An alternative to online tinkering: ‘Springtime of the Little Motors’

After the experience with the smartphone described in the previous post, we were looking for ways to tinker together independently of the Internet and the associated technologies.

A hybrid concept for tinkering at home

We designed a workshop for 7–11-year-olds with a hybrid and flexible concept that lasted ten days. Again, the focus was on tinkering at home and setting up a small workspace. All material was provided in a tinkering box. The communication interface was the shop window at Raumschiff rather than a screen. This is possible because most of the participants live in the neighborhood and can easily drop in daily or as needed. In addition, we set up a Padlet board for parents. Not as a prerequisite for participation, but to initiate and test online communication. If the pandemic situation allowed, short face-to-face meetings led through the workshop.

Activity: tinkering with little motors

What is it that would appeal not only to the 7–11-year-olds but also to their parents? Parents, many of whom never come to Raummschiff and who may not place the same value on playing and tinkering as we do. It should be something ’nice‘ with a certain wow effect, maybe even usable in their daily lives in some way.

We decided on the DC motor theme with a painting machine as the starting activity. The wow effect is there as soon as you hold a pen on the turntable. The bright colors, the perfect circles and the amazing color effects are ‚beautiful‘. And maybe you can use the painting machine to make decorations for a birthday party?

A painting machine instead of a car as a starter activity would counteract the stereotype of technology=car=male. I was sure this would get the girls on board.

The activity is open and can be expanded as desired: Mixing colors and other experiments with the turntable including taking pictures and videos of the phenomena, new motor-driven machines such as propellers or vehicles, programming the little motors with micro:bit – there are no limits to the imagination. The ‘Springtime of the Little Motors’ workshop was born!

(I tried an eggs coloring machine which worked great and still have in mind creating a cake decoration machine.)

Selected material for the Tinkering-Box

Everything was in it, so that even children who don’t have scissors, pencils or adhesive tape at home can build the painting machine, do various experiments with it and invent new things (in the meantime I’m a little more skeptical about the statement ‚We don’t have that at home!’:-)

The box should also be the start for participants’ own tinkering materials collections, adding found objects from the household and elsewhere.

The shop window as a communication platform

The shop window as well as a small mailbox were the interfaces for communicating with each other. We cared about making the window ‘readable’ by exhibiting the following:

  • Welcome greetings and a description of the workshop
  • the content of the tinkering box
  • a model of the electric circuit and a model of the finished the painting machine
  • ideas what you can do with the painting machine
  • a screen with pictures and videos of the painting machine in action

During the ten days of the workshop, we added:

  • daily new inventions, for inspiration
  • objects participants created
  • daily updates of the screen with participants’ inventions
  • daily updates of the Padlet board and Raumschiff’s website
  • occasional live tinkering behind the shop window


    The workshop lasted ten days during spring break, registration was required.

    1. Start: Participants pick up their tinker box individually and ‚test‘ the motor (this introduced the electrical circuit) > tinkering at home
    2. Taking it further: Three days later, a second individual meeting takes place, discussing the first tinkering experiences and new ideas. The participants can select new material that they need for further work > continue tinkering at home.
    3. End: a tinkering fair takes place in front of Raumschiff, to which parents and the public are invited > tinkering can continue at home after the workshop.

    Does the concept work?

    A month after the children had dropped their registration form into the mailbox, almost all of them were ready at Raumschiff’s door on the right day, some much too early.

    They were very happy about the tinkering box and the fact that they got to keep everything that was inside. But tinkering at home? Think again! They dragged out a few tables and got started right in front of Raumschiff. Together. For a long time, very concentrated and with a lot of fun. Younger siblings also joined in. New ideas were already being tried out.


    Less children joined in, though, for the second meeting. Those who came were the real tinkering nerds who had continued working on their projects at home.

    Between the meetings, some children came by to have a broken cable soldered to their little motor, to replace a battery or to pick up a component they needed.

    At the final exhibition, the children showed with great commitment what they had made and let the visitors have a try at their machines. There was another round of tinkering, and new ideas emerged.  However, only one mother came to look, a few residents of the neighborhood, and finally a few participants showed up who had left their box at home and still wanted to see what the others had made.

    The shop window became the source of communication and inspiration, as we had hoped. Again and again, children (and adults) stood in front of it and studied every detail. At the interim meeting, we had lent the children our old digicams. With these they took photos and videos of their creations, and I loaded them onto the screen. The screen was therefore particularly popular, one could always discover something new and look at one’s own inventions as well as those of the peers. Why hadn’t we made better use of this showcase before? The online Padlet board, on the other hand, was used by noone but me.

    Experiences with ‘Springtime of the Little Motors’

    The workshop with the tinkering-box was a success. It set a process in motion that we had been trying to get going for a long time: engaging children with a STEAM topic over a longer period of time, as many do with music or in sports. Two weeks after the workshop officially ended, several kids were still tinkering with their little motors and regularly come over for advice and help.

    The short individual meetings supported this process. The inspiration from our own tinkering activities and that of fellow participants provided the necessary impetus. Those who dropped out could rejoin at any time (and some did).

    Unlike other formats, such as the  open Saturday Workshop before the pandemic, this format allows us to tinker and experiment ourselves, just like the participants. It is part of the concept. This is fun and very motivating for us. And we also learn from the children (and the parents who support the children at home)!

    Online interactions and communication with the parents in general did not work well yet. We have to experiment with this further within the scope of our possibilities and pay more attention to the details.

    Conclusion: The pandemic forced us to find new, flexible ways of tinkering together and dealing with digitalization as well as finding alternatives to it. The result exceeded our expectations. We discovered unexpected opportunities for long-term engagement. The tinkering-box by raumschiff@home format works and is fun! It will get a permanent place in the program at Raumschiff. The next tinkering-box is planned for the fall vacations, when it gets dark early, on the topic of light.


    At the same time as the tinkering-box workshop, we announced a classic online workshop for ages 10 and up on the topic of space weather. After all, we are an astronomy place! However, it met with little interest. This can have various reasons. A certain saturation of online offers is certainly one of them.

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