One of the best days of our school summer holiday this year was spent taking things apart and weaving other things together.
Two friends of mine are the driving force behind setting up an alternative, creative play space in my home town, and I was honoured to be a part of the team involved in testing a prototype of their PLAYLAB. The longer term project is all about taking play seriously, providing a wide range of fun opportunities to grow and develop, through engineering, digital, drama, art, and tinkering-based activities, and for one day during the summer we took over an empty shop in the local mall and turned it into a hive full of transformers and loom bandits.
We had a range of old machines to take apart with hand tools, to explore, rebuild and repurpose and a sweetie shop array of loom bands for weaving and creating.
There were also books! Books on the theory of play and practical books to inspire kids and families. One of my roles was setting up this mini tinkering/play-themed library and today I thought I’d share some of them with you. Whilst these aren’t kids’ books per se, they are definitely family books – books to share and inspire kids and their grown ups to be creative.
Cool Tools: A Catalog of possibilities by Kevin Kelly is a bizarre but ultimately enticing and fascinating curation of reviews of stuff that enable you to do, create, and explore your world.
At first I baulked at a book that essentially seemed to be a collection of themed adverts covering everything from shoes to spirituality, Velcro to vagabonding, joinery to geology; each reviews has a product photo, details of where to buy the product and the typical price of the item, followed by a review of the “tool” at hand.
But as I browsed this book (although its size and format – larger than A4 and printed on thin glossy paper – make it slightly unwieldy, this is a great book for dipping in and out of) I got sucked in and ideas for all sorts of play and creativity started flowing.
And that’s what this book sis really all about: Showing you some interesting, practical tools (both physical and digital) to enable you to see possibilities where perhaps you saw none before. It’s sparked lots of “what if?” conversations in our family, and amazed us with the range of innovative ideas out there.
On the back cover of Cool Tools it states “This book was made with the young in mind. Give a copy to a kid you know.” M (at 9) has loved this books though some families may wish to know in advance that there is a small section on ‘Psychedelics’ including marijuana, and e-cigarettes. Given the format of this book, the page concerned can easily be removed and its presence should certainly not be a barrier to you opening this book up and exploring all the possibilities it offers you.
The Art of Tinkering by Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich has one of the best front covers I’ve ever seen. It embodies what the book is about int he most perfect way possible: It is printed with conductive ink, allowing you to play/tinker/hack the book before you’ve even opened it.
Where Cool Tools was about products to foster doing/playing/tinkering, The Art of Tinkering is about showcasing a wide range of artists mixing technology and art, taking apart and repurposing one thing to make something exciting and new. After each artist is introduced there’s a section on “how you can tinker” in a way similar to the artist in question. Some of the suggestions need rather more equipment than just a screwdriver, glue or paint, but the ideas are innovative and inspirational, ranging from time lapse art to playdoh circuits, animating stuffed toys to sculpting in cardboard, building your own stroboscope to making clothes out of unusual materials. Whilst the book doesn’t include step by step tutorials, it is packed with practical information, presented beautifully. Nearly every page turn has resulted in “Mum, can we try that?!”
Tinkerlab by Rachelle Doorley is a compendium of “55 playful experiments that encourage tinkering, curiosity and creative thinking”, born out of the US blog with the same name, Tinkerlab. Written specifically with the 0-6 year old crowd in mind, the projects in this book are simpler and easier to set up than in some of the other books mentioned here today, and many fall into the messy play category; you might not think of them as tinkering (for example collage painting and drawing games), and yet they do all involve experimenting, exploring, testing and playing, and in that sense they could be described as ‘tinkering’. “Design”, “Build”, “Concoct” and “Discover” form the main themes of each chapter packed with clear, recipe-like guidance for the themed activities. The book is beautifully produced with a coffee table book feel and the activities are contextualised with brief essays by various play and education professionals. It’s written very much with parents in mind; Doorley is keen to encourage us all at home to make space for mess and exploration, and this book helps make it feel possible, manageable and enjoyable.
Make: is a quarterly magazine made up of a mixture of opinion pieces, detailed tutorials and artist/project biographies and write-ups. I’d gift this mind-boggling magazine to teens (or adults) who love the idea of playing and creating with technology. The projects are aimed at those who embrace electronics and gadgets and range from the practical (eg a DIY blood pressure monitor or sleep timer) to the purely whimsical, (eg moving, fire breathing sculptures or coffee shop construction toys).
If tinkering/hacking is something that interests you, do look out for this year’s series of Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution. “Sparks will fly: How to hack your home” is the title for this year’s series of lectures aimed at curious kids and their families and in them Professor Danielle George will be exploring how the spark of your imagination and some twenty first century tinkering can change the world. They will be shown on BBC4 over the Christmas period, and in January 2015 on the Ri’s (free) science video channel: www.richannel.org.