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Tinkering Kits for Kids vs. Independent Exploration

If you’re a parent and spend any amount of time on social media, it’s likely you’ve seen sponsored posts that advertise subscriptions for monthly STEM kits to be delivered to your house for your kids’ tinkering pleasure.

 young girl jumping into a blue sky holding a kite


This is a terrific concept, and while I haven’t sampled any of these products yet, the accompanying videos make the projects look fun, creative, and educational. There are a lot of benefits to a subscription. Kids love getting mail, having the materials and instructions arrive all together saves a lot of time and frustration, and you know that what you’re getting will have an outcome. The trebuchet your kids sweat over will actually chuck marshmallows a great distance, and the fiber optic star map will actually light up and show the stars.

And if something goes wrong and the projects don’t have an outcome you expected, there are video tutorials to help you troubleshoot!

However, there is something to be said for a true student-directed tinkering experience. What might happen if you asked a child to make a catapult using whatever they can find around the house? How about asking them to build a working volcano with stuff they find in the food pantry? How about suggesting they build a rubber band launcher with stuff from the garage?

Sure, there are drawbacks to letting kids loose to discover what they can make without instructions. Your pantry and garage might never be the same. The project might not work out the first, second, or third attempt. There might be frustration. There might even be failure.

But even among these drawbacks, you can find great benefits to encouraging kids to dive into projects without a set of instructions and bag of materials. For one thing, working on a very non-prescriptive project gives them free reign to use their imaginations to the best of their ability—you might be surprised at what they come up with. And they’ll certainly learn that there is no one answer to a problem, and that every challenge can have multiple outcomes.

And as for frustration and failure, yes, it’s tough to watch our kids struggle, but there’s a lot to be said for letting kids figure out hard stuff. We learn more from falling down and getting back than we do from the clear and steady road.

And when kids do encounter road blocks, there’s a wealth of information online for them to access and learn from. While we might moan the prevalence of YouTube, there are lots of great science and engineering sites there.

Scientists and engineers in the real world don’t do their jobs based on kits. They figure stuff out. While ready-to-go science and engineering projects are fun to use and do allow for a creative experience, sometimes it’s great to release young learners into the wilderness of their own brains and see where they come out on the other side.



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