The Art of Tinkering

If you have visited one of the Institute of Imagination’s lab spaces or events you will know that we invite people to be playful and, in doing so, to try out new tools, use materials in different ways and most importantly to use their imagination – a human attribute that we feel is underused and undervalued.

In being playful we are essentially inviting people to ‘tinker’, to experiment and ultimately engage in the act of making or creating something. We are big fans of human resourcefulness but we also believe that opportunities to apply that resourcefulness are not always available for children in schools or in their home environment.

We have been tinkering as humans since the beginning of our time on this planet. Our ancestors engaged in Stone Age problem-solving to make weapons with which to hunt, tools to till the earth and objects for rituals. More recently, tinkering is making a big comeback. We are experiencing a resurgence in the well-established learning theory of constructivism or what the tinkering movement refer to as constructionism: taking constructivism a step further and enabling the learner to engage in a personally meaningful activity where the idea may have begun inside the learner’s head but results in a meaningful activity outside of their head that makes learning real and shareable.

Tinkering studios, as forerunners or starting points for maker spaces, are popping up in museums, science centres, libraries and civic spaces. San Francisco’s Exploratorium integrates tinkering activities beyond dedicated spaces to floors which have been more traditional exhibition spaces. We’ve visited the Exploratorium on a number of occasions, so when we heard that our friends Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich were over in Europe we seized the chance to join them in Milan for three days on a programme called ‘The Art of Tinkering’.

A tinkering space is an environment that supports and facilitates opportunities for people to play and experiment using accessible tools and materials. An activity might include creating ‘marble machines’ but there will be no right or wrong way to design and build that object and resources are on hand to tinker with the idea. Without predetermined outcomes, in these types of spaces, ones imagination can run wild.

In Milan, the Exploratorium, hosted by the excellent Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci tinkering and maker space, created a programme for practitioners, educationalists, engineers, teachers and academics to come together to explore constructionism. Through activities that delivered meaningful experiences for all involved, the Exploratorium team took us on a journey that: made us reflect on our practice; think about spatial and materials design; gave us permission to trial, fail; and collaborate on a number of fantastic tinkering activities including scribbling machines, light play and chain reaction. We intersected our play with reflection and discussion: were the activities art or science or both? What is the role of the facilitator during these activities? Ultimately we came away feeling empowered to apply our learning to mulitiple contexts.

As Imagination Lab, our programme of events, pop ups and dedicated lab spaces, journeys towards the development of the iOi campus, the art of tinkering has, and will continue to, play an important role in the development of our pedagogy, the experiences we provide and the learning that results from those experiences.


Tom Doust is iOi’s Director of Experience and Learning




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