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Tinker Camp
Try. Learn. Try Again.

Why I Do It
by Blake Swensen
The Introduction to his work in progress, Tinkering With Tinker Camp

If Making is the pioneers coming across the plains to start a new life out West, Tinkering is the leather-clad guide who lives on the prairie because he loves it there.
My kid is an ADHD kid. At first, my wife and I thought that he was just a boy's boy, full of natural-born inquisitive energy with a splash of obstinate free will. But as he grew and began to struggle at preschool, we slowly came to realize that he was a special kid with special needs. Being Hippies and Deadheads - you know the type - we refused to put him on any kind of medication, and the more we tried to help him at home and through occupational therapy, the less success he experienced. Finally, in the middle of his kindergarten year, we took him to a specialist and upon her advice, reluctantly started him on a regime of stimulants.

The public school could not really understand his learning disability - not really - even though it was they who encouraged us to see a specialist in the first place. There were many times that the system failed him because his teachers clearly did not understand his diagnosis or his needs. At one point, for example, a teacher refused to allow him to go to the bathroom because he had been out of his seat too many times that day, and he, consequently, defecated in his pants. This further alienated him from his classmates and a resulting employee action against the teacher further alienated her from him.

Due to health reasons, I was not working during his five years at the elementary, so I spent virtually every day in the school, volunteering, chairing committees, coaching after school programs and even becoming PTA President. Because of my access I was often called into meetings with the principal, for whom I have still have a lot of respect, but was unable to convince her of the depth of my child's disability. The message she and my son's teachers constantly and consistently sent was that he simply was not trying hard enough.

All the time and energy I contributed to the school was absorbed gratefully, but nonetheless absorbed, without positively affecting my son's negative experience. My son is really high functioning, so his disability is not as easy to see, for example, had he been deaf or in a wheelchair. It was harder, then, for his teachers to detect, adapt, and manage his disability - some of whom, I am certain, did not agree with the diagnosis of the specialists. It took five years of cracking our heads against a seemingly impenetrable system for us to finally abandon the mainstream elementary and move him to a charter school that we thought would be more responsive to his special needs.

My son's mainstream teachers hadn't failed to teach him, however. They had taught him lessons that he will carry for the rest of his life. For example, they taught him that failing a test made him a bad student whose only flaw was that he simply wasn't trying hard enough. They showed him that not finishing the work - quitting - was far less costly, emotionally, than trying hard but getting a failing grade. They taught him that being different was not as good as being the same.

When we finally moved to that charter school, we met the man who would eventually become my Tinker Camp partner, mentor and friend, Rob van Nood. This was the guy who, at the beginning of one school year, greeted his incoming 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students with a completely empty room - no desks, no chairs, no worktables. He then proceeded to tell them that it was their job the design the space in which they would be learning. Imagine, not only tearing down the idea of rows of tightly ordered desks with a Socratic teacher at the head of the room, but putting the inmates in charge of the asylum. Unthinkable.

After a year or so of interacting with Rob in his role as my kid's teacher, he approached me with the idea of running a summer time camp for a couple of weeks. Rob wanted to create a space where kids from his class could use real tools, like saws and drills. At the same time, I had been looking for some sort of activity where my boy could work with his hands - a place where he was not challenged to be a book-wise learner, but where his natural tendency to explore the world with his hands could be celebrated and encouraged. Seemed like a perfect match. Our first year of Tinker Camp was born out of the desire to help my boy, and kids like him, who were driven to work with their hands.

We stumbled on something unique and impactful. We opened summertime studios where kids should explore materials and tools and could create freely, but over the top we enriched the experience with the use of a narrative. It was a unique angle to the principles of the "Maker" movement, combining them with the power of creative play. We told the kids that the end of the world had come and that they had to build a spaceship to get the remaining humans off the planet. We told them that they were secretly super heroes and that it was time to create their costume. We explained that they had been hired to build an arcade of games.

For the better part of a decade we used these camps as a laboratory, as it were, to come up with new ideas and new approaches to teach children. We are constantly rethinking and massaging the camps, debriefing daily on what we have discovered and what we can do better. In effect, we are using tinkering to improve and learn about Tinker Camp.

Tinkering is the key word here. Not "Making." Making is a loaded word that starts with a rapid prototype and ends with a viable product. Tinkering takes a lot from Making, like the idea of an open studio and idea sharing. But it adds an element of discovery for its own sake out of a hard-to-sate curiosity. Many would argue that learning and curiosity are parts of the Maker movement, but unlike tinkering, mostly the Maker movement relies on learning as the pathway to monetizing a thing. If Making is the pioneers coming across the plains to start a new life out West, tinkering is the leather-clad guide who lives on the prairie because he loves it there.

So for Rob and me, it has been about the road, not the destination. To learn how things work is a goal with its own rewards. This is what I wanted for my son at the time Rob and I started Tinker Camp. This is also the point at which I describe how happy it has made my son's life and how his performance at school has changed for the better. Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way. He doesn't much care about building things. Now in high school, he still struggles. Tinkering is not for everyone, nor is tinkering a remedy for failures in the Education System. However, for every story like my son's, there are many whose life has changed because of our camp and approach. So, Rob and I - with the help of some really smart people - continue to tinker with Tinker Camp.


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