having kids build something, layer by layer, with hot glue to show them how the printers work. Plus, it's more fun than having a bunch of kids standing around one 3D printer.
THING WORTH SHARING 3: Wood Strength Demo. Every time I work with the SF crew I'm reminded of the wood strength demo that they do and how awesome it is to have a 50lb kid break a 2x4 in half! Or how the orientation of wood can mean the different between strong and weak.
TINKERING SCHOOL LOCATION: San Francisco, CA
THING WORTH SHARING 1: Low-affordance drill storage. The absolute easiest, most satisfying way to put the drills back is also the correct way. We spend about 0 minutes/session managing this.
THING WORTH SHARING 2: "Clamp-a-ma-jig Clamp Training". We'd had a really hard time getting kids stoked on clamps during tool trainings (at the beginning of each session). This summer, we figured out a training that they really liked, that got them into using the clamps: who can build the largest structure out of scraps and just clamps (no fasteners)?
THING WORTH SHARING 3: "The Elbow Touch of Sanity". At the beginning of each session, we ask kids to ask for help by touching a person's elbow, not shouting the person's name. This makes a quieter, more focused workspace. Also, it incentivizes trying a little harder before asking for help.
TINKERING SCHOOL LOCATION: Buffalo, NY
THING WORTH SHARING 1: Japanese Pull-Saws. One of the most important tools in our toolbox happens to be our Japanese saws. This type withstands all children, for all occasions. Handle is seriously durable. Love it!
THING WORTH SHARING 2: Add quirky things to your builds. Above is a picture from one of our Tinkering Pop Up Playground events. An architect friend brought giant spools to the site, just for kicks. Kids spent hours building, sitting and jumping on them. Finally after getting very familiar with these spools a group of 6 made a car out of it. Quirky leads to innovation.
THING WORTH SHARING 3: Wash up. An important lesson I learned during our camp is the need for an occasional washroom break. Kids get so involved with the work they are doing, they will not want to stop, even if their bodies are saying STOP!!! An occasional reminder will help alleviate any accidents. Maddy, our four- year-old tinkerer, told me once during our workshop "First I go potty, then I learn how to saw" Smart thinking Maddy. That is our mantra.
If you build stuff with kids and have figured out something awesome, share it to email@example.com !
On the last day of camp this summer, I found myself frantically threading rope and tying knots to finish the project (part of an obstacle course), while the tinkerers played in the park. At that moment, I had to wonder: Is it OK that I’m helping this much?
As a collaborator, I don’t want to either be so overbearing that I take over the project, but I’m also wary of becoming so far removed that I’m not helping kids when they need support.
It’s important to give kids the space they need to innovate and problem-solve, but it’s also important to model engagement and be ready to teach.
While wrestling with these opposing goals, I’ve come to think of myself as a sort of seeing-eye dog. Tinkerers walk into camp with some skills and knowledge, but they also come with some gaping blind spots. It’s my job as a collaborator/guide dog to use my skills and knowledge to fill in the cracks in theirs.
My goal is to help them to do more than they could by themselves while also keeping them safe. By offering them, albeit temporarily, my broader set of skills, they can feel more empowered as makers, while also learning a few new tricks.
So was it OK for me to put together the final pieces of the project? I think so. That team of tinkerers (where the average age was six), didn’t have the manual dexterity, height, and strength needed to create a sturdy rope web. So, the parts that they could do, they did, the parts they needed help with, I helped with, and the parts that I needed to do, I did. When the kids returned from the park, they were surprised but not displeased. Their wonder quickly gave way to a new flurry of bracing and bolting, before their parents arrived.
WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT?
It was a 5-day camp with 36 kids, held in the mayo factory. The theme of the week was "Monster City". The big projects were a pretty-huge-sized replica of the spire of the Chrysler Building (for King Kong to climb), a 40'x40' city made of cardboard and a moving, rolling Godzilla Monster (to destroy the Cardboard City at the end of the week.
Lindsay was leading this project, she knew that Godzilla needed to roll, and should have some interesting bells and whistles (i.e., be more than just a box on casters).
- kids forming teams and cooperating on their own (kids self selected into small groups focused on subtasks, and cooperated through tough spots with minimal adult help)
- killer execution (kids losing themselves of features like shingled-spinal spikes, an articulate tail made of hinges, and the crazy fabric skin and eyes
- not quite enough time to bring features from "Good Enough" to "Really Sweet" (It could have breathed fire!)
Awesome execution always feels good.
Build a frame as quickly as you can, then start in on the interesting stuff.
Listen master, can you answer a question?
Is it my fingers or my brain that's learning the lesson?
--"Black Math" by The White Stripes
Picture this: it's Monday morning at Tinkering School. Seven-year-old Niko is about to practice using the power drill. He has his hands full with a drill, a battery and a bucket of screws.
Niko asks a collaborator, "Where are the drill bits?"
At this moment, the collaborator has two options:
A) point out the location of the drill bits and, seeing that Niko's hands are completely full, grab one for him; or
B) point out the location of the drill bits and point out that he'll probably need to put her other tools down before he can grab one.
We strongly endorse option B; here's why:
To do is to learn. Through the course of the day, Niko will have two basic kinds of learning experiences:
- taking in facts (e.g., "drill bits are on the tool wall, above the charged batteries). This type of experience creates declarative memory
- performing physical actions (e.g., actually reaching his hand into the drill bit container and grabbing one). This type of experience creates procedural memory
It is procedural memory (a.k.a. implicit memory) that helps us ride bikes, tie shoes, and perform actions without conscious thought, or even ability to verbalize how they are done.
When developing skills with young builders, give them as many opportunities as possible to experience, rather than just listen.
When kids walk in to Tinkering School, they know that they are going to build. They don't know what they're going to build.
Unlike lots of workshops, we do not reveal the project to kids or parents ahead of time. Until the day of a workshop, after Safety Training, the project remains a surprise. We've found that this has a few advantages..
Kids Have Context and Shared Vocabulary
By keeping the theme a surprise until after Safety Training--in which kids get to use the tools and feel the materials--kids enter the problem space together, with a shared sense of what's possible.
(Take our "Mission to Outer Space" week for example: If we had told 36 kids that a week of Summer Day Camp would be themed "Mission to Outer Space", the week would have started with 36 different visions of 36 different rocket ships built with 36 different toolsets out of 36 different sets of materials.)
Surprise Forces Spontaneity and Adaptability (and Cuts of Stubbornness)
Part of what (we hope) kids get from Tinkering School is a chance to solve real problems in real time. Keeping the project a surprise promotes spontaneity and adaptability.
To become better problem-solvers, kids need practice tackling problems with 30 minutes of warning--not 30 days!
Collaborators Stay Stoked
To create a successful workshop, the collaborators must be stoked. Naming all of our workshops "Tinkering School" (as opposed to "Build a Go-Kart Day") allows collaborators the flexibility to design themes/challenges/projects that they're excited about--and prevents the chore of repeats.
Surprises Are Fun
It's always true.
Tinkering School is not about tools. It's about helping kids increase their confidence and abilities as problem-solvers. It's about tackling tough problems and making new friends. It's about experiences--not objects.
That said, tools are an essential part of those experiences. Kids experiences of using the tools should be as fluid and frictionless as possible. (A plugged-in chop saw with a sharp blade on a clean, clear cutting table is a tool. An unplugged chopsaw with a dull-blade stashed under a messy table is a series of Very Tedious Problems).
For a tool to add value to a kid's experience, the following must be true:
1. The kid is Aware of the tool and its relevance to the work.
2. The kid is able to Access the tool when it's needed.
3. The kid is able to Avoid the tool when it's not needed.*
All tools to be used in the program should be in a Highly-Usable state. That is, safe, at an appropriate height, and able to be used, right away, with no extra setup or cleaning.
Respect the dynamic between tools and the space they're in. A table saw is useless in a tiny shop, a 3D printer can't do much in an open field far from wall outlets. A clean space with a few Highly-Usable tools will lead to more great experiences than a cluttered space with tons of tools that each present Very Tedious Problems
Excerpt From: Kourosh Dini. “Workflow Mastery: Building from the Basics.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=01CA6CA11D4AD5E8446F9B214C133388, p.104.
Tinkering School is not about the tools. That said, here are some hard-won truths about tools and materials.
The core tools of our shop, its guitar and drum, its blood and bone are our:
- DeWalt DW715 chop saw
- Makita LCT209W drills and drivers
- vast and ever-growing selection of clamps
- drill bits
Our core materials are:
- square drive screws. They don't slip/strip easily (unlike Phillips), they're common and inexpensive (unlike Torx), they're easy to remove (unlike nails).
- framing studs. At 1.5"x2.5", they're a little more kid-friendly than two-by-fours, and still plenty strong.
If you stop reading now, you'll be fine. Those four tools and two materials present an infinite variety of possibilities that no one can ever fully exhaust.
That said, here's a list of Tools We've Known and Loved, not exhaustive and subject to tinkering.
Engaged, enthusiastic collaborators (a.k.a. "adults") are the foundation of a great Tinkering School experience.
Every kid, to some degree, mirrors the collaborators. Kids get stoked on a project when they see collaborators stoked on a project. Kids enjoy tough, open-ended problems when they see collaborators enjoy tough, open-ended problems. Kids treat people with consideration and warmth when they see collaborators treat people with consideration and warmth.
If the collaborators are stoked, the kids will be stoked.
Be warned: kids will mirror collaborators' less-distinguished attitudes and actions, as well. So, how to maintain collaborator stoke?
- Pick Projects Selfishly--Collaborators should pick projects/challenges that they think are truly, deeply awesome. So awesome they'd consider doing them even without kids!
- Mix It Up--Avoid repeating projects. Throw in a novel material, tool, or constraint. A bit of variety is fun, and might lead to insights.
- Take Breaks--Building stuff is hard. Kids are hard. Building stuff with kids is hard. Respect the difficulty. Take, at least, a 10-minute break every session.
- Be Honest--If, for some reason, you find yourself feeling less-than-stoked, don't try and fake it. Show the kids professionalism and commitment to the task. De-brief with your colleagues after. Try and pinpoint where enthusiasm flew away, and how to get it back.