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Tinkering School

The Blog of the Sleep-Away Program at Elkus Ranch – Updated every night during camp

Day 4 – Beach Day


Beach Day is a different day. Most days we wake up, eat, work on the project, eat, work on the project, eat, play by the creek or in the playground, go to sleep. Toss in some chicken or goat breaks and that’s life at Tinkering School. Wednesday’s however look more like, wake up, eat, play on the beach, eat, play on the beach, rest, play on the beach, eat, watch a movie and head to bed.

So much of tinkering school is mental challenges about spatial problems, but beach day lets the mind rest and the body do the work.

The beach calls for us to wander, and the water seems to be whispering “come on, I dare you!”


With a quick assessment to see if the waves are big and scary and dangerous, or just big and scary we decide they are just big and scary and head in.


Some of us head for the big breaks.


Others play in the shallows.


Some dive face first.


Others wait for the fight to come to them.


Some of us aim to ride on top!



Others brandish silly sticks, pretending we might scare the water.


Only to find that the water is very very big and very hard to intimidate.


We have 1000 photos of moments like this; kids getting hit by waves. The photos look painful, but if this post had an audio track it would be full of laughter and screens of joy and excitement.




Another contingency of kids are content to wander the beach and read, basking in freedom, discovery and their own imagination.





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Gus is seen here with a shortboard turned boogie board. He spends hours trying to catch waves, falling and missing and paddling, and getting carried down the beach only to reset and try again. It was a model of persistence on unforgiving waves. Eventually josh got in and gave him a few nudges leading to some epic rides.

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By the day’s end we are all sitting. The sun and the ocean have beat us down. Rest is the best option we have and most of us take it.

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With our brains rested and our bodies exhausted we head back for dinner and bedtime. Tomorrow a new deadline appears. The current project must be done by lunch, and a new project will be announced for the last 2 days of camp. We are going to need all the brain power we can get.

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Day 3 – Things Get Finicky


You can check out the photos that are uploading to the flickr page right now.

The morning starts with not-quite-a-pep-talk from josh, warning that today is going to be a tricky day. They easy problems are nearly gone, today will be finicky.

Josh: “Raise your hand if you’ve already had to take something apart and start over because you realized how it had to be different?”

Nearly everyone raises their hand.

Josh: “Good. That’s essential to a real and interesting problem. I am glad you’ve all experienced already because there is more to come”

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There are gears to fix, pulleys to align and connections to re-make from scratch. We get right to it.

Eli moves team Kablooi’s cart outside for testing. The kids are facing issues from every angle. When their carts are working their contraption isn’t, and while testing their contraption, they keep discovering that they need to fix their cart.

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Team Piki thinks their outside wheels are not needed so they try taking them off.

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Just outside the door of the barn three separate teams work busily with late morning focus.

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Team Nooi’s long lever isn’t nearly strong enough. Small cracking and popping can be heard every test round. They decide to reinforce the whole thing. Lee and Rahul drill pilot holes.

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Stephanie makes some adjustment to Team Nooi’s chair shaped cart.

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Cassia, Ray and Griffin start working on their custom upside down casters on top of which they are going to rest a giant spindle which will act as a make-shift giant gear.

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Gus and Parker work on team Panda’s custom gear set. The teams pursuing a mechanical advantage via gears are beginning to feel both how exciting the idea is, and how difficult.


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Things like alignment are essential.

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Portrait of a Tinkerer: Aiden

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Kablooi mounts their spindle and prepare to use a giant piece of eucalyptus as the pivot.

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Then they test it!


Piki aims to keep their cart going straight via tracks.

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After lunch things get really interesting for a few hours.

Althea tests Nooi’s new reinforcements.

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Peyton and Parker of Team Panda try a longer bigger axel for their large gear.

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Aiden, Harry and Oren test pull to test Team Piki’s idea of tracks.

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Max and Aiden admire Panda’s handy work. Parker points out the finer details.

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The later the afternoon gets, the farther from completion we all feel. Pow-wows start to become more common.

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Testing is a great way to spend the time.



Team panda hasn’t figured out how to lock their launching system to the ground, but having their heavy Team mates stand on the posts should work for now.


Minor repairs from testing are a constant source or stopping and starting.

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Harry shortens the ankle biters on team Piki’s cart.


One strategy for dealing with frustration is to let the problem simmer in the background while doing something else. Braiding parachord is a great way to let the brain keep doing work.

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More pow-wows. More frustration.

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Tinkering School has a distinct lack couches to lounge around on. Griffin, David, Ray and Parker improvise.

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Technical Close-up of a Project: Team Kablooi

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Tonight is movie night. As always the movie is a surprise. This week is our first week doing movie night in the barn. We gather 10 bed-mats, a projector and some speakers. We cook some popcorn, snag some bowls of cereal. We string up a giant 12 by 16 ft canvas tarp and go over the rules of movie watching.

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Hook, a classic, captures us all.

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The day ends by packing up and headed to bed. Today was frustrating but important. Tomorrow is our solution to the usual mid-week headaches. Beach day is a day to get away from the problem, be free, get exhausted physically instead of mentally, sleep a great night sleep and ready us for thursday.

Day 2 – Carts Are Not Actually The Project

Each evening has a little magic that often goes undocumented because the cameras are often being unloaded and the blog is being written. Yesterday evening ended with some beautiful jams and many side projects in the barn.


And today starts with a flurry of activity. Whittling fills the awkward time between breakfast and getting into the barn.

Portrait of a Tinkerer : Rahul


We take a moments pause, gather together, and announce the project.

This week we are making speed amplifiers based on a mechanical advantage. A little technical and maybe initially difficult to conceptualize, but these kids are taking it magical places. The idea is simple in practice but hard to explain. Instead of using a simple machine to trade distance for effort (think seesaw or pulley based elevator), we want to trade effort for distance. What if 3 members of the team exerted a ton of force on the short end of a teeter-totter? Imagine how high and fast the last team member would go! We want to use this mentality to push a cart faster than we could otherwise push or pull it alone.

Again, hard to explain, but the kids get it and it will become clearer as the day goes on.

Team Panda pursues a gear based advantage. They talk through the options.


Their first step becomes clear, start making the custom gears.


Team Piki makes their cart so fast it’s done before we can get a photo.


By 10am the barn is humming with tool use and great ideas. Ray uses the drill press.


Parker uses the jig saw.


And before we know it, it’s time for lunch.


We eat outside these days as we can’t all fit in the dinning room anymore. Peyton and Sophie enjoy a change of scenery.

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Portrait of a junior collaborator: Max

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After lunch we go on an impromptu animal tour and learn about how to pick up chickens safely, what the goats can eat, and not to go in with the pigs (they are cute, but a little too friendly). We learn about spice the llama’s tragic history, that goats can kick really hard (but usually don’t), and that rabbits can bite really hard and almost always do.

Josh talks about chickens and then shows how to pick them up without chasing them.

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We visit the goats, sheep, and donkeys, snap a few photos, and brush the animals.


And immediately get back to work.


Gus and Ray use the jigsaw.



The custom gear set is starting to come together.


Rahul and Lee test out their cart.


David, Eli, and Griffin work on their cart.


Nova, Gus, and Peyton also work on their cart


Ray and Cassia also work on their cart.


But believe it or not, carts are not actually the project. The goal to to push or pull those carts with some ingenious mechanical interaction.

For example- Althea, Stephanie, and Sophie are going to use a giant lever arm. The team will push on the short end and the long end will push the cart. Trading force (they will have to push really hard) for speed (the long end of the lever will be moving several times faster then they are). A sort of person-powered centrifuge.


In just one day initial tests begin.


As dinner heats up in the oven, the crew heads down to the creek to play and let the progress of the day fade to the background.

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Portrait of a Tinkerer : Griffin


Portrait of Tinkerer : Eli


As the light fades a crew decides that moving a chunk of tree is essential to their good times.





Eventually we leave the creek. The scene is peaceful as everyone gathers and a little bit of good-summer-vibes works its magic on the crew.

Afterwards, we head up for dinner, eat a ton of delicious food, play silly games and eventually head to bed. Today was a day of tackling the easy and first problems. Tomorrow will be full of figuring out how to get the disparate solutions to play well together; a vastly finickier proposition.

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