Located in a nondescript shopping center off Airport Boulevard, Austin Tinkering School is a wonderland of activity, with drills, handsaws, 3D printers, sewing machines, books, chickens, welding equipment, hot glue guns, a pint-sized recording studio, and a plethora of power tools. Here, boredom is impossible.
Words by Mary Bryce Photos by Leah Muse
After hearing a TED talk called “5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do,” long time east Austin resident Kami Wilt couldn’t stop thinking about tinkering. In the talk, speaker Gever Tully suggested that children should learn to make and create things with their hands and with power tools. Tully had actually gone on to create what he called a “Tinkering School” in the Bay Area. Kami loved this idea so much so that she actually contacted Tully and asked him to start a tinkering school in Austin. He said that she should start it. “As long as you get the philosophy, you can learn the rest,” he assured her.
Around the same time, the Maker Faire came to Austin. The fair is a festival of invention and creativity, featuring robots, inventions, and crafts from home makers and crafters from all over the country. Attending the fair was Kami’s second ‘aha’ moment, “This is my thing, I’m a maker,” she realized. Inspired, Kami began to slowly teach herself how to build and create things in her own backyard, and even went to the Bay Area to learn Tully’s teaching methods for children. She began to teach classes out of her backyard on Holly Street, until she finally got a kickstarter campaign together to help her find an official space for the Austin Tinkering School.
Despite sky-high rent across the city, Kami was determined to stay in her own neighborhood. “There’s so much change [on the east side] and businesses disappearing. I wanted to bring something new and enriching to the people, especially because I live here.” She also was drawn to the area because of its history. “East Austin is a creative community of artists, makers and builders, and I want to embrace that spirit.” After a great deal of searching, the Tinkering School found its home in a small shopping center off Airport Boulevard. Since then, the space has had more than 450 children each summer for camps.
The Tinkering School is a welcoming and inspiring environment where children are allowed to dream up and execute projects on their own terms. During the summer, maker camps have a thematic arc, where campers learn to work in a team on a bigger group project, such as building a roller coaster, or a boat that can go on the water. With the help of instructors, (who are referred to as collaborators) kids learn to use power saws, drills, weld, sew, print, create, and play. The Tinkering School has also begun to expand its offers, including sessions in the recording studio, spoon carving, welding lessons, as well as adult classes and parties, to make tinkering and creating even more accessible for everyone.