Kid’s imagination is key to unlocking treasure chest of fun.

The Minnesota Children’s Museum is proving that good things come in small packages. About the size of a shoebox, its Tinker Kits are being distributed free of charge to organizations that serve lower-income families. To date, more than 500 kits have been given out through such organizations as Keystone Community Services, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties, the Wilder Foundation and School District 197’s Birth to Three/Help Me Grow Program.

“The museum’s mission is to spark children’s learning through play,” said Bob Ingrassia, the Children’s Museum’s vice president for external relations and a resident of Saint Paul’s Summit-University neighborhood. “We want kids and adults to play more. Our thinking is that when parents and other caregivers learn more about the power of play and, more important, see it in action, they’ll do more to ensure their kids get the time, space and freedom to play.”

Children's Museum
Children’s Museum of Minnesota vice president Bob Ingrassia joins Cody Armstrong, 3, and Cody’s mom Melissa Schillo-Armstrong in playing with the contents of a Tinker Kit. Photo by Brad Stauffer

 

Tinker connotes invention, experimentation and prototyping with no specific outcome or end product in mind, Ingrassia said. Inside each kit are a variety of colorful materials and loose parts, including tubes, cups, balls, Popsicle sticks, felt swatches, rubber bands, tape and other connectors. “We also included various whimsical items, such as googly eyes and plastic fish,” Ingrassia said—in short, just about everything a child needs to spark his or her imagination and creativity.

   

“The amount of time kids spend playing has been declining,” Ingrassia continued. “At the same time, evidence of the powerful positive effects of playtime on children’s development has been growing. Kids learn and grow through play, especially when the activities are open-ended and directed mainly by the children themselves.”

One important aspect of the kit is the lack of instruction for what to do with the items inside. “We like to say that kids are capable people,” Ingrassia said. “They’re naturally curious learning machines. Let’s give them opportunities to explore, experiment and create without limiting them to preconceived methods or outcomes. Learning happens along the way as kids try, fail, adjust and talk about what they’re doing and how they’re thinking.

“The amount of time kids spend playing has been declining,” Ingrassia continued. “At the same time, evidence of the powerful positive effects of playtime on children’s development has been growing. Kids learn and grow through play, especially when the activities are open-ended and directed mainly by the children themselves. Play cultivates creativity, critical thinking, confidence, collaboration and other skills kids need to thrive.”

 

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The Tinker Kits were first offered in December 2020 for use in the museum. But with COVID restrictions, it was decided they should go out into the neighborhoods. Grants for the free kits were secured from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Museum staff and volunteers have been assembling them. The plan is to continue distributing them through 2022.

Play reduces toxic effects of stress

“The pandemic has put a tremendous strain on children and families,” Ingrassia said. “Clearly, many kids have had fewer opportunities to explore the world around them and interact with other children. Play sparks joy and brings families together. Play reduces the toxic effects of stress and literally helps heal brains harmed by traumatic experiences.”

“The kits are great because they help kids use creativity, critical thinking and STEM-related problem-solving skills,” said Jen Winterfeldt, Keystone’s director of development and community engagement. “It was so wonderful that the museum shared the kits with organizations like Keystone. Our staff appreciated having the play kits as an extra tool to engage kids.”

The third- and fourth-graders in a Keystone after-school program were clearly excited when they first opened their Tinker Kits to explore the objects inside. One student taped colored plastic to the end of a paper towel roll to make binoculars. Another made cat toys. And another simply played with the materials. In a different classroom, students constructed tracks and a mini-obstacle course.

“We used the play kits just a couple of weeks ago,” said Hannah Sauer of Keystone’s Teen Tutor Program. “The children seemed to be really engaged with them. We used the kits as a STEM challenge and took advantage of some of the ideas on the idea cards included in the play kits. Students had a great time trying to build structures and creating a game or a creature with the materials.”

Organizations wishing to receive free Tinker Kits may apply by filling out a form on the Children’s Museum website at mcm.org/museum-creates-free-play-kits-for-families-in-need.

— Anne Murphy

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