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Try Tinkering to Improve Critical Thinking

Updated on March 27, 2015

Gever Tulley on Tinkering

Learning made fun!

Tinkering is a fun pastime for adults and children that incorporates play to increase critical thinking and logic skills. Museums and schools run entire sessions with this concept. Tinkering can provide hours of fun while encouraging creative thinking and problem solving skills through experiences.

Tinker Toys




My own tinkering memories

I guess my own first experience with tinkering would have been in my childhood as I lined up the dominoes to knock the first one down and watch them fall. Success meant being able to put all my dominoes on a make believe track before one of my brothers could come in and knock it down! Even though the final run was short-lived compared to the time it took to set them up, it was always interesting to watch them fall.

Remember Tinker Toys? I was so jealous that my brother had a set, and I didn’t. Sometimes, I would sneak into his room just to play with the tinker toys. When my own son arrived, I made sure he had a set of Tinker Toys! And those chemistry sets! Those were another jealousy issue for me; why were my brothers always getting the cool toys! I have to admit – I was too afraid to play with the chemistry set. I was sure my brother would notice if any chemical was gone. Instead, I just read the information and looked at the tools in his set.

When my son was younger, one of his favorite toys (and mine!) was a purchase I made from Discovery Toys called Marble Works. This was actually a toy built on the concept of Tinkering. We had several hours of fun connecting the little tubes and other components to watch the marble work its way through the maze.

The benefits of tinkering

Learning through play is not a new concept when it comes to education, but it is an extremely effective learning method that enhances critical thinking and problem solving skills. Tinkering is responsible for bringing us new technology, prototypes, new works of art, wonderful visions in film, and even methods of improving what already exists. Design thinking is essential regardless of the field where you work. Insight and Innovation are at the center of tinkering, both skills enhance the world around us.

One studio in London brings innovation through workshops with their employees and called it Method Play. I’m not sure why adults typically feel silly while tinkering. However, once you start tinkering, you almost always end up with unusual and beneficial results in the workplace. Tinkering as a child can help develop those tinkering skills necessary for today’s workplace.

Tinkering is fun regardless of gender. Boys and girls of all ages gain feelings of success when something they tinker with turns out to be a creation or a work of art. At the same time, they are learning about different things like “spatial awareness, mechanical reasoning, invention, exploration, and experimentation” (Damour, 2011, para. 2). These are important concepts within science, technology, engineering and math; otherwise known as STEM. However, according to Damour, girls are less likely to engage in tinkering on their own than boys. I guess that should have been my first clue that I was more of a tomboy than a girly-girl. However, Damour further states that encouraging tinkering “cultivates intellectual habits that are useful in a variety of academic and creative domains, including critical thinking, risk-taking, systematic questioning, self-monitoring and self-correction, creativity, and courage” (para. 2). As an educator, allowing time for tinkering in the home, in the school, in a camp, wherever you have the space and time, is a fantastic way to build academic experiences that have the ability to last a lifetime!

What is critical thinking?

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking skills are the core of several academic studies. When a student learns critical thinking skills, it is typically used in more areas in their life.

  • Reading requires critical thinking to analyze words and discover meanings. Critical thinking also allows the reader to make connections so they can follow the timeline or understand a larger concept. Reading comprehension depends on the student's ability to critically think about the words they read.
  • Writing also requires critical thinking as the student poses their thoughts into the structure and organization of an essay.
  • Mathematics and critical thinking are tightly associated as logic and reasoning skills are required for deductive and inductive thinking. Word problems further the need for critical thinking skills as students are asked to make sense of a situation, then apply mathematical concepts to find a solution.
  • Science is based on the ability to use critical thinking skills. Without the ability to analyze, compare, contrast, and recognize what is factual, students will have a difficult time working with scientific principles.
  • Even the ability to take tests requires critical thinking skills. Some tests are simple recall, so you may not think there is any critical thought being measured there. However, even critical thinking skills such as the process of deduction may be helpful in taking these tests.

Want to try your own tinkering?

Possible materials to use for your own tinkering times could include the following: straws, popsicle sticks, noodles, geoboards, rubberbands, rubrics cubes, pieces of wood, pvc pipe, wire, string, and just about anything else you can think of! Recycle regular containers such as aluminum cans and plastic bottles; how about the bread ties and pull tabs? If you find yourself constantly throwing something away (like toilet paper rolls), why not start collecting these in a container for a possible tinkering activity?

The final ingredient to add to your own tinkering event is people! Gather your friends or your children and let your imagination run wild! Brainstorm what your collection of materials could possible become. Create a plan for the item you brainstormed, Begin molding your collected items into a new invention! Who knows, you may have just invented something that could actually be profitable for you as well! At least, you should have a few hours of fun with the people you've chosen to participate in your tinkering exercise.

Tinkering Camps

Some schools and camps that promote tinkering are found in the following cities.


Damour, L. (2011). Engaging girls in stem: Tinkering. Retrieved from


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