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.





  1. says

    Hi, I didn’t even know this word in English, thank you for sharing! I also agree with all what you said, and wait for next week’s tinkering! 🙂

    • rachelle says

      Hey Cecilia, It’s an old fashioned word that’s not often used, but I think it captures the spirit of the DIY movement, invention, and innovation. I love this word! Look forward to seeing you next week! ~rachelle

  2. Lindsey says

    Great post. I fully believe in the power of unstructured time to tinker, but have a harder time convincing my husband. He grew up going to lessons 5 days a week so he still has that mentality.

    So, a question relating to taking things apart… I started doing that with my son a while ago and then started wondering if electronics/small appliances contain heavy metals or other dangerous stuff. Does anyone know about this?

    • says

      They can, Lindsey. Battery-operated objects (including those with rechargeable batteries built in) can also have electric charges that have not been discharged. We emphasize safety when we take things apart, and it’s wise to research what is inside the object before you start.

      • rachelle says

        Great question! MaryAnne is right. It’s smart to do a little research with each thing you pull apart. The safest bet is to go with purely mechanical pieces that don’t run on electricity, like clocks. We disassembled a computer monitor, which is extremely dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, and while my husband was fully in control it wasn’t without anxiety. However, in the upcoming weeks I’ll share objects that are safe for kids to take apart!

  3. Emily says

    I wouldn’t take apart phones, the solder often contains lead.

    How about MAKING a phone instead? Give the child an old, simple 4-function calculator, some tape and the shell of a phone from which you’ve removed the boards.

  4. Creative Playhouse says

    lovely post; my little boy loves tinkering too; he likes his toy tools, but i think he’d prefer some mini real ones (like the mini spanners that come with fiddly things) – do they exist do you know? maybe a wooden set? sorry going OT there… my boy is 2.5 yrs, and his brain is ahead of his body so often gets really frustrated that he cant put things back together the way he wants (he’s also a perfectionist) – any tips? or simpler household things that work well for deconstructing?