Giving Kids The Confidence To Learn Through Play

By imagining a post-apocalyptic world, kids build new skills!

I am the father of twins. One is an excellent student and the other has learning disabilities. He’s a high-functioning, high-IQ kid with ADHD. For most of his elementary school years, his teachers were unable connect with him, either from a lack of skill or a lack of will, and he constantly received the message that he was bad because he “just didn’t try.” Teacher conferences were spent listening to comments like, “He’s not making an effort to sit at his desk,” “He’s just not trying to complete his classwork,” or “He doesn’t participate appropriately.” They failed to recognize his strengths and failed to understand his needs.

I finally found a teacher, Rob van Nood, who got it. He and I decided to create Tinker Camp ― a summer camp where kids could direct their own learning. We wanted to play to their strengths, starting with the assumption that kids have no trouble being creative or confident when they feel empowered. They come by these mindsets naturally, and we wanted to find ways to encourage learning by taking advantage of these strengths.

The solution was sitting right in front of us. After camp one day, we were bemoaning that, despite our effort to provide a tool- and material-rich space, kids were losing interest in the activity by mid-week. We wanted to keep them engaged for the entire time and came up with the idea to layer a narrative onto our open studio.

Our first narrative was something like this: Imagine you and a few of your friends have found yourselves in a safe, urban schoolyard while the rest of the population has died from a mysterious plague.

We filled the schoolyard with everything they needed to complete a daily survival challenge. They had access to materials to make shelter, filter water, and build fire. They had cans of food, tools, wood, screws and even a solar panel. Rob and I made the commitment that we would only intercede if kids were being unsafe, and we would only help them when they presented us with one of the two “LifeLine” tickets we handed out to everyone.

We sat back and observed. I realized that these children already had everything they needed to be successful. They didn’t see the world in the same way that adults do, but their ability to find creative solutions was as strong as any adult’s. Their shelters were haphazard and seemingly unstable, but they held up against the rain test: a heavy soaking with a hose. The mass of tools and supplies were carefully organized, not by type or size as an adult would do, but by color. It all worked. I could no longer shrug off play as idle or frivolous. They were learning.

As I watched those kids, I began to realize that we educators create confident learners when we adopt the role of guides who facilitate learning, not of teachers who impart knowledge. Nature gives kids the core essentials needed to learn how to navigate the world. Our job is to find ways to take advantage of those strengths and push them forward. We should see ourselves as co-learners, giving up our need to be experts while having courage to make discoveries right along with the kids.

One of our “survivors” was Macy, a shy third grader. She had a little trouble at first until we discovered that she loved to draw and write. We taped large sheets of paper to the wall and she assigned herself to be the “Scribe for the Tribe.” All week long she dutifully wrote or drew pictures that told our story. At the end of the camp, we cut down her work and she proudly took it home.

Years later, I bumped into Macy and her mother coming out of a school, where Macy had just finished volunteering with preschoolers. She instantly remembered me, even though she was now in high school. Macy had grown out of her shyness and told me that she had transcribed her work from the camp into a journal that she still owned. Her mother confirmed it and confessed, with an eye roll, that Macy wrote in her journals constantly, sometimes missing dinner. Although Macy had always loved writing, she assured me that it was Tinker Camp that had given her the confidence to write. She had converted her confidence into passion and by following her passion she will have a great chance at having a happy life.

Mainstream educators rarely talk about how to make a child happier or give them a happier future. They talk about achieving outcomes, like increasing students’ understanding of math or science concepts or increasing the number of graduates who go to college. They talk about statistics and priorities. But I think we need to start talking about kids’ happiness as a product of their education. I think children’s happiness should be our first priority.

Now, almost a decade after we started, Tinker Camp still strives for this goal. We host in-school and out-of-school programs and offer professional development for teachers.

Raising Curious & Confident Kids is a new blog series geared towards ushering in the next generation of leaders in science, tech, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM). How can we give children the curiosity to question and more confidence to create? Let us know at


What's Hot