The Tinkering School Is Where Kids Go to Build Marvelous Things

CC BY 2.0. Brightworks

Not your typical summer camp, the Tinkering School is a place where kids can push the limits of what's generally considered dangerous by our society and become confident in themselves.

One day, Gever Tulley, a self-taught computer scientist, was having breakfast at a friend’s house when he witnessed a child being told he couldn’t play with sticks because they were too dangerous. The fact that a child wasn’t allowed to play with such an instinctively natural toy bothered Tulley so much that he came up with an ingenious idea – to create a place where children are allowed to build things, using real tools and real materials, and learn about themselves through building.

In 2005 Tulley founded the Tinkering School, which operates as an overnight summer camp in Montara, California, and a week-long day camp in San Francisco, as well as single-day workshops (some for all girls). There is also a branch of the Tinkering School in Chicago.

At the Tinkering School, children are allowed to pick up and use tools that are commonly viewed as dangerous by our overprotective society and be trusted not to hurt themselves or others. They use “wood and nails and rope and wheels, and lots of tools, real tools,” according to one of Tulley’s TED talks called “Life lessons through tinkering” (2009).

Most importantly, the kids are given time – something that’s in short order these days with stressed-out, overworked parents and packed extracurricular schedules. Having the time to start these open-ended building projects, to fail at them, then to persevere and ultimately succeed (with the help of adults who are guiding the projects to completion) is a glorious thing.

The Tinkering School operates under three unusual and refreshing assumptions about kids:

(1) They are more capable than they know. By giving them big responsibility, you build competency and self-confidence, while creating lasting memories.

(2) The freedom to fail is essential. “A failure-positive atmosphere allows children to play in the face of adversity.”

(3) It can be done bigger and bolder. There’s no limit to the ambitiousness and awesomeness of the projects that Tulley’s young Tinkerers tackle.

“When we make abstract art, we do it by dropping paint-filled balloons from the rafters in our ceilings onto a bed of nails or laying down a 10 ft by 30 ft piece of photo scrym and dancing on it. When we build, we create 10 ft of rollercoaster track with a self-aligning cart or 25-ft towers that let us touch the ceiling of the school.”

It seems counterintuitive to many parents that letting go of your kids and allowing them to participate in activities that might cut, scratch, or bruise them, or even break limbs, could be beneficial; and yet, these are precisely the things that kids need to do in order become more confident – and, ironically, safer because they learn to understand their own limits and capabilities, while reducing vulnerabilities.

If kids aren’t getting those opportunities at home, or if they simply love to turn their crazy building ideas into reality, then the Tinkering School is definitely worth checking out for future camp adventures.