“I can build that!”

Nico's standing on the bridge he helped build, and the loft it accesses is behind him.  Yes, he's quite proud of himself.

Nico’s standing on the bridge he helped build, and the loft it accesses is behind him. Yes, he’s quite proud of himself.

That’s what my son Nico (5) said last Saturday when he saw a wooden table and bench outside a restaurant. “But I’d make it better. I’d use different screws, and I wouldn’t make the benches so wide.”

He really meant this. He can build a bench like that, thanks to a remarkable summer camp he attended the week before called “Tinkering School” in San Francisco.

In one incredible week, he and a few other kids built two ladders and bridges to a loft out of wood. Now, people there can get up to the loft easier than they could before. Nico – yes, 5-year-old Nico – became quite capable at using a drill to drill holes and to drive in wood screws.

More importantly, though, that week transformed how he views the world. Now, much more than before, he sees problems everywhere that he can solve.

“We should build a fort to put bikes in,” he said as we passed a bike parking area on a train. He was bothered by the fact that my bike was stolen last week. “We could even dig a hole in the ground and put it in there.” I could tell that he was visualizing how to put this structure together, and guessing at how much of a barrier this structure would be for bike thieves.

Of course, not all problems have solutions that involve construction with wood, but lifesize wooden structures are very easy for a five-year-old to understand.

The theory underlying Tinkering School is as follows: children who learn to solve real problems by designing and building wooden structures get confidence and problem solving skills that they can extend to all sorts of other domains later on.

So, Nico can build a bench or table, with a little help (really, just a little) from an adult. I’m also betting that he’s on his way to programming a database-driven web site or devising a market entry strategy for a new product.

But those latter two tasks require some abstract thinking that is beyond him. Today, he understands what he can touch and feel and eat and climb on and sit on. Tinkering School gave Nico an opportunity to solve problems in the world that he understands.

Think about what five-year-olds normally do that we recognize as learning. They might start reading or adding numbers. That pleases us adults who are very comfortable in the symbolic word of letters and numbers, but in reality, five-year-olds have very limited abilities to think in terms of these symbols.

Even when kids that age do manipulate real things, they’re almost never solving real problems. For instance, building lego structures doesn’t directly impact anyone’s life. They’re fun because they’re easy to create and stimulate the imagination.
I love the fact that kids’ imaginations can be stimulated, but most of us want our kids to eventually apply their imaginations to solving real world problems.

Kids want to solve real world problems, too. The sad fact is that we give them so few opportunities to do so that most kids grow up having no concept of being more than a spectator in the world, a “user” of things and institutions.

For a week, every kid at Tinkering School becomes a maker, not a spectator or user. This is an extremely powerful experience for kids, far more than anything else I can imagine.

What’s more, they absolutely love that experience. Every time I visited Nico and his older brother Marco (8-1/2) at Tinkering School that week, they were totally engaged. They told me that it was their favorite camp by far, with the possible exception of my Camp Yale.

Between Tinkering School and the fifth annual Camp Yale (I’ll be writing about this soon!), summer’s already been a huge success for my boys. They’re learning amazing things they would never learn in school, and they’re having a fantastic time.

Hmm… Maybe the entire school year should be like this

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