Andrea Beaty’s Rosie Revere, Engineer is a beloved modern classic children’s book. Rosie is a kid who never stops inventing fantastical machines, such as python-repelling cheese hats. Through the course of the story she overcomes failures, embarrassment, and fear, with a little encouragement from her great-great-aunt Rose, a WWII Rosie the Riveter. It’s a great book and one we use regularly at reDiscover to spark excitement and introduce some of the concepts of tinkering: imagination, experimentation, iteration, creatively reusing materials, recovering from setbacks.
In the end though, Rosie Revere, Engineer is a storybook. As such, it has a pat narrative arc that does not map well onto real life tinkering. Rosie’s fantastical creations work, maybe not the first time, but her cheese-copter really flies and her hot dog dispenser, made of tape and cardboard, squirts perfectly neat squiggles of mustard. Combined with the loose illustrations, this creates a slightly surreal and abstract landscape that is great for inspiring imaginative play, which is a huge part of tinkering. The neat narrative contrasts with the meandering exploration where the journey becomes more important than the destination that playing and building with materials so often and so valuably can become. Rosie’s impossible engineering feats are not so good for setting achievable expectations for kids’ practical inventing, the functional, can-I-get-it-to-work side of tinkering.
Tinkering can take many forms, but particularly as it blends into engineering it moves out of the figurative and into the functional. The practice of iterating and tinkering on a mechanical problem builds a lifelong skill with immediate application in STEM learning. These problems, real, if minor, and solvable by a tinkering child, abound in a home setting, from a paper airplane that pulls left to a door stop that keeps sliding to the ever present problem of balls rolling irretrievably deep under the couch. Rosie’s machines, if taken as inspiration for what a child might tinker around on, will probably lead to sculptures (which are great!) rather than inventions. Unless a facilitator helps that child move from the wonder of her inventions to the wonder of problem solving, building within your existing abilities and maybe just a little beyond, and flow-inducing iterative tinkering.