"Un-Lame" the Paper Chain - 1st Grade Tinkering - Week 2

Introduction: "Un-Lame" the Paper Chain - 1st Grade Tinkering - Week 2

"UN-LAME" THE PAPER CHAIN is the second 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.


At most elementary schools around the holidays, you will see students creating interlocking loops of paper strips to make floppy paper chains. While kids will embrace this activity as if they are Santa's elves doing the important work of merry making, paper strips have the potential to be so much more. In this lesson, we tinker with strips of paper, discovering ways to turn the 2-D into fantastical 3-D creations.


  • Explore the physical attributes of paper as a 2-D material that, through tinkering and manipulation, can be come a 3-dimensional creation
  • Deepen understanding of the concept of TINKERING through experiential activity
  • Foster collaboration between small groups of students
  • Encourage speaking and listening skills in group discussion

Step 1: Materials & Introduction


  • 8.5 x 11" copy paper, cut in 1" strips (AstroBrights is super fun, but any paper will work - and PS, you will need LOTS of it!)
  • Staplers (ideally, 1 per student, but at least 1 per every 2 students)
  • Un-sharpened pencils (to use as dowels)

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 catchphrase:

Do you remember our Tinkering motto from last week? When I say, "When we tinker" you say, "We think with our hands." and we make this gesture (Wiggle fingers at your temple and move them outward). Let's do this together. (Repeat motto/gesture)

Inquire about iteration:

Last week, we tinkered with toilet paper rolls with scissors and tape. 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:

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 are SCISSORS and TAPE.

MATERIALS - are the things that are being TRANSFORMED or made into something new. Today, the MATERIAL we are using are STRIPS OF COLORED PAPER.


Hold up a strip of the paper, allowing it to flop about, and ask students to describe the way it moves. (If you've covered states of matter in science lessons, you can phrase this as "properties of solids"). "Floppy" "bendy" "flexible" will be common answers.

Hold the strip taut and show that if we wanted to measure the strip, we could measure how LONG it is and how WIDE it is, but we really can't measure how TALL it is because it is flat.

Ask the students:

"How can we take this flat strip of floppy paper and transform it into something that more rigid and can stand on its own? Something that is no longer floppy, and also has some height?" At each child's suggestion, model the idea with a strip of paper.

You will likely get suggestions for accordion folds, loops and curls around the pencil, but you can also demo these techniques and show the ways it transforms the paper.

Demonstrate proper use of stapler.

"Squeeze hard, but don't slam it. Never open it up. If you're having a hard time holding the strip in place with one hand and stapling with the other, ask a friend to hold it for you and you can do the same for them. TEAMWORK!"

Pose the challenge:

What if we took these elements and added them together to make something really fantastic? Demonstrate how to staple together the flat sides of 3-4 loops to make a strong base. From there, strips can be added as like "basket handles" that will give some height to the creation. Additional pieces can then be stapled to the vertical for added height.

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. You will likely see students going directly towards making paper chains, but encourage them to add those chains to something else that uses the strips in a different way.

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.

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:

Students should clean up their tables, placing scraps into the recycling bin, and returning staplers, pencils and unused strips 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 collaboration. Call on students first who collaborated together to create something in a pair or small group. Showing enthusiasm for the creations that come from collaboration will hopefully encourage more collaboration in future weeks.

Other questions for discussion:

"Does anyone have any discoveries they'd like to share?"

"Does anyone have a story about what they created?" "Did anyone have a "Whoo-hoo" moment? A time when you felt stuck? How did you get unstuck?"

"Does anyone have an appreciation for a classmate? Something you noticed someone else doing that you thought was great?"


A final thought: Tinkering never ends. We all have paper and scissors at home, so you can keep experimenting with what you can do!

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


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."

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