Introduction: Got Symmetry? 1st Grade Tinkering - Week 5

"GOT SYMMETRY?" is the fifth 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.


Milk cartons can be a remarkable tinkering material. Flexible, yet rigid, their strong creases at the corners allow for retention of quadrilateral shapes like squares and diamonds. In this tinkering activity, students will use 1/2 inch segments of milk cartons to build creations that explore symmetry and teamwork.


  • Explore the physical attributes of segments of milk cartons which allow for manipulation of square and rhombus shapes.
  • Deepen understanding of the concept of SYMMETRY through experiential activity
  • Foster collaboration between small groups of students
  • Encourage speaking and listening skills in group discussion

Step 1: Materials & Introduction (5 Minutes)


  • Milk Cartons, tops and bottoms removed and cut into 1/2 inch sections. Each student will need at least 20-30 pieces. Note: it's great to have a variety of sizes -half gallon, quart and school lunch pints make for more options in designs)
  • Clear tape & dispensers

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 call and response:

"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 re-used plastic fencing in a new and unusual way. Did anyone have an opportunity to tinker some more with those materials and tools? Did anyone find a new use for any other, different objects? Allow some students to share, and if you have tons of hands come up, 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:

TOOLS - are things we use to help us make, build and create. Tools can be hammers and saws, but tools can also be scissors, tape, pencils. It's what we use to TRANSFORM, or change something. Today, the tools we will be using is TAPE, however, I used scissors and a paper cutter to prepare our materials today.

MATERIALS - are the things that are being TRANSFORMED or made into something new. Today, the MATERIAL we are using are ... Hold up section of milk cartons and allow students to guess what it might be. Try to find a piece that has the word "milk" recognizable on it.

Step 2: Demonstration (5 Minutes)


Begin with tinkering about with the milk carton segments, demonstrating how to experiment with different designs. Let children know that now that they've had a few weeks of tinkering under their belts, you'll be giving them some new design challenges to take their explorations a step further.

This week, the design challenge is symmetry. If you've yet to teach symmetry in your class, begin with a basic explanation that symmetry is when an object looks exactly the same on both sides of an imaginary line down the middle. Use a few sections of the milk carton to demonstrate how the cartons can be arranged in a symmetrical design. Be sure to lay a piece asymmetrically and ask students what to do to fix it.

The second design challenge for the week is teamwork. Select a student to demonstrate how two people can work together to create a symmetrical design. Allow the student to place a milk carton segment, then you add a second one matching the first in a symmetrical way. Keep going back and forth, taking turns matching symmetrical pieces.

Let the students know that for the first 10 minutes of tinkering time, there won't be any tape out on their tables. During the first 10 minutes, students should just experiment with different ways to lay out designs with the milk cartons. Students should try to make 4-5 different designs with the same handful of milk carton segments. Once the tape comes out, they can rebuild their favorite design and secure it with clear tape.

Step 3: Tinkering Time! (25 Minutes)

For the first 10 minutes, children will work only with the milk carton segments, and no tape. They should experiment with creating different designs using the cartons to see multiple possibilities. Encourage students to work together to create symmetrical designs. Let students know they should try to make 4-5 different designs from the same set of milk carton segments.

After 10 minutes, pass out the tape and instruct children that they may re-build their favorite of their designs, using tape to hold it together

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 what you've made with other students? Double-check for symmetry . . . can you see symmetry in your design? Give 2 minute and 1 minute warnings.

Step 4: Clean Up & 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.


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 storytelling. First grade students have vivid imaginations, so allow for some time for them to tell a story behind what they've created. You'll get fascinating and often hilarious responses, including bunnies that hop, rocket ships, stars that swirl in the cosmos and much more!

Closing: A final thought on symmetry. Encourage students to look for symmetry in the world around them. Point out some things around the room that are symmetrical (starting with their own faces!).

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