It's not just about producing -- sometimes, the real learning can be found in the process.
That's a lesson the Chicago Children's Museum is hoping to teach with its newest permanent exhibit, Tinkering Lab, which encourages visitors to design, experiment and create with tools, objects and other loose parts.
Tinkering LabWhere: Chicago Children's Museum, 700 E. Grand Ave., Navy Pier
When: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: Free for members and children under 1; $12 for children and adults; $11 for seniors
More info: chicagochildrensmuseum.org
Inspired by the recent do-it-yourself movement, the just-opened exhibit aims to cultivate the city's future tinkerers, hackers, makers, designers and inventors.
"With Tinkering Lab, it's all about process," said Jennifer Farrington, president and CEO of Chicago Children's Museum. "We designed the exhibit to nurture children's creative, scientific minds, encouraging them to think in new ways, ask their own questions and test their own ideas. It's an experience you aren't likely to find anywhere else in the city, and that's what we wanted for our visitors."
Museum leaders worked with local entrepreneurs, scientists, tinkering experts and creative professionals to develop the exhibit. The group's input helped designers in understanding how childhood experiences encourage innovative thinking.
"The simplicity of their responses was so enlightening -- access to different materials, extended periods of time, the freedom to explore, the ability to fail, and most importantly, the capacity to guide your own experience," Farrington said. "It's something that we as children took for granted, but for children today, that's not the case."
The structured nature of children's lives today has resulted in more commercialized learning experiences and limited opportunity for open exploration, she says.
The new exhibit offers children and families a chance to explore more freely. Upon entering the exhibit, visitors can work on a pegboard challenge, which features a series of gears, balls, chutes and other loose parts. Families can move and change the items to create their own cause-and-effect reaction.
A tool bar offers hammers, power drills, screwdrivers and other items to play with, and a bicycle wheel sculpture can be used to test wind movement. An early learning nook is geared toward the museum's youngest visitors, providing a safe space with interactive wall panels, touchable tools and loose shakers.
"The heart of the exhibit is really the open space where visitors can go up to the tool bar and learn about the tool of the day," Farrington says. "That's a great place to interact with staff. They can tinker at will, build something from their own imagination or take things apart."
Just as important as creating is the concept of failing, which also contains lessons for learning. "The idea of failing and then regrouping and trying something new is really important," Farrington says. "That we can persevere and approach a problem with a fresh set of eyes is an important skill for kids to develop. We want to cultivate problem-solvers and enthusiastic learners."
Museum leaders say the exhibit's activities are ideal for visitors between the ages of 9 and 13, offering a chance to express themselves creatively while making their own decisions.
Farrington says she recently watched a group of 12- and-13-year-olds take apart a typewriter, a process that took several hours and included conversations about its purpose and how it worked. "There's a lot of free choice," she says of the process. "We want children to feel they can choose their own paths and answer their own questions."
Museum leaders say they ultimately want children to feel pride in their accomplishments, regardless of what they achieve -- from producing something, taking an item apart or just tinkering with a tool. "We want kids to feel that anything is possible, that they can identify a problem and solve it themselves," Farrington said.