What is Tinkering?

Tinker /ˈtiNGkər/ n.  to make small changes to something in order to improve or repair it (MacMillan Dictionary)

what is tinker

You may have noticed this quaint little word that’s at the heart of my blog title, and today I’d like to talk a bit about tinkering. I have a fun tinkering challenge up my sleeve (come back for that next week!), so consider this my introduction!

taking toys apart tinkering

Taking toys apart. From Melissa at Imagination Soup.

What is Tinkering?

The definition above suggests that it’s about improving something by making changes to it.

The Oxford Dictionaries says that to tinker is to attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory (unfocused) way.” 

The Free Dictionary says that a tinkerer is “one who enjoys experimenting with and repairing machine parts.”

These are all helpful starting points, but hardly conclusive. The kind of tinkering that I’m advocating for is not the kind that’s unfocussed or lacking in purpose, although I can see how tinkering can appear unfocussed to someone who observes it in action. And it doesn’t have to be limited to machine parts and hammers, although it certainly finds a good home amongst these tools.

what is tinker

Gum Drop Sculptures, Tinkerlab

Nope, the tinkering I have in mind is full of focus and purpose, and succeeds at generating new ideas.

While we can easily imagine someone tinkering with a screw driver and an old toaster, let’s also consider how we could tinker with paint and brushes, paper cups and glue, an irrigation system, a 3-D printer, photo editing software (who’s spent hours editing a photo book or playing with Photoshop?), and ideas. This last one, ideas, is an extra fun one. Imagine a room full of creative thinkers with some sticky pads and Sharpies, and you get a clear picture of people tinkering with ways to make the world a better place.

mama smiles phones tinkering
Taking phones apart. From MaryAnne at Mama Smiles Blog

When I think about a tinkerer, I envision a more expansive definition that looks like this:

Tinkerer: one who experiments with materials and ideas to fully understand their capacities, and who further iterates on their learning to find better solutions to current problems. 

Tinkering is about hands-on experiences, learning from failures, and unstructured time to explore and invent. And through the processes of exploration and invention lies the potential for innovation.

nuts and bolts tinker

Nuts and bolts. From Kristin at Toddler Approved

To be continued next time…why tinkering is important.

And next week you’ll want to stop back for DPS prompts, the Flower Creative Challenge (info on participating can be found here), and the new Tinkering Challenge. Woo-hoo!

What does “tinkering” mean to you? Do you make time for tinkering?

Special thanks to Imagination Soup, Mama Smiles Blog, and Toddler Approved for sharing their tinkering images.




Easy Peasy Rock Painting

rock painting

This is such an easy project and my kids (almost 4 and 20 months) have gone crazy for it. And I have to confess that I really enjoyed it too. Very addictive. I chalk their enthusiasm (and mine) up to a couple things:

  1. Painting or drawing on a 3-dimensional surface is a fun challenge
  2. The colors of the paint markers are vivid and opaque (i.e. pretty), and very easy to use.

rock painting

There are lots of ways to paint a rock, for example, we recently painted a big rock with watercolor paints. But the method I’m sharing today is so easy and the mess is minimal.


  1. Selection of smooth river or beach rocks
  2. Paint markers. We used Elmer’s Painters Pens
  3. Covered table (the markers leave a mess on the work area that you’ll be happy that you prepared for it).

rocks rock painting

If your markers are new, you’ll want to shake them a bit and depress the tips until the paint starts to flow. Just follow the directions of your paint. 3-year old N wanted to make each of her rocks unique.

rocks rock painting

And her sister, Baby R, enjoyed the challenges of learning to hold the marker and controlling the lines as they hit the rock.

rocks rock painting

N was so proud of her creations, and actually hid her favorites (not seen here) in a closet for Father’s Day. Phew, guess I’m off the gift-giving hook.

The rocks really are spectacular and seeing them makes me so happy.

A small clean-up caveat: the ink will get all over your kids’ hands, but don’t fret. The mess would have been much worse if you’d given them a bowl of acrylic paint and brushes. And it will all come within a day or two.

More Rock Painting

rocks magnets

Jen at Paint Cut Paste shows you how to make thumbprint rock magnets. Tweet Tweet.

rocks rock painting

This is one of my first posts: Rolling Rock Painting. It’s like rolling ball painting, but a little bit more unpredictable.

rocks rock painting

I love homemade games, and this rock domino set from Martha Stewart would make me so happy.

Have you or your kids painted rocks? If you’re a blogger, feel free to share a link in your comment.

Coming Soon: Flower Creative Challenge

creative challenge flowers

If you’re not already surveying your garden, market, or neighborhood for good flower picking, now is the time to put flowers on the brain for the next creative challenge. 

Every two months I host a Creative Challenge for kids with the introduction of a material and an invitation for children to create with. The objective of these challenges is to enable children to explore a material’s potential, build creative confidence, and envision new purposes for common objects…. skills that are at the heart of innovation.

If you’re interested in joining one of the next challenge, the opening date is Monday, June 4 and the material will be FLOWERS.

Your projects should be child-directed, but grown-ups are welcome to join in the fun if the mood strikes! Please look at past challenges to get a feel for what’s expected.

Share your Documentation or Post

If you’re a blogger and you’d like to join share a link to a post of your kid/s in action, set your post to go live on June 4 and add it to the link party that will show up here on that day.

If you’re not a blogger, you can upload a photo of your Flower Creative Challenge to my Facebook wall or tag @tinkerlab on Instagram with #flowerchallenge

Hope to see you then!

DPS Sketchbook Challenge, Made Easy

Double page spread sketchbook challenge

Are you participating in the DPS challenge? You can join at any time and your sketches can be as basic or complex as you like. My friend, Aude, told me that some of the entries I shared last week intimidated her. These weren’t her words exactly, but that was the gist of it, and I thought I needed to reset this challenge since that wasn’t my intent at all. I love how the honesty of good friends can help me grow and and hope you’ll also tell me if I get off track.

If you felt the same way or felt discouraged by this challenge, I hope you’ll consider giving it a try. The idea is to show up — FOR YOURSELF — and make something almost every day.

So I’m sharing some of my quickest, simplest DPS entries as examples of how easy this can be. The threshold for joining isn’t that high and the time commitment isn’t too grand.

In the picture above, my kids and I painted on a piece of paper that I later glued to my sketchbook. When it dried I added some glitter glue and white reinforcement stickers. It’s simple and didn’t require a lot of special talent, but it works.

sketchbook challenge

This challenge isn’t for everyone, I understand that, but if you’re the least bit interested in charging your creative batteries, I hope you’ll consider giving it a go. The process has done tremendous things for my own creativity and my kids’ as well. As I sketched over breakfast the other day my daughter said excitedly, “can you get me my sketchbook? You gave me an idea!”

sketchbook challenge

The other wonderful part of this project is the growing community of enthusiastic and supportive #tinkersketchers. If you’re on Facebook, you can see some of the images that readers have added on my wall. And if you’re on Instagram, you can search for #tinkersketch where you’ll see the full gallery of participants’ posts. We comment on each other’s images and provide each other with the motivation to keep going.

I have to share this comment from Angalata in Spain because it summarizes the spirit of this project so well:

“I feel so lucky… I found people who look what I do and who wants to share with me what they create (and nobody judges nobody creations), I can express myself, I delight with beautiful sketches, collages, compositions, paintings… I think about what (or most important… HOW) can i create something… some days it takes me 5 minutes and other days I spend about an hour… I create with my kids, alone, or with my dear husband playing his guitar… and because create something is the ONLY WAY to create. Maybe some of our #tinkersketch creations ar imperfect, as you say, but I love them because they are a present for myself. I am a proud confetti owner (and, al last, I recive free english lessons, too ;-D) So… thank you, Rachelle and my lovely #tinkersketchers.”

This week’s DPS prompts:

I’ll post prompts on my site at the beginning of each week. Some of you requested them, others did not. Feel free to use them if they work for you, or ignore them completely.

  • Copy a pattern from a towel, dish, napkin, etc.
  • Doodle with your eyes closed
  • Write words that your children say and circle your favorite ones
  • Make another picture with those favorite words
  • Rubber stamp it
  • Paint with red wine vinegar
  • Listen to a song and draw doodles along with the movement of the music

Do you have ideas for prompts?

The more ideas, the better! I’d love to share them, so go ahead and add them in a comment


  • Facebook: Upload a photo of your DPS directly to the Tinkerlab Facebook page
  • Instagram: Upload a photo of your DPS with the hashtag #tinkersketch. My username is tinkerlab, in case you’d like to follow me
  • Google+: Upload your DPS photo to your own page. Tag me @rachelle doorley  and/or @tinkerlab. Add the hashtag #tinkersketch
  • Twitter: Add the hashtag #tinkersketch

How Climbing Trees Builds Creative Thinking

Have you ever climbed a tree? Do your kids like climbing trees?

This has never been high on my list, even back in the nursery school days, but my 3 year old N has climbing in her soul and will climb just about anything: rock climbing walls, trees, jungle gyms, furniture, fences, etc. She seems to gravitate especially to trees that offer a challenging climb, and I like it because it gets us out into the fresh air and builds strong minds and bodies.

I love good ol’ fashioned play like this, and thought we could all use a visual reminder of how important free-range outdoor play is for kids.

outdoor play kids

The spirit of play is at the heart of imagination, creativity, and innovation. In playful environments, we’re prone to divergent thinking (generating numerous ideas about a topic) and are more inclined to push the limits of what’s possible into the impossible.

Climbing trees may not seem like highly cognitive work, but let’s take a look at what might be involved…

tree climbing kids

First of all, you have to map your idea (a will to climb a tree) with your reality (how will you climb that tree?). And then you have to send signals from your mind to your body to problem solve the execution. Our neighbor’s poor flowers were pelted by too many little climbers who have deemed this the most climbable neighborhood tree, so you might also have to navigate around the mini-flower-shielding fence that’s now in your way.

You might have to make room for a friend, which can build emotional intelligence and help develop spatial reasoning.

You might not yet be ready to climb a tree, but you’re building your confidence by climbing things that are within the zone of proximal development. Go you!

tree climbing kid

And when you reach that branch that always eluded you, the feeling of pride is beyond belief. You’ve accomplished something that only you could accomplish. You’ve tested your strength and your limits, and proven to yourself that you can achieve what you set your mind to.

I always watch my children closely and offer a lot of support when they first take on new physical challenges, but since my goal is to empower them I will step back once I get the cue that they’re comfortable without my assistance. I was talking with a friend today about free-range parenting (maybe you’ve heard of this movement?) and I follow this parenting philosophy to a great extent. I’m very involved in my childrens’ lives and everyday experiences, offer them a great deal of compassion and emotional support, but I’m raising them to be confident, independent thinkers who can make decisions for themselves without a lot of supervision.

I’ve partnered withGoGo squeeZ, the first squeezable, re-sealable, no-mess, 100% fruit, no-sugar added apple­sauce based snack for kids in the U.S, as a Playbassador, which means that I have more reasons to share fun outdoor activities that celebrate play and creativity. All opinions in this post are my own.

GoGo squeeZ believes in the simple mantra of “always play” and is putting this belief to work through the “Pass the Play” campaign with the goal of bringing the simple joy of play to those who need it most across the country.