Budding Builders: 5 Great Spots for Kids Who Tinker

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Do your kids like to tinker? Do you find them taking apart Barbie Dolls or pulling the tires off toy cars just so they can put them back together again? Then it’s time to set your budding builder free (just in time for Kid’s Invention Day on Jan. 17)! Whether it’s constructing go-karts from recycled materials or engineering real, working robots, there are plenty of places for LA kids who want to take up tinkering. Read on to see our top five spots to let those inventions take shape.

photo: The reDiscover Center via Facebook

The Tinkering School LA at the ReDiscover Center (West LA & Pasadena)

If you want your kids to learn the art of building something from nothing, take them to the reDiscover Center, stat! This Mar Vista warehouse, devoted exclusively to the art of tinkering, lets kids as young as 7 build almost anything they set their minds to using all sorts of materials, not to mention, using real tools including hammers, power drills and saws (with some help to keep them safe, of course). The Center is fully-stocked for tinkering: It’s got cardboard tubes and wood chunks galore, fabric scraps, PVC pipes, and other instrumental odds and ends (many of which were donated from the community and local businesses).

So what does a reDiscover tinkerer make, exactly? Whatever they want! According to lead tinkering teacher Barb Noren, past projects have included 3D self-portraits, pinball machines, dog beds, cat towers, go-karts and pedal cars (Pssst: Check out this totally awesome roller coaster made at reDiscover’s summer camp). “The funny thing is,  so many times people give kids explicit instructions on how to make something; we don’t do that at all,” Noren said. “We want to let them be free to explore to make whatever they want to make.”  

The center has open studio hours from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. Kids must attend the prerequisite tools safety course before they can attend any open studio (though they’re welcome to explore the “Crafting Corner” where they can construct without tools). Weeklong camps over winter vacation and throughout the summer let kids delve into more in-depth, collaborative projects. There are also junior camps for kids ages 5-7 that give kids a taste of tinkering without the hefty power tools.

reDiscover Center
12958 W Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles
(310) 393-3636
*reDiscover events and camps are also held at various locations in Pasadena, see website for details.
Cost: $30 for tool training; $20 for drop-in; $500 for five-day camps (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Online: rediscoverla.com

photo: Engineering for Kids Los Angeles via Facebook

Engineering for Kids Los Angeles 

Hoping to get your budding builder into MIT someday? Tinkering and engineering are, after all, basically the same thing, so an Engineering for Kids class might be just the thing. A national franchise with a Los Angeles branch, EFK works mainly with local schools and camps to bring its STEM-based curriculum to the next generation of mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. The program offers classes in everything from aerospace, civil and marine engineering to software engineering and video game design. The goal, according to its website, is to teach kids “the importance of trial and error through testing and making improvements.”

Don’t have an EFK program at your school? No problem. Classes are available on demand for homeschool groups and birthday parties if you’ve got a group of 10 or more (and are willing to pay a minimum of $275 for a single class/party program to come to you). Party activities include fun and (shh) educational projects like stomp rockets, candy catapults, and slimebots.

Hint: If your child’s school doesn’t already have an EFK class in its roster of after-school offerings, it might be worth sending this link to the principal to get one started.

Various locations
Cost: $275 and up for parties and private events; after-school classes are offered through schools and vary in price
Online: engineeringforkids.com

photo: Rolling Robots

Rolling Robots (Glendale, Palos Verdes & West LA)

Kids who long to tinker with something that’ll beep-bop-beep (or vroom-vroom-vroom) will love the robot-building offerings at this popular spot that gives kids everything they need to construct real, working bots in just a few hours. Whether it’s a one-day workshop or a weeklong summer camp, kids as young as 4 can build real “rolling” robots, while older engineers can tackle more advanced stuff like robotics coding, scratch coding, and 3D printing design. All locations offer drop-in classes as well as monthly memberships and camps (both winter and summer camps). As for birthday parties, the two-hour program works an activity, game and a party bag gift all in one, since kids get to build, test and take home their creations.

If your kids’ interest in tinkering is limited to building worlds on a screen, Rolling Robots also has Minecraft Nights twice a month where Minecrafters can gather, eat pizza, and have their own dedicated computer to build whatever pixelated worlds they can create in three hours.

Various locations
Cost:  $179 for monthly memberships; $229 for an 8-class package; $45 and up for Minecraft nights
Online: rollingrobots.com

photo: Play-Well TEKnologies

LEGO Camps with Play-Well TEKnologies (Various locations)

Not all tinkering has to be high tech. Fans of those infamous little bricks will be in LEGO-heaven at Play-Well TEKnologies’ LEGO-centric winter and summer camps that offer little builders everything they need to construct castles, cars and more with thousands of LEGOS available for the taking. With course names like “Jedi Master Engineering” and “Ninjaneering,” we’re guessing it won’t be hard to get your LEGO-neers on board with the summer program. They’ll feel like they’re just playing—and you’ll feel good knowing the curriculum is designed by engineers and teachers and made to give kids ages 5 to 11 basic engineering, architecture and physics skills.

Various locations  
Cost: $150 and up for one-week (half-day) camps
Online: play-well.org

photo: ktbuffy via Flickr 

Free Workshops at The Home Depot

Kids will learn some basic woodworking skills, and use real tools, at these free workshops held the first Saturday of every month at from 9 a.m. and noon. You and your little (this isn’t a drop-off program) will be given a supply kit and an instruction sheet, then have at it with novice wood construction projects which have, in the past, included DIY coin banks, pull-wagons, and birdhouses. To secure your spot, register at the Home Depot Workshop page (you’ll need to enter your zip code to register at your nearest location). In addition to the free lesson (and a cool DIY project to take home), your little carpenters will also get a cool kid-sized Home Depot apron, an achievement pin, and certificate of completion.

Hint: Make sure to register and get there early! Supply kits are given on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Various locations
Cost: Free
Online: Homedepot.com

Do you know any other good spots to tinker? Tell us about them in the comments below!

—Melissa Heckscher