Tinkering, Deconstruction And Discovery
I’m remembering my childhood like it was just yesterday… when I find my son’s bunk bed wobbly and discover that he has an allen key under his pillow to unscrew the framing and to take apart his sisters highchair. I’m not sure how many kids sneak screwdrivers and allen keys to bed at night, but just as long as the house doesn’t collapse I think it’s ok…
We all did it- tinkering and taking things apart as a kid. Wondering how things work. I have fond memories of taking apart a large heavy old transistor radio that once lived in the basement. About 9yrs old, I sat with newspaper laid out on my bedroom floor with a few simple tools and screw by screw took apart casings, right down to dissecting the internal components, all pieces carefully and individually removed. I enjoyed the fine detail work, driven by fascination of what was inside to make it work.
With many pieces on the floor I had discovered what was hiding inside- not exactly knowing how it worked, but I had made some learning progress on my own already. Fast-forward many years later and not surprisingly my interest in creative and technical things lead me to a career as an industrial designer, working for big innovation think-tanks such as IDEO, working alongside all sorts of creative minds, mechanical and electrical engineers to name a few, gaining even a few of my own patents… and so my fascination with ‘design thinking’ and ‘stuff’ continues…
Motivated To Learn How Things Work
I was not at all surprised when my son asked for his own tools to take apart an old phone he found. One thing lead to another and he now has a full box of electronics which he spends hours on just like I did.
But he has taken it a few steps further and built miniature cities of circuit boards and what he calls ‘robot’s’ by connecting internal components and has even tried searching on the internet about how some things work or what he could make with those components. His curiosity spark has been engaged.
He now looks at a DVD player and tells me how the drawer mechanism works because he enjoyed the motion of the internal parts once he could manipulate them from the inside. He kept button pads and showed me how they connected to circuit boards. He laid out the layers that made up an LCD screen. In his own way he was seeing how things connect and how they are built.
Discovery = Learning
Tinkering is hands-on-learning. Sure I could give my son all the answers, tell him what all the parts are called and what they are for, or buy a book to explain it, but I let him ask and discover this on his own which is much more fun than coming from me. Stepping back a little lets him look for what he wants to know and when he’s motivated to, he can refer to the internet or the classic ‘how stuff works’ books to find out more. He know’s the resources for finding out more are right at his finger-tips.
Modern Technology, The Digital Age And The Future
If anyone has tried taking apart an iphone or ipad, these are insanely difficult. How are modern electronics changing the way our kids learn through tinkering? Will their focus turn to hacking rather than just deconstructing the physical product? Will tinkering like we used to know it, become tinkering of software, re-programing and all things digital? Does having access to all the information on the internet give our kids so many more opportunities to explore?
It’s sometimes hard as parents to understand why, but kids will destruct their toys, pushing the limits of what a toy can do, take things apart, mess up computers and explore digital interfaces- it’s all effective self-learning. That’s got to be why the kids are so good at setting the clock on all the electronics that their parents can’t set- children are innately more confident and motivated through tinkering to discover how things work.
Fostering innovative minds is about letting kids tinker to discover how something works and maybe even trying to improve on it, re-build it another way or even fix it. Taking things apart is the learning and does not require one to have to try to memorise and reassemble it like a puzzle- unless of course repair is a fun challenge too.
Repair Is Recycling
I personally get great satisfaction from fixing things. Anything. I want to try to fix it if I can. It’s practically a daily task for me and the kids know to come to me if something needs repair and they can’t do it. There are also lots of books out there for resalvaging components for reuse if it’s beyond repair.
There is also the concern about making things last longer. Repair, fixing, and reusing. Reducing the impact on our environment of increasing landfill with toxic electronics. The lifespan of our electronics are getting shorter. People don’t know how to repair them. Repair is recycling. An incredible initiative called ifixit are creating a repair manual for everything. yes everything! It’s well worth taking a look at their site and getting addicted to it.
My son posted me a letter a while ago and it contained deconstructed and decapitated lego men, carefully organised into groups of which body parts belong together and taped to paper encompassed by circles so I could reassemble them with ease. He obviously assumed that would be fun for me to do…