First, a backtrack to Kiwi Crates, the subscription kits for children, which I've reviewed on the blog here, here and here. When they were still in the appropriate age range, my girls thoroughly enjoyed their Kiwi Crates and spent many a happy hour independently creating and making with them.
As they grew older, they needed different and more stimulating challenges. And were no longer satisfied to simply decorate, embellish and make pretty art and craft, now matter how gorgeous or ambitious the outcome.
For example, my oldest, who is eleven, is desperate to invent. She does basic computer coding, has a working knowledge of fundamental organic and molecular chemistry (but eschews Physics, curse it all), dabbles in cardboard and hot glue, has a sewing buddy in school with whom she discusses fabric, toy design and seam allowance, and recently dissected a sheep's brain and a squid, whose anatomy she explained to me in enough detail to convince me that hers was female.
Since she enjoys the pure Sciences, we tried the commercial Science kits - the ones with the test tubes and stinky cabbage paper and promises of man-eating slime and towering geysers and crime-fighting motion sensors.
It turned out that she much prefers stuff like Makey-Makey, Little Bits, Snap Circuits and turning the kitchen into a free-expression chemistry lab (I make her clean up after).
I don't mean to brag; I am only trying to explain that this child needs stimulation. Thrives on it. Is somewhat of a lost soul without it. And while the pure sciences are indeed stimulating, there is a part of her brain that craves the arts, aesthetic design, colors, simple making and creating.
When I first heard about Tinker Crates, I was intrigued. Tinker Crates are Kiwi Crates for builders and, well, tinkerers, in the 9-16 age group. They feature STEAM*- motivated projects that encourage innovative and inventive thinking. They sounded like something my 11-year-old would like: applied Science in a box, that you make with your hands, and can play with after. So I contacted the good people at Kiwi Crate, and they sent us a box to try out. The 11-year-old, as expected, was ecstatic.
*STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math
Whenever we do reviews, particularly of products I personally solicit, I have certain aspects in mind that I want to investigate. It sounds very mad-scientist, I know, but that's my training, and it sorta contaminates all the other parts of my life, even play. So, before I tell you about the crate itself and our experience with it, let me share what I was specifically looking out for.
My first question was "Will this be enjoyable/suitable for my 11-year-old, who is within the 9-16 age range?" I'm willing to bet that anyone who's ever contemplated buying anything for their kid would look at the recommended target age, and probably ask that same thing.
More importantly, however, I wanted to know
(i) if this 11-year-old tackle it on her own without my (or any other adult's) help,
(ii) even if she could manage it independently, if she might benefit from adult facilitation, and what kind, and how much,
(iii) if she could learn from it without being explicitly taught something in words or pictures or video,
(iv) how manageable (or engaging) the projects were for kids on the lower end of that age spectrum, like my 9-year-old, or even my 7-year-old (who thinks she's 12),
(v) how long it would take her to complete the projects, given her already crammed schedule with school and after-school sports and enrichment activities. After all, this target age group are no longer the wide-eyed lower-elementary children who have zero homework (other than spelling and measuring household items in handspans). The reality of upper elementary and middle school kids are busy nights at the pool, cramming homework at breakfast, 7 am mornings at school band, lugging Invention Fair projects to and from their partner's house over the weekend, and clocking hours of french horn practice just before bedtime. And chores. And any other personal hobbies they might want to (fleetingly) enjoy during the minutes between. While Facetiming their friends out of state.
In other words, if we were investing in a subscription program that delivers a new kit every month, it would be a shame if we hadn't the time to enjoy each one.
On the other hand, we'd be less inclined to invest in it if the projects were so quickly sped through that they posed no challenge (or engagement) whatsoever.
Those expectations in place, we plunged right in.
Let's talk about our crate now - there is a different theme every month, and the one we were sent was the Biomechanical Hand.
This is the literature - a blueprint sheet of instructions and a booklet of supplementary material.
The blueprint sheet opens out to diagramatic step-by-step instructions, with accompanying tips,
and troubleshooting solutions. There is also a link to video instructions, for those so inclined.
The booklet contains historical background and modern industrial applications of the concept.
Specific to this project, there is also a section on the human hand -
an exploration of anatomy,
as well as interesting observations on the some quirky workings of the human body.
In the booklet is also a secondary craft project, which we will share later.
Emily (she's the 11-year-old) started the secondary project first, because she'd made these straw puppets on her own in the past and found them familiar enough to tackle without my involvement. She completed them in an evening, and her sisters enjoyed playing with them after.
Wedges are cut into the straws to create joints, turning them into levers. Cord is threaded through the straws. When the cords are pulled, the force generated bends the straws (the levers) at the joints (fulcrums) to animate the display.
In the project below, the cords have the added function of mimicking muscles/tendons, which move bones.
On a separate evening a few days later, we tackled the actual Biomechanical Hand.
This project required little bits of wood (the phalanges of the fingers and thumb) to be stuck to adhesive foam.
and then eyescrews twisted into pre-drilled holes.
Emily could've done it by herself, but I was excited and insisted on participating. I was generously allocated part of one finger to work on.
Elastic and regular cord were then cut to length, secured and threaded through the various holes in the movable parts of the Hand.
Again, Emily was able to thread and tie everything on her own. It took her a while, because it was by definition a precise and somewhat fiddly task (but completely manageable).
Here is the finished Hand.
Here is Emily manipulating the hand - her fingers host loops on the cords that move the fingers and thumb.
Here are a couple of videos of the Hand in action.
Our verdict: we loved this Tinker Crate. Let me count the ways:
1 The materials - of high quality, as we've come to expect from the folks at Kiwi Crates. The only things we needed to supply on our end were scissors and some sticky tape - everything else came in the box. All the pieces work as they should, fit together as we hoped, nothing frustrated us or gave us slivers, and they came with enough extra(s) for miscalculations and just-in-case. For completeness' sake, here is a photo of what we had left after both projects:
2 The instructions - again, excellent. Clear and engaging diagrams, with enough explanations and guidance to help us get things right. The tips were placed exactly where and when we needed them to avoid going astray.
We did not watch the video - we did not need to.
3 The skill and age level - definitely suitable for an 11-year-old, although I am aware that my 11-year-old might be stimulated by different things than your 11-year-old. That said, I didn't observe or read anything in the manuals that couldn't be understood by even a typical 4th or 5th grader, especially if they already have a slight interest in Science. Overall, I'd say the suggested age range (9-16) is pretty accurate, although the younger kids (9, 10 year olds) will need some help with the more fine-motor tasks, especially if they aren't accustomed to crafting and constructing per se.
4 The level of engagement - this kit kept my 11-year-old busy and occupied on two separate evenings. The construction tasks require actual work - they're not just sticking decorative details or folding origami to create pretty trinkets. I'd go as far as to say that had my 9-year-old been the one to tackle the projects, she might have had to take a break in the middle and resume later. But the projects themselves are not difficult - in my 11-year-old's own words: "At first, I thought the instructions were overwhelming (because there were multiple steps), but once I actually started, they're really okay, and go faster than I thought."
5 The time investment - both projects (the straw puppets and the Hand) took at least an hour of concentrated work to complete, including the time taken to read and digest the instructions. We liked that they were neither so simple that ended up finishing it in mere minutes, nor that they were so time-consuming that we needed multiple sessions.
6 The need for adult involvement - I interfered on some of the less exciting tasks, like cutting the string and poking out the holes in the foam fingers (which I knew for sure even 7-year-oldss could do in their sleep anyway). Otherwise, my 11-year-old did everything else herself, from reading the instructions to constructing the projects and improvising and problem-solving. The straw puppets, for instance, required a lot more sticky tape than initially appeared, and she worked out on her own where and how to add the extra bits to better stabilize her structure.
7 The quality - of both the materials (as earlier mentioned) and the design of the projects - was good. The finished projects were sturdy - it was fun to play with them and not feel like they were made of glass.
8 The learning - I like explicit teaching, but I love inherent educational value even more. I believe that toys and playthings, for instance, are sources of learning in and of themselves; they don't have to be STEM toys, specifically. For instance, some of the absolute best learning can be found in a cardboard box: spatial orientation, physics, architecture, mathematics and geometry, design, engineering principles, textures . . .
That said, I found both explicit and inherent learning in our Tinker Crate. The accompanying magazine, for instance, had background material and food-for-thought articles that my 11-year-old enjoyed reading and applying to her world around her. The projects themselves were open-ended enough to start the wheels turning in her head - "can I use this Biomechanical Hand to pick up things? How heavy a thing can it pick up without it falling out? How must I orientate my fingers to create a secure enough grip? How can I manipulate the movements to perform sign language?"
You can read the purchasing information for Tinker Crates here. They are available as 1-, 3-, 6-, and 12-month subscriptions, as well as as single crates you can pick according to themes that particularly interest you. You can also what's inside a sample crate here.
Thank you, Kiwi Crate, for the opportunity to collaborate!
Disclaimer: we were given the Biomechanical Hand Tinker Crate in exchange for an honest review. The opinions in this post are ours.