Make Kids Think: A Tinkering Mindset For Parents

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“Why?” “How come?” “Are we there yet?” “What happens if I…?”

Kids ask a lot of questions. We all expect this phase. We understand that questions are how children learn about their world, their communities, and themselves. It is a wonderful/critical part of their development—one we hope continues for a lifetime. But it’s also exhausting, especially for harried grown-ups who don’t quite know how to explain how dogs jump or why we don’t have two suns like Tatooine. Hasty, “good enough” replies do not seem to stay that way for long.

I’ve always appreciated parenting and teaching philosophies that encourage inquiry, critical thinking, and independence. Maker education, or tinkering, sits at the crossroads of all three. What I love most about tinkering is that you never know for certain where an exercise or experiment will lead, but you know you will learn something in the process. Now that I’m taking the Exploratorium’s free online course, Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning, I’m thinking a lot more about how much I actually apply these same principles to just about everything. Even parenthood.

A “tinkering” mindset is a valuable tool, one I hope to pass on to my kids. Instead of giving answers, I ask more questions. This simple approach turns whys into theories, theories into learning, and learning into joy–for all of us. It also supports developing problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and resilience. Here are my favorite “answers” to kids’ questions.

How to Raise Resilient Kids Who Think

1. What do you think?

This may seem a catch-all reply, but it’s a powerful one if you’re willing to follow through. Your kids might look bewildered or simply say they don’t know, in which case feel free to proceed to question no. 2. More often than not a little gentle prompting—and a preposterous hypothesis from mom—is all it takes to launch their minds into learning mode.

2. How could you find out?

Once we’ve had our share of plausible and ridiculous theories, I follow up with this question. Sometimes it leads to an impromptu experiment of some sort; others I show them how I would find that information. I veer toward the former as often as possible. The idea is to give my kids permission to test their ideas, get messy, and enjoy learning for the sake of it.

3. Why did that happen?

This deceptively simple question has an awful lot of use. If your child is testing some kind of scientific or cause-and-effect principle, “why” is a natural follow. I’ve found this question is just as important for encouraging kids to think about the things they do and see on a day-to-day basis. A playmate gets angry and leaves the room. A favorite toy is ruined by the rain. The crusty toothpaste tube won’t seal anymore. A simple, “Why did that happen?” encourages kids to identify problems, but also be more aware of themselves and others.

4. “What else can you try?”

Not everything works the first time. Sometimes it feels like nothing works at all. I want my kids to know that’s okay: what matters is that you find the lesson in mistakes and get back on the horse. Failure is a natural part of learning. Some of our favorite things—penicillin, post-its, and slinkies—began with experiments gone awry. Not many failures end so dramatically, but they can build character. This question encourages resilience and the ability to see a mistake as an opportunity to do better rather than a dead end.

5. “What did you learn today that you didn’t know yesterday?”

Okay, okay. I stole this approach from Neil deGrasse Tyson, but it’s too good not to share. If you haven’t found yourself in the middle of the sticker chart/everyone-gets-a-trophy debate, count yourself lucky. I personally think we would all benefit from a less judgment, but that’s another post. Both philosophies use different methods to achieve the same goal: motivating children to study, learn, and grow. What I like about this question is that it encourages kids to recall new lessons and see them as accomplishments. In other words, it reinforces not only a new fact or concept mastered but the intrinsic value of learning.

P.S.: If you haven’t watched NDT explain the meaning of life to a 6-year-old, you are in for a treat.

Please feel free to share your favorite questions and philosophies below.

Aimee Hosler Education Journalist
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Aimee Hosler has a snazzy husband, two boys, a dog, and official pedagogy-nerd status. She doubles as a freelance journalist specializing K-12 and higher education in general, and PBL, maker education and creative thinking specifically. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including USA Today, TeachThought, Education World, The Global Digital Citizen Foundation, Yahoo! News, Teacher Portal and more. She lives in Virginia.

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