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Let Tinkerbell Tinker


As the economy’s reliance on innovation grows, the offering of toys for girls remains–well, somewhat less than innovative. Fortunately, a few smart women are starting to solve this problem by reviving the time-honored principles of tinkering, this time for girls.EndFragment DO NOT MODIFY End Facebook Pixel Code <meta name="NextGEN" version="2.2.3" /> Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi - http://duracelltomi.com End Google Tag Manager End Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi

My daughter hates princesses, and I love her dearly for it. She also loves fairies, and I love her for that, too. The distinction may seem like the caprice of an 8-year-old mind, but it’s actually a simple matter of job description. A princess’s job is being a princess. Fairies put in work. Case in point: the world’s most famous fairy is a mechanical engineer. EndFragment DO NOT MODIFY End Facebook Pixel Code <meta name="NextGEN" version="2.2.3" /> Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi - http://duracelltomi.com End Google Tag Manager End Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi

Last weekend, we watched Disney’s “Tinkerbell” for family movie night. The D-word is problematic in our household, given The Mouse’s history of tarting up literature’s darker, more nuanced works, particularly those featuring female protagonists. But once we got over the leafy lingerie, what we found was a capable, creative, highly resourceful young woman. In one close scrape after another, Tink saved the day with little more than her wits and ingenuity.

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That’s because, above all, Tinkerbell is a tinkerer. She figures things out.

Given the crisis in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education for girls, the paucity of women in technical fields, and an innovation economy that needs 1.7 million new engineers and computer scientists in the next decade just to stay competitive, you’d think that some sort of Tinkerbell Tool Belt would be sweeping the nation. And it might be, if it existed. But it doesn’t. Instead, when you Google “Tinkerbell toys,” you get product descriptions like this one: Disney’s favorite pixie, Tinker Bell, invites you to share in a magical good time with every gal’s favorite fashion accessory – shoes! DO NOT MODIFY End Facebook Pixel Code <meta name="NextGEN" version="2.2.3" /> Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi - http://duracelltomi.com End Google Tag Manager End Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi

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In truth, J.M. Barrie’s “Tinker Bell” is a blue collar kid, a metalsmith by trade. On behalf of my aspiring architect daughter, I determined to find out how Tinkerbell the engineer became Tinkerbell the mall rat.

The Value of Futzing Around

“Futzing” is what my father called unstructured play. It’s Yiddish for farting. DO NOT MODIFY End Facebook Pixel Code <meta name="NextGEN" version="2.2.3" /> Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi - http://duracelltomi.com End Google Tag Manager End Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi

And we’re not even Jewish. Anytime I was doing something without a clear and stated purpose – say, building a wrist-launcher that shoots heirloom cocktail forks – I was told to stop futzing around and do something useful and constructive.

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In a delicious bit of pater-filius irony, virtually all of history’s most useful and constructive brainstorms weren’t driven by stated goals at all, but rather by messing around. Progressive educators now have an updated, more value-positive term for this kind of activity: tinkering. It turns out that futzing has been the mother of invention all along.

Consider: penicillin, X-rays, microwave ovens, Silly Putty, and LSD. Everyday necessities, many of us would argue. Each stumbled upon by accident. None by design.

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“If someone’s always feeding you the answers, you don’t make connections between seemingly unrelated objects,” says Rachelle Doorley, the author of Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors. “When kids get to tinker – take apart, reassemble, recombine, mix and mashup–that’s where the real discoveries take place.”

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Tinkering also helps develop a skill that is literally prerequisite for visionaries–spatial visualization, or the ability to manipulate three-dimensional objects in your mind. It’s a subject of debate how and to what degree girls naturally lag behind boys in this capacity, but there’s agreement that the gap is reduced to inconsequence with practice.

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For kids, practice means play, and play means toys. “Kids use toys to try on roles and explore interests,” explains Ms. Doorley. “Tinkering is a form of literacy. Toys can either offer or deny the hands-on practice that forms the basis of real learning.” The value of real, tactile toys seems to only grow by the day, as people—both children and adults—spend more and more time on digital screens.

The Origins of Tinker Toy Apartheid

Swept up in the fervor of the Second Industrial Revolution, toymakers at the turn of the last century launched building sets for the next generation of Graham Bell’s, Edison’s, and Brothers Wright. Meccano led the charge in 1901 with its make-anything medley of girders, plates, pulleys and gears, followed closely by Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, and yes, Tinkertoy. DO NOT MODIFY End Facebook Pixel Code <meta name="NextGEN" version="2.2.3" /> Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi - http://duracelltomi.com End Google Tag Manager End Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi

The toys did as advertised, inspiring a Laureate’s list of innovators and innovations. The precursor to the artificial heart was built with an Erector set. Meccano was used to make a differential analyzer that helped pave the way for Alan Turing’s civilization-saving Enigma-cracker. The Great Tinkertoy Computer, created by MIT students in the early ‘80s, has still yet to lose a game of Tic Tac Toe.

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Sadly, the target market was as advertised, too. Meccano boxes spelled out the intended user of its contents with the none-too-subtle descriptor, “Engineering for Boys.” “Hello Boys!” was Erector’s official advertising slogan. And speaking of subtle, Erector’s name was, and is, “Erector.” “Girls go down the paths presented to them,” Doorley says, “and for most of the history of building toys, the tinkering path was strictly boys only.”

The ’70s, that strange and underrated Free To Be You And Me spasm of consciousness, gave a short-lived reprieve from separate but equal playtime with a modest injection of gender-neutral toys and marketing. But the ’80s came along soon enough to dash any egalitarian pretensions. Before the decade was over, even Sesame Street characters were getting in on the act, joining usual suspects Disney and Barbie in pink-bombing the aisles of new big box toy superstores into color-coded, gender-ghettoed oblivion. DO NOT MODIFY End Facebook Pixel Code <meta name="NextGEN" version="2.2.3" /> Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi - http://duracelltomi.com End Google Tag Manager End Google Tag Manager for WordPress by DuracellTomi

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