Introduction: FUZZY SIPPERS - 1st Grade Tinkering - Week 3

"FUZZY SIPPERS" is the third lesson in a 10 week Tinkering series offered to first grade students. Using everyday materials in open-ended projects, we transform the ordinary to the extraordinary while nurturing problem solving skills, building creative confidence, encouraging collaboration, and empowering students as agents of their own success.

What is tinkering? Tinkering is experimenting with ideas, tools and materials to discover the myriad of possibilities that everyday objects can hold. Tinkering allows us to invent marvelous creations through working with our hands, persevering through setbacks, and engaging with others in creative collaboration. Tinkering is "thinking with our hands."

Why tinkering? Thanks to smart phones, video games, and good ol' TV, too much of our kids' world is virtual and their experiences are largely vicarious. Tinkering allows for empowered, active learning. It is real interaction with real objects, real tools, and real people.

DESCRIPTION: In this lesson, students will explore the properties of flexible and rigid materials (pipe cleaners and plastic straws), the concept of tension, and basic engineering / building principles to create fantastical structures from pipe cleaners and plastic straws.


  • Explore the physical attributes of flexible and rigid solids
  • Discover the importance of creating a wide, sturdy base in creating tall structures
  • Develop perseverance and creative confidence through experiential Tinkering activity
  • Foster collaboration between small groups of students
  • Encourage speaking and listening skills in group discussion

Step 1: Materials & Introduction


Clear plastic straws (cut into 2" pieces) (each student will need at least 25 pieces)

Fuzzy craft stems / pipe cleaners (cut into 3" pieces) (each student will need at least 75 pieces)

INTRODUCTION & DEMO (students on the rug) - 10 minutes

(Note to readers: For suggestions on guided conversations that introduce students to the idea of TINKERING, please see my Instructable "FLOWERS FROM MARS", which is week 1 of a 10-week tinkering curriculum)

Begin with the Tinkering motto: "When we Tinker ... we think with our hands." and we make this gesture (Wiggle fingers at your temple and move them outward). Explain to kids to imagine that their hands are holding all their ideas and when you wiggle your fingers it's like letting the ideas come out from your brain.

Inquire about iteration:

Last week, we tinkered with strips of paper and staplers. Did anyone have an opportunity to tinker some more with those materials and tools? Allow students to share their further explorations. If you have many students with their hands in the air, take a moment to do a "Pair Share" where they turn to the person sitting next to them and tell them about what they created. Remind students that an important part of tinkering is sharing our ideas with our classmates.

Introduce TOOLS and MATERIALS:

MATERIALS - Introduce straws and pipe cleaners. Discuss the different ways that the straw and the pipe cleaner are flexible. The straw can be bent, but it pops right back into its cylinder/tube shape when you let go. When you bend the pipe cleaner, it stays bent because there is a metal wire inside. It also has a fuzzy surface that you can squish down, but it will pop back into being fuzzy when you let go.

TOOLS - Remember that are things we use to help us make, build and create. Mention that you used scissors as a tool to prepare the straws and pipe cleaners, but today, the only tools the students will be using are their own hands!

Step 2: Demonstration (10 Minutes)

Hold up a piece of straw and a pipe cleaner and ask students how we might use these together to build something. Students will likely suggest putting the pipe cleaner into the straw. Demonstrate that the pipe cleaner will stay in place because the fuzzy surface is pushing against the inside of the straw, which helps to hold it there. (you can define this as "tension" if you wish)

Demonstrate connecting a few straws and pipe cleaners together will make a longer chain, but that you can't really build anything that will stand on its own. Pose the question "How can we change the way we put these together to make a structure that can stand on its own?"

Take suggestions and then demo how put three pipe cleaners into one straw, and bend them open to make a base.

Tell the kids: "It looks a little like a chicken's foot, and in the same way a chicken's foot helps it to stand, using three pipe cleaners at once will help your structure to stand."

Pose the challenge: Can you combine many "chicken feet" together to make a structure that stands tall? Can you use your imagination to create buildings, or playgrounds, or animals, or whatever else comes to your mind?

Have the kids consider: Sometimes when we tinker, we may have an idea in our heads about something specific that we want to make and sometimes we don't have a clear idea. Other times, we may get frustrated because the materials aren't really suited for making what we imagine and we need to let some ideas go for new ideas to come. The important thing to do is keeping experimenting with the materials and see where the tinkering takes us.

Remind them of the rules: There is no "WRONG" in Tinkering, but there are a few rules:

1 - RESPECT the Materials and Tools - Use tools properly, be mindful to use materials wisely, not wastefully

2 - RESPECT your classmates - share materials, share tools. Be encouraging! Work together!

3- RESPECT yourself - always try your hardest. It's OK to feel frustrated, but keep working and keep trying. Be PROUD of what you do.

Step 3: Tinkering Time! (25 Minutes)

For the first 10 minutes, children will work independently, exploring the materials on their own. Students should feel free to tinker and experiment with the tools and materials, so long as they are following the 3 rules of respect.

After 10 minutes, stop and get the children's attention to issue a new challenge. "I now challenge you to see if you can connect what you've created with the other kids' creations at your table." When you see collaboration happening, call it to everyone's attention and celebrate it!

Watch for signs of frustrations while students are working. Remind students to just say "Whoo-hoo!" when they've made what they think is a mistake. Invariably, these structures will collapse / topple over / loosen and break apart. Students will need to persevere through these setbacks and figure out how to solve the issue.

At the last 5 minutes, give a 5 minute warning to clean up time and say, "I challenge you to take it even further. Can you connect even more together? Can you transform it in a way that it hasn't been done yet? " Give 2 minute and 1 minute warnings.

Step 4: Clean Up and Reflection (10 Minutes)

Clean Up / Gallery Walk:

Students should clean up their tables, returning unused materials to their proper containers. Cleaning up after ourselves is an important part of Tinkering. Creations can be left on tables (since they fall apart easily) and students can do a "gallery walk" around the tables to see what the other kids created.

Reflection Time: In a circle on the rug, students can bring what they've created to share in a facilitated dialogue about the tinkering experience. "When we tinker, it's good to share our ideas and the things we discovered with each other." "It's important that only one person talks at a time and they we give respect to each other."

This week's reflection time can focus on managing frustrations. Ask students, "Did anyone experience any sticky points? Moments where they felt frustrated? How do you get past it?"

Open discussion to sharing what students created, storytelling about ideas behind what they created and offering appreciations.

Closing: A final thought on having these materials come apart ... these materials are completely re-usable and pieces can be taken apart and built into something entirely new. If you work at free-choice time, look at what's been made already and alter and add to it to make something different.

End with the phrase & gesture. "When we tinker, we think with our hands."

Step 5: Some Other Thoughts for Those Who Haven't Seen the Previous Week's Tinerking for 1st Grade Lesson Plans on Instructables

AN IMPORTANT NOTE ON THE QUESTION: "Can I take this home?" Invariably, students will want to take what they create home to show their parents. They're proud of what they've created, and that's a good thing. The one draw back to allowing students to take home what they make is that when students have worked together on an creation, the question arises as to WHO gets to take it home. Or even worse, children are disinclined to collaborate because they want to take their individual creation home. At our school, we resolved this issue with a policy we share with the students from the start, which is that what we make in Tinkering class, stays in the classroom to be used as inspiration for others. We hold Tinkering class Thursdays, and each 1st grade teacher has a "Tinkering Station" set up for their free choice time on Friday afternoons. The same materials and tools from the day before are made available, and students are invited to be self-directed in further tinkering lessons. For Friday free choice, we have a "make it and take it" policy. What you create with Tinkering materials and tools on Friday, they may take home.

Goals & Perspectives on 1st Grade Tinkering Program:

Open-Ended Challenges: There is no "right" way to do it, no step-by-step instructions. Challenges are designed for success in a variety of ways and allow students to investigate and succeed on their own terms.

Collaborative in nature: All tinkering challenges are group projects where individual work could join together with classmates' to create something new. Students build together, fostering a sense of being part of something larger than themselves.

Materials are ordinary objects, recycled whenever possible: Challenges envision ways to use familiar objects in unfamiliar ways. Toilet paper rolls, milk cartons, paper goods; the materials are all things that kids have at home, so they can continue tinkering.

Embracing failures, managing frustrations and persevering: "Nothing is a mistake. There's no win and no fail. There's only MAKE." Getting stuck is celebrated as students are encouraged to see sticky points as opportunities to learn.

Revisit & iterate with "free-choice" tinkering station: Materials from each week's challenge are made available at a "Tinkering Station" at free choice time, allowing students to explore further and be self-directed in their learning.

Empathy & Storytelling: Opportunities for speaking and listening are included as part of reflection time. Students share stories of what they've created and offer appreciations for classmates and the skills and abilities they bring to the group.

Enhancing design sensibilities: Challenges value the form of the object as much as its function. Challenges are designed to be aesthetically pleasing and enliven imaginations.

Respect for materials and tools: Tools and materials are the vehicles for our creativity and expression. Tools are used properly and although we may sometimes make a mess when tinkering, we always clean up after ourselves.

Creative confidence: Empowering children to see themselves as Makers and creators

Problem solving, curiosity, inquiry: Challenges are designed to encourage an understanding of materials and their properties and how to manipulate them to create something new. Students are encouraged to stretch and explore, discovering what else they can create.

FUN! The serious work of PLAY. Einstein said, "Play is the highest form of research."