Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors

Tinkerlab. Image credit: Roost Books
Tinkerlab. Image credit: Roost Books

I recently found a fantastic kids activity blog called Tinkerlab. It’s been established for four years and has been featured on all kinds of bigwig places like Real Simple Magazine and Apartment Therapy, but I’m a parent of little kids so of course I’m late to the party. What I am on top of is the blog’s new book of the same name, Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors by Rachelle Doorley.

In addition to being mom to two little kids, Doorley has a master’s degree in arts education from Harvard and works as an art and museum educator. Doorley’s extensive background as an artist, docent, and educator shine through her blog and her book. She has more to offer than just art or just science, she covers it all. I think she provides a great balanced introduction to the concept of STEAM. STEAM, if you may recall, is the movement pushing the importance of adding Arts to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

The book is divided into five sections: prepare, design, build, concoct, and discover.

Prepare

The introduction of the book explains the benefits of having a dedicated creative space. “As if everyone had the money and space for a studio,” you say? Well, yeah, the author covers that too. A creative space doesn’t need to be big and it doesn’t need to be fancy, it’s just about evaluating how your current space works for your family, what stuff (you know, the stuff) you can purge to carve out a little extra space in your home, and placing priority on the functionality of your space. Preparing your “tinkerlab” is about having an area that invites creating, rather than making it an inconvenience. You don’t want to fetch supplies all over the house and spend fifteen minutes clearing out clutter off of the table every time you want to create something, because then you get pooped out before you even get started!

Another important point Doorley makes in the introduction of her book is that the projects in the book, or even kids activities in general, are not meant to be a one-shot deal. I know I strive to constantly introduce new things to my 4-year-old, often not because she’s bored with playing with play dough for the umpteenth time but because I am, and I found it a good reminder that, even in trivial (to me) things like play dough, depth is as important as breadth.

The projects throughout the book are structured as follows: a description of the project, a list of supplies, “invitations,” and “experiments.” I really liked how the author chose the word “invitations” rather than “instructions.” Generally speaking, whenever I get a project setup for my preschooler, she never uses the supplies how the project intended. I find myself sometimes losing patience, either with my daughter for never following instructions or with the instructions for not being creativity-proof, but of course the trick is to let go. When it’s phrased as “invitations” though, it definitively puts you into the right frame of mind for an activity with a young child. The point is to invite exploration, not to beat the creativity out of them. The “experiments” for each project are ideas for ways you can modify the activity in future iterations, often phrased in the form of questions. For example, “try blowing softly and then with more force. Which technique creates the best bubbles?”

Design

As you might imagine, this section is all about art. What I find interesting is the simplicity of the projects. Realistically, I wouldn’t even call them “projects,” so much as intros to basic art supplies. For example, there’s a section about glue, one about stickers, one about watercolors. And you think, “that’s it? Three pages about nothing but glue?” Yep, just glue. It’s so crazy, it just might work! To me, this section felt like more of a reprogramming for parents. What feels like “just glue” to us, is “GLUE!” to toddlers and preschoolers. It’s learning that glue can be an activity in and of itself, because glue is a tool and mastering it is a lesson.

Build

This section is about building and making, or in other words, physics! While expensive building kits and toy sets have their time and place, the book encourages projects for building with the loose parts you already have around the house. Think about building structures out of grapes and toothpicks, rockets out of paper and straws, and even good ol’ hammer and nails (with the appropriate safety precautions, of course). I’m pretty sure I fell in love with this book when it suggested to play with ropes and pulleys. Get ’em thinking about simple machines young, yes! Not to mention building drawing robots using offset motors and simple wiring. So much win.

Concoct

Like the build section can be loosely described as the chapter about physics, this one is all about chemistry. The tried and true basics are in there, like vinegar and baking soda or slime, for which she provides alternate exploration points, and there’s few fresh ideas I hadn’t considered yet as well. For example, how to make natural dyes. My daughter is currently in love with “science”—which to her is synonymous with mixing acids, bases, and red cabbage powder since we’re currently working our way through a chemistry experiment kit she recently received for her birthday—so she was excited about these projects the most. I made her stick bookmarks on the activities she wanted to do, and the concoct section is plastered with them.

Discover

This section will get you exploring. This is more of an interdisciplinary section. Play dough, light boxes, scavenger hunts, etc—all DIY. No expensive single-use equipments here.

There’s a lot of kids activity ideas available for free online, which I pin near-obsessively, but I still enjoyed this book as an additional resource. The tactile nature of having a book to peruse for activities was more exciting for my preschooler, and the book contains a good combination of ideas and advice. I’ve already purchased another copy of the book for a child’s birthday party that we’ve got coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m not sure the child will be super excited about it from the get-go—after all, it’s written by a parent for parents—but I think it’s something that will be enjoyed by the family over time.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

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Ariane is a programmer married to another programmer. Together they have two little girls who don't stand a chance against their nerdy lineage. Ariane can also be found writing about STEM travel at Geekling's Guide to the Galaxy.