Hands-on (often inept) fooling around with stuff has been called “tinkering.”  The top definition for the word “tinkering” in the online collaborative Urban Dictionary is this:  “to mess around with something and you don’t really have a clue what you are doing.”  (The regular dictionary definitions are pretty boring.)

It’s to honor the Urban Dictionary spirit of tinkering that Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich, the co-directors of the San Francisco Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio put together the book, THE ART OF TINKERING.

In the introduction to this amazing collection of wonders by 150+ Makers who combine art, science and technology to put together incredibly diverse works, Wilkinson and Petrach tell us that tinkering is “more of a perspective than a vocation…. It’s thinking with your hands and learning through doing.”

The book grew out of the work being done by a group of artists, scientists, developers, educators and facilitators who play with many different sorts of tools, materials and technologies at the museum’s “Tinkering Studio” and at the PIE Institute.


This gathering of fun-loving Makers bent on giving us all a taste of the joy of tinkering was the result of a project called the PIE (Play-Invent-Explore) Network.  The federally funded project began as a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group, the Exploratorium, and several other museums,

They started by experimenting with science and art activities that developed into innovative educational activities suitable for wonderment, playfulness and learning about the world around us.

Work by the Tinkering Studio guys often become either exhibits at the museum or hands-on activities that allow museum visitors to jump in and play in the museum’s Tinkering Studio space which is open to the public.

The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium has become an inspiration for tinkerers and other wanna-be Makers since it began in 2009.

This 2012 YouTube video published by core77inc  gives a taste of what the sessions held in the Studio feels like:


The book has a slew of advice about how you, too, can play at tinkering.

Here are my favorites:

  • Create rather than consume.
  • Express ideas via construction. Use your hands to build the constructs living in your mind.
  • Embrace your tools. Learn how to use them the “right” way, then figure out other ways to use them that work for what you are trying to do.  It’s been said that a master knows how to misuse tools at least three different ways to get other results.
  • Prototype rapidly. When you have an idea, don’t let it just sit in your brain.  Get it out into the world as soon as possible.  Sketch a design.  Build a working model with stuff you have lying around.  Once it’s out of your head you can work out your next steps and move on to Phase 2.
  • Make it strange. Use familiar materials in unfamiliar ways.  Take a common object and put it to another new use.
  • Get stuck. It’s a good thing.  Failure tells you what you don’t know.  Frustration is for making sense of that failure in the moment.  Taking action to work through the problem and playing with it ultimately lead to new understandings.


The best advice of all is this one:  You need to balance autonomy with collaboration.

Autonomy – going solo – helps you get to your own kind of mastery.  You learn how to work with tools and materials.  You develop your own skill and knowledge.  You grow your confidence.

“Running a Drill” by Gever (Tulley) via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
Tinkering with other people can be a blast.  Collaboration helps you clarify your ideas for solving a problem because you have to be able to explain them to your partners in a way they can understand.   (Otherwise they won’t be able to help you get where you want to go.)

“Setting Up” by Gever (Tulley) via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
You and your partners will have different and various skills and ideas that can be brought to bear on the problem.  Cross-pollination is likely to occur and that could lead to other wonders.

“Set To Go” by Gever (Tulley) via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
Best of all, everybody can be a part of something larger than themselves, and that, as any wise guy will tell you is a very good thing.

“Eat Our Rust” by Gever (Tulley) via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
All of the pictures of the hand-made sailing rail-cars project above were taken by Gever Tulley, the founder of Tinkering School, an internationally known summer program.   He also started SF Brightworks, an innovative K-12 school in San Francisco emphasizing experience-based, hands-on experiential learning.

Tulley is the author of the book FIFTY DANGEROUS THINGS (YOU SHOULD LET YOUR CHILDREN DO), among others.  As he has noted, “I have made it my mission to reintroduce the world to children:  the real world as revealed through unscripted, hands-on, meaningful learning experiences.”

Here’s a poem.


The Creative has no limits, it is said.

It moves along, coursing through our days

Like rivers and streams,

Tumbling over the rocky places,

Making babbling brooks and dancing rills,

Trickling through the hard

As runnels and creeks,

Diving under massed walls,

Soaking on down to run deep

And springing back up as

Freshets, sweet and clear….

Tributaries all, running through the World

On their way to the Sea of Dreams

Where all potentialities roll around playing.


It keeps on moving, the Creative,

Carrying away bits of our landscape

And depositing them somewhere other,

Building up and tearing down

The structure of our lives.

It’s just there, the Creative,

That essence, shiny-bright,

A beautiful, chaotic force.

by Netta Kanoho

Header picture credit:  “Tinker Town Tuesday” by Erin via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]



(Click on each of the post titles below and see where it takes you….)


Thanks for your visit.  I’d appreciate it if you would drop a comment or note below and tell me your thoughts.





16 thoughts on “HOW TO MESS AROUND

  1. I found this absolutely fascinating! First off the video was extremely enticing and nifty. Those kids seemed to be having a great time tinkering with things. The end product was great! I was not expecting sailing rail cars at all but they looked like a blast. How creative and fun.

    1. Hey Kerry:

      Thank you for your visit and your sharing your thoughts.  I’m glad you enjoyed it. 

      Please do come again….

  2. Netta,
    I must admit that in initially reading the title of your article, “How to Mess Around” that I thought of something entirely different than what was the eventual subject matter.

    The art of tinkering is something that, in this fast-paced hectic world should be followed by more people within their lives.

    As you stated, proper “tinkering” involves the ability to be creative, not be afraid to express ideas that are “outside the box”, and don’t be afraid to get stuck on a project among other things. Getting temporarily stuck before completing an object does not mean failure.

    The video that you embedded in your article, showing people being able to create outstanding projects through tinkering was incredibly interesting. It was also good to see kids busy at work instead of sitting in front of a television or smart phone playing video games and not really using their minds.

    Finally the images of the group able to construct a ride using sails for movement, yet the vehicle on a track was creativity at the highest level. I bet those people after their craft object” had been completed enjoyed themselves immensely on that first ride. I also noted they were all wearing helmets on their heads for protection. Wise decision just in case something went wrong.

    Thank you for sharing this very illuminating article!


    1. Hey Jeff:

      Thanks for your visit and your comments.  I do appreciate it.  Please do come again….

  3. This post is all kinds of inspiration and really beautiful. I was so pleased and uplifted to hear of tinkering and the possibilities and results it yields.  I have had some concerns about the way we are raising our youth in this screen obsessed culture and I am a huge advocate for healthy and creative activities that enhance the mind body connection and expands on the creativity and innovative ripe minds that children possess. Create rather than consume is a great mindset to encompass!! I am bookmarking this post for sure!  Great work and a kudos for spreading such a good vibe!

    1. Welcome back, Bex.  Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I’m glad you think this one’s a keeper.  

      I agree with you.  Kids need to do more than just sit there staring at a small screen and pushing more and more buttons.  Messing around is supposed to be Job 1 for kids, and “safe” doesn’t have to mean staying small and narrow and…awwww, I’m just preaching to the choir here.  You already know that!

      Please do come again….

  4. David Kellas says:

    Thanks for your post Netta.

    I might purchase the art of tinkering for Christmas because it is only $16. Do you know of any children’s books that are good? I have a 9 year old relative and I want to buy her a children’s book.

    interesting video actually, children playing with gadgets “tinkering” about the place, weirdly I actually enjoyed watching the entire video (which is rare for me).

    LOL,  when I came across “50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)” I’m sorry, but I just had to purchase, what a title, lol.


  5. From the heading of this post I was already smiling and hoping for an adventure which I got. 

    There are lots of things that comes with playing, especially using some tools I’m the prop. In some cases, you learn to use those tools and other times you create something from your imagination which is really nice. 

    Looking at allowing kids play, I find it really cool because in the process they tend to discover themselves and hidden talents in the process. 

    A really nice post you have here.

    1. Dane, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I’m so glad you had fun with the post!

      Please do come again.

  6. steve bessette says:

    Wow. That is all I can say. 

    Poems that truly move the heart and soul. There is something about a good poem that I can’t explain  but everything about it is great. 

    Thank you for bringing this make into my life. I was losing the taste for poems then I came across this wonderful article. Saying thank you isn’t enough but that’s all I can say. 

    -Stevie B

    1. Stevie, I do thank you for the visit and for your kind words.  I am so glad the post and the poem moved you.

      Please do come again.

  7. I fell in love with this definition, “It’s thinking with your hands and learning through doing.”

    Not only that , your use of language is just so beautiful. 

    I also loved the truth about balancing autonomy with collaboration. I have learned powerful concepts from this article, will be bookmarking it to revisit some. Thank you .

    1. Bogadi, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I do appreciate it.  

      Please do come again.

  8. Elijah Himes says:

    What an informative and inspirational post! 

    I’ve always loved just messing around with things, it’s so interesting to see how this idea has been expanded around the world. 

    I can always tell that you have a genuine interest in whatever you write about, and the poems at the end are always a cherry on top. Where do you find these poems?

    Keep posting these amazing stories, your site is one I definitely want to revisit in the future as more content is released. 

    1. Elijah, thank you for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  The poems are my own.  The blog is a way to expand on the mindset in play when I wrote them.

      Please do come again.

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