The Power of Play: Tinkering Leads to Learning

Chrissie Wywrot is a freelance writer and social media expert with focuses on LinkedIn profile development and blogging. She is also an advocate for The ChadTough Foundation which raises funds and awareness for Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, or DIPG. Learn more about Chrissie and her business at

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power of playWhen I worked for the Detroit Lions, the community relations department had an event that brought together current players, PGA pros, and local kids who played golf. The scene at a driving range was hysterical.

Elite athletes with undeniable strength and ability struggling to hit a little white ball while elementary-aged kids clearly had mastery over the sport.

It was then that one of the PGA pros made a point that has stuck with me all of these years. He said the reason these kids did so well while the adults struggled is because kids who play golf tinker with their swing while they learn.

Instead of trying to make the perfect shot (like countless adults), kids tweak their swings to see how far they can slice or hook the ball. They want to work through all the fun things they can do with the ball simply by adjusting their swings.

The end result is that they end up with mastery the sport because they’ve tried it all and learned all the nuances.

It’s a great lesson in learning anything.

Innovation expert John Seely Brown articulates all of this in a video he recorded for the DML (Digital Media + Learning) Research Hub.

“If the first thing that happens when something doesn’t work is it frightens you, then you’re not going to be very willing to embrace change,” he says. “But if you realize that when things don’t work, which is almost always, you can get in there and figure out how to tinker with these things and just absorb what happens (you’ll figure it out). Tinkering brings thought and and action together in some very powerful and magical ways.”

Where Do I Go?

One way this plays out in my life is while I’m driving. I have absolutely zero sense of direction. Put a bag over my head, spin me around, and then ask me which way is north. I’m hopeless. I have been known to turn the wrong way out of a parking lot and drive due east when I’m supposed to go due west. It’s not pretty.

While I doubt I’ll ever master directional intuition, I am able to familiarize myself with certain areas so that I not only know where I’m going, but I can give directions to others.

How have I managed this? I drive around until I figure out where I’m going (NOTE: this technique does not go over well with others in the car).

This almost always results in a longer-than-needed trip because I rarely get it right the first time, but my brain logs away my mistakes and victories. The next time I’m in that area, I may get where I’m going a little faster.

The Innovation Lab

Greenwich High School in Greenwich, CT is doing the same thing with its Innovation Lab. Students are taking to a hands-on environment to apply English, math, science, and social studies, gaining a deeper understanding of the material through tinkering.

For one solar panel project, students applied math and science concepts to create prototypes. Dr. Sarah Goldin, the science teacher within the program, explained that the challenge was to design something that was portable, sustainable, and met a need.

The teachers, however, knew that whatever project the students chose would have to tie in the core concepts they were covering. Students played around with their projects and sought out the material themselves as a way to better their own projects.

It’s a concept Brown touches on in his video.

“I think the construct that is most overlooked now in the 21st century, and maybe the 20th century as well, is the power and importance of play,” said Brown. “That’s to say, how do I take an idea, and how do I play with it, how do I tinker with it, how do I come to make it personal, how do I come to own it, how do I indwell in the idea itself.”

Giving yourself (or your students) the freedom to play around with an idea connects it with your mind in a way reading something out of a textbook never could.

Watch Brown’s full video to listen to all of his learning concepts:

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