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Tinkerlab: experimenting in the creative sandbox

Rachelle Doorley uses her background in arts education to promote creativity for kids

Rachelle Doorley is an entrepreneur, but not the kind you might expect in Palo Alto. Doorley's Tinkerlab stands out amid startups focused on science and technology as a model for an innovative approach to fostering a creative mindset in children.

It's easy to imagine kids tinkering in Doorley's studio. Artwork decorates the bright and airy space, and there are tables set at different heights to accommodate various ages.

Tinkerlab now has a physical studio in the Cubberley Community Center where Doorley hosts quarterly events and workshops for children of all ages, but it started in 2010 as a blog with a mission to share simple ways to set up a home environment that fostered hands-on creativity. The website includes resources for science projects, art activities, Creative Table learning invitations, tinkering space inspiration and TinkerSketch challenges. Doorley has also published the book "Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors" which has been the No. 1 best seller in crafts for kids on Amazon. Her blog was named Best Local Blog by Red Tricycle in San Francisco.

In some ways, Doorley's path to founding Tinkerlab was organic, emerging from her passion, interests and questions -- mirroring the process that lies at the heart of Tinkerlab's ethos.

"I've always been a maker and a creator. I've always loved making things since I was little, and that's just in my soul," Doorley said.

Growing up with parents who worked in the Los Angeles entertainment industry, Doorley saw working in entertainment as a natural path for herself. After earning a degree in theater and working as a costume designer, she started volunteering at a community arts center, an experience that sparked an interest.

"Something in that experience of learning, and helping kids tap into their own curiosities, really got me excited and so I started thinking about ... a transition for my job," Doorley said.

Working later as an art teacher in an inner city Los Angeles school further defined the question of how she could help children have access to arts education.

"I saw how limited resources were for a lot of these families, and I saw that I was able to work with a limited number of children, but I thought ... if I can teach teachers how to help reach children, I can help more children have access to arts education," Doorley said.

Doorley's interests led her to earn a masters in arts education at Harvard University, after which she and her husband moved to the Bay Area, where she started working as a museum educator training gallery teachers at the San Jose Art Museum.

Doorley had come full circle by returning to a museum context and helping to encourage children to think deeply about art. However in this context, she was teaching all ages and extending her reach as an educator.

"I could see, 'Oh, I'm helping more and more people. If I can reach these 50 teachers at our teacher workshop, they can go reach 150 of their students each,' and it just seemed like a great way to expand the potential, the scope," Doorley said.

Doorley's underlying passion for fostering creativity and art remained constant, even when her her 1-1/2-year old started showing an interest in making art. Doorley recalled the first moment she encouraged her child to draw.

"I remember the first thing she did ... (I) took a big roll of butcher paper -- just rolled it out -- and gave her some little broken crayons ... and she was just lying down on her stomach making circles and marks. But then I realized simultaneously: 'I don't know what else to do with her!'"

Doorly had not worked with children younger than 5 in an art-education context. So she started reading books and following blogs to see what other parents were doing with their little people.

Doorley had stumbled across a problem, and like the creative problem-solver she encourages others to be, she started working through the problem piece by piece.

"It was this weird thing where I was hyper-knowledgeable about arts education but really clueless simultaneously, and so when I started writing (the) Tinkerlab (blog) ... I was kind of just documenting my experience," Doorley said.

The blog proved to be a great way for Doorley to not only build a community of followers but also receive feedback as she practiced her writing and found her voice.

After a few years of developing content and building an audience, she found a publisher for her book, "Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors."

Since starting Tinkerlab in 2010, Doorley has discovered that there's a market for the ideas that Tinkerlab puts forth.

"What I've found is that the community here is really hungry for this sort of thing," she said, adding that quarterly makers events have been well-attended.

The way Doorley sees it, Tinkerlab fosters the sort of creative, inventive and flexible mindset today's children will need in the future.

"The world is changing so quickly," Doorley said, "I think the best thing we can do for our kids is to just give them tools to be flexible and to be problem solvers and problem posers and to be imaginative and creative and inventive."

Some may wonder why the arts, which are often the first programs to be cut from schools, are worth keeping. Doorley suggests that it's about so much more than learning how to draw well -- it's about cultivating a mindset.

"Because the arts are so ambiguous and open-ended they are a great foundation to experiment and test things out and gain those skills of confidence building and failing ... with the opportunity to correct and find a new course. ... If you give your child that experience and exposure to the arts and they gain all of these skills, there's a hope that they will transfer to the rest of their life and they'll have that ability to be flexible," Doorley said.

IF YOU GO

What: Art Maker's Event, with the theme of Postal Art

When: Saturday, April 30, 2 - 4 p.m.

Where: Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, Studio U-7

Who: All ages

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