Tinker Trays, STEM Boxes, and Purposeful Destruction

Tinkering, discovering, and inventing are great ways for kids to learn.  But, STEM can cost money you don’t have to buy materials for projects. And, it can take time to put those projects together and then clean them up afterward.

I hear ya. We all could use some more time in our day and money in our bank accounts.

Over the years, I’ve found some ways to keep our tinkering up while keeping the cost low and the time invested on my part minimal.

Here are a few ways we make it happen.


Make a Tinker Tray

These are so great for creative thinking. Your kids will get lost in the possibilities.  Don’t think you need special or fancy materials in your tinker tray. Just use whatever you have around the house.

Here’s what ours looks like right now.



It doesn’t matter what you use as a tray either. I got this one from Home Depot for a few bucks and it has a lid which keeps spills under control and gives me more options for where I can store it when we’re not using it.



Homeschool STEM Ideas to save you time and money. TInker trays and STEM Boxes.


Why you should use start using a tinker tray:

1. Less Mess

It is much less mess than getting out boxes, bins, and bags, each containing only one of these items and then having to organize and replace all of those when your done creating.

2. There is no template.

The design and implementing is up to them.  Your changing the parent/teacher feeds the perimeters model. There are no limits on what they are allowed to create.

3. Little Things

It is so fun for littles to get their hands on all this little stuff.  I for one was always hesitant to get out so many tiny things for fear of the mess, but this contains it and brings it down to a manageable amount of stuff.

4. When you Need a Plan B 

It’s quick to get out on those days when you need a plan B.

5. More Crafting

You will start to think of items for crafting projects and tinkering that you never considered before.  What else can I fit in those little spaces? And your kids and their projects will benefit from your outside-of-the-box thinking.

Items you could include:

  • nuts
  • washers
  • toothpaste caps
  • safety pins
  • paper clips
  • beads
  • toothpicks
  • craft sticks
  • buttons
  • string
  • corks
  • marker or pen caps
  • thread spools

Start a STEM Box

I use a plastic bin to house recyclables, broken things, trash really and call it a STEM box.  My kids think it’s treasure. I keep it in the shed and add things to it I think they might find fun to invent with. Basically this is our big tinker tray.


How to use it:

1.Make sure your container is big enough for larger items

You don’t want to miss out on the amazing project your kids will make with a milk jug just because you couldn’t find a place to store it.

2.Only save what will fit in the box. 

Don’t let a bunch of junk take over your house. Fill the stem box, but when it’s full don’t save anymore.

3. Have Your Kids Clean it Up

You’ve already made this easy for them by giving them a tub to put everything back in. The tub doesn’t have to be neat inside so even little kids can do it well. It makes pick-up quick and painless.

Things to include:

  • a handheld broom so they can pick up after themselves
  • plastic containers from the grocery store
  • tape
  • string
  • rope
  • bottle caps
  • paper
  • packing peanuts
  • fabric
  • old bed sheets or pillowcases
  • paper bags
  • cardboard
  • coffee filters
  • foam tubing
  • dowels
  • styrofoam drinking cups
  • soda cans
  • plastic bowls or cups
  • wooden spoons
  • silverware
  • tin cans
  • toilet paper rolls
  • paper towel rolls

Let your kids take stuff apart

It doesn’t cost anything and gives you the opportunity to reuse something before it heads to the dumpster.

Here are some things I currently have with our craft supplies for my kids to take apart.



I can’t take full credit for this idea as my son has been trying to take things apart his whole life.

I just decided to let him.

He has taken apart a keyboard, broken remote control vehicles, even an old laptop.  It can seem like a big mess at the time, but he’s thinking, he’s figuring things out that his mind needs to understand.

Tips on taking things apart:

1.Have them go outside

If possible have them go outside to take things apart. It helps keep flying pieces of plastic out of your kitchen.

2. Eye Protection

If your child is really young or particularly destructive when taking things apart then a pair of goggles of some kind would be a good idea.

3. Tools

Provide them some tools to work with. A screwdriver, in particular, is great for mechanical things that they are dismantling. That way they’re not just yanking and breaking the item apart.  It gives them an opportunity to take things apart slower and in a more purposeful way, so they can better see how these things work, which is why we’re letting them do it in the first place.

4. Give them a work surface

I use a piece of cardboard or a tray with a lip on it.  I like the cardboard because it creates a cushion between my table or floor and the tools their using. Also, it gives them some boundaries to attempt to keep their destructive fun reigned into the space provided.

Try it out!

It won’t take you long to put these things together. We love to invent and create and the ways I’ve just explained make it easy to do it as often as we want.  No money needed money for materials. I just go to the recycling bin. I don’t need time to put together a project because it’s up to my kids. And, best of all I don’t have to spend a lot of time cleaning up. When we’re done we just throw everything back in the bins.

Happy Creating!


Posted in Frugal Living, Homeschool, Homeschool Organization, STEM and tagged , , .

Hi, I'm Heidi a homeschooling Mama just like you. I'm passionate about simplifying your homeschool days and providing quality resources and support to your homeschool family. We are a full time RVing family roadschooling across the United States, learning through experiences.