Tinkering School

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What Would We Like Kids to Take Away from Tinkering School, with Respect to Fabrication?

Sean MurrayComment

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:

PLUS & DELTA: Claw Machine

Lindsay Jones

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.

Tool Training: CLAMPS

Tool TrainingPiper Alldredge

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.

Fin holds; Maisy twists.

Here's our approach to training young builders on clamps.


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.


In our shop we have two basic kinds of clamps: squeezy and twisty.


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.

Gali demonstrates on point clamping technique, using a twisty clamp, while a friend holds a 2x3 in place.


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!

Clamp-a-ma-jig limbo, because why not?!


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!

Clamps spelled with clamps; anything is possible!


Talking About TSSean Murray

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. 


Sean Murray

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.

Fingers and Brains

Pedagogy and PhilosophySean Murray

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:

"As Always, the Project Is a Surprise"

Pedagogy and PhilosophySean Murray

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..

Tinkering School Is Not About Tools

Pedagogy and PhilosophySean Murray

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).

The Collaborator Must Be Stoked

Collaborator's ExperienceSean Murray

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. 

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