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Tinkering; rephrasing play?

Let’s talk tinkering - Last week I discussed invitations and although no clear answers were found I hope that it allowed you to reflect on your practice. This week I want to talk tinkering, maybe the balance between free play and invitations lies in tinkering and providing resources/opportunities to tinker with.

Play is a hard concept for some practitioners to wrap their heads around because play comes in so many forms and everyone views play differently based on their experiences of play. Our interpretation of play may be lacking because as children we were told to ‘go and play’ which for many of us meant with toys, most likely very gendered such as barbies or xmen, cars or doll’s houses. We’d often be told to ‘stop messing with (insert authentic object here)’ because our parents didn’t see the value in it, therefore, as much as we have moved on we still unconsciously see play as using objects in very specific ways. Even when I was told to go and play outside I know that my mum’s expectations were probably on my bike, or street games with the other children.

Those expectations have unconsciously shaped our views on play and it is something we really have to unlearn. So my proposal is to use the concept of tinkering as a bridge between invitations and play. Allowing children to play takes a lot of unlearning and a huge mindset shift but many of us can understand the idea of tinkering. Tinkering makes me think of schematic play behaviours such as connecting, moving, exploring, rotating, lining up, pressing, dropping, throwing, rolling and so on - the art of tinkering is messing with something in any way you want to. I would also like to suggest that tinkering can be planned for. The tinkering itself can’t be but the items we provide for tinkering can.

So let’s use the example of paint, if someone offers you paint and says you can paint I think most of us would start to paint a picture of something but if someone offered you paint and said tinker with it we would be more inclined to mix it, splat it, dab it, create big marks, little marks, different shapes and so on. Just by using a different word we can really change the mindset we have. Therefore, when we offer children paint and think of ‘tinkering’ we are more likely to resist the impulse to ask the child what they’re painting (putting the emphasis on the outcome) and more likely to relish in their exploration as they tinker.

Now this is not by any means without it’s limitations because it doesn’t translate to all types of play. Tinkering is a great word when we think about creative play, loose parts play and schematic play but it doesn’t quite translate when we think of role play. Or does it? Role play is a form of tinkering with ideas and thoughts and testing them out after all.

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