Guest Opinion

Building the Future: Tinkering and Playful Learning

developing science and creativity skills through play 

Educators and business leaders have more in common than it may seem. Teachers want to prepare students for a successful future. Technology companies, like AT&T, have a vested interest in developing a workforce with the STEM skills needed to grow the company and advance the industry. How can they work together to achieve these goals? Play may the answer.

We've assumed that focusing on STEM skills, like robotics or coding, are important, but the reality is that STEM skills are enhanced and more relevant when combined with traditional, hands-on creative activities. This combination is proving to be the best way to prepare today's children to be the makers and builders of tomorrow. That is why technology companies are partnering with educators to bring back good, old fashion play.  Some examples include Google's new Making & Science initiative, Time Warner Cable's Earth Day Cardboard Challenge, and AT&T's and Imagination Foundation's Inventors Challenge.

In fact many experts argue that the most important 21st century skills aren't related to specific technologies or subject matter, but to creativity; skills like imagination, problem-finding and problem-solving, teamwork, optimism, patience and the ability to experiment and take risks. These are skills acquired when kids tinker. According to Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of National Institute for Play, "High-tech industries such as NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have found that their best overall problem solvers were master tinkerers in their youth."

In the United States (as well as in numerous other countries), schools struggle to teach these skills and may often contradict them. In fact, researchers often point to the "fourth grade slump," a time when children are expected to go from "learning to read" to "reading to learn," as the time to observe a child's creative decline. And we face another challenge; it's the flip side to the benefits of the digital age — an overreliance on technology and a shift away from old-fashioned play.

There are cognitive benefits of doing things the way we did as children — building something, tearing it down, then building it up again.  According to research, nothing activates a child's brain like play. And, if given the opportunity, children will gravitate toward play that builds STEM skills.  Research shows that given 15 minutes of free play, four- and five-year-olds will spend a third of this time engaged in spatial, mathematical, and architectural activities.  This type of play—especially with building blocks—helps children discover and develop key principles in math and geometry.¹ 

A recent study in the Journal of Play concluded that "children's individual play experiences with Euclidean play objects [e.g. blocks] is at the forefront of what is important to both STEM education, professional expertise in the sciences, and applied science fields like architecture and engineering."²

If play and building are critical to 21st century skill development, then that's really good news for two reasons: Children are born builders, makers, and creators, so fostering 21st century skills may be as simple as giving kids room to play, tinker and try things out, even as they grow older; and the second piece of good news is that it doesn't take 21st century technology to foster 21st century skills. This is especially important for under-resourced schools and communities. Taking whatever materials are handy and tinkering with them is a simple way to engage those important "maker" skills. And anyone, anywhere, can do it. 
So, how can educators make sure children are getting that critical hands-on, tinkering that 21st century jobs require? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Build with whatever you have, from Popsicle sticks, to cardboard, to recyclables. Remember, it doesn't require future tech to get kids future ready. 3D printers are awesome tools, but if your school doesn't have one, don't let that hold you back.
  2. Let student interest lead the way. Be careful not to overly script build activities; children will fill the gap with their own creativity. This should be a relief to parents and teachers! Sometimes the best thing adults can do is get out of the way. Look to the Genius Hour movement as inspiration here.
  3. Want to turbo charge your activity? Assign constraints and make it a challenge: a paper airplane that stays in the air the longest, a house or cards that supports the weight of a shoe, build a collection of games out of cardboard, recyclables and imagination and have kids run their own arcade!

To ensure the future success of our students and our workforce, we must start by understanding that old fashioned play and modern technology can be intricately connected. Understanding how the most advanced technologies and machinery work by literally tinkering with them, taking them apart and putting them back together again.


1 Ferrara, Katrina and Hirsh-Pasek, Kathryn and Golinkoff, Roberta M. "Building Blocks for Learning." The Wisdom of Play. p.14
2 Ness, Daniel and Farenga, Stephen J. 2016. "Blocks, Bricks, and Planks Relationships between Affordance and Visuo-Spatial Constructive Play Objects." American Journal of Play.

About the Authors

Mike McGalliard is the Founding President and Executive Director of the Imagination Foundation, a nonprofit committed to fostering creativity and entrepreneurship in children around the world. The Foundation was sparked by the worldwide popularity of the short film Caine's Arcade and works in over 60 countries.

Anne Wintroub is the Director of Social Innovation for the AT&T Foundation, focusing on ed-tech investments and philanthropy initiatives that empower student success and career readiness.