In Defense of Craft, Play and Tinkering

In Defense of Craft, Play and Tinkering : Technology is great, but let's make sure that we don't undervalue craft, play and tinkering in our makerspaces.

I love all forms of making.  Coding robots, building circuits, soldering things to make stuff light up.  Knitting, sewing, crafting, tinkering, taking what looks like a pile of junk and turning it into something amazing.  But sadly, many in education see a distinction between these two types of making.

In Defense of Craft, Play and Tinkering

In my previous makerspace, one of my students’ favorite activities was the cardboard challenge.  I was so proud of what they made. You could clearly see them developing creative thinking as they worked through their projects.  I described this to an educator at another school. The response was along the lines of “Oh, that’s nice, but we don’t have time for crafting at our school.  Our students wouldn’t like it.  We’re more academic here than that.”  This same school had classes that taught coding with Arduinos, a robotics team and a thriving fine arts program.  But the perception is unfortunately one I’ve seen many times, especially in secondary and higher education. That crafting and tinkering aren’t real learning; especially when compared to technology.   And I have a huge problem with this.

“Play is serious learning”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the techy aspects of making.   The development of manufacturing and technology is having a profound impact on education.  Being able to have a vision, design it in 3D on a computer, print it out and have the actual physical object in your hand is amazing.  Being able to rapidly prototype and code to create the exact invention you envisioned is incredible. But this doesn’t invalidate other forms of making.  It doesn’t make crafting a lesser form a making.

One of my favorite quotes about play comes from the great Mr. Fred Rogers:

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

And anyone who’s ever watched a child at play knows this is true.  And when I say child here, I really mean anyone, at any age. When we play, we learn and we grow.  So why is it that so many schools look down on play?

Tinkering is along these same lines.  It’s tech or tech-based but without an end goal in mind.  It’s playing around and trying things out and seeing what happens.  Tinkering is experimentation at its best. But we can’t evaluate and assess this easily.  It doesn’t appear as deep learning on the surface. And so many scoff.

Craft isn’t “less than” technology

Making doesn’t have to involve expensive materials and tons of technology.  There is value in a student learning to decode a knitting pattern. That pile of cardboard, glue and paint is just waiting to be turned into a project that involves a lot of deep, creative thinking.   Those “what if” questions the tinkerers ask are going to lead to so much learning. As educators, we need to support all kinds of making, not just the fancy projects that look good on the school website.  Our students need validation. We need to give it to them.

So let’s stop looking at “craft” as a dirty word.  Let’s get rid of this assumption that there isn’t real learning going on in these projects.  Instead, let’s try giving our students some raw materials and the freedom to make what they would like.  Let’s honor the projects they create and recognize the deep learning that happens. And please, stop assuming that older students will see such projects as “too young” or “too easy” for them.  You can be in high school or college or older and still enjoy and learn from playing with cardboard and other craft supplies.

Craft is learning.  Play is learning. Tinkering is learning.  And we are never too old to benefit from any of them.


1 thought on “In Defense of Craft, Play and Tinkering”

  1. I heartily agree! I work at a community library and had the pleasure of leading a few elementary classrooms in a makerspace challenge this spring. Each student receive a paper bag of supplies and had 30 minutes to create. The younger students created buildings while the older students created flying machines.

    Not only did the students get to create something original, they were learning teamwork, design skills, physics, and engineering in an informal setting. In addition, the joy and pride of these children was immeasurable.

    Many an artist or engineer got their start while tinkering with whatever materials were at hand. I believe that my job is to give students a taste of what they can do for themselves and how they can learn outside a formal classroom setting.

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