Screen-Free Ways to Encourage Your Child’s Innovation

Tinkering, designing and building are all screen-free ways kids can develop STEM skills. An educator at Cranbrook Schools shares why it’s important to make space for kids to engineer, no device required.

Young kids love activities that occupy their ever-curious brains and let’s face it, electronic devices are often a convenient way to satisfy that need. But that doesn’t mean screens should be the default source of a child’s entertainment and education, even when the learning involves technology. Instead, kids need balance and some screen-free time, says James Kurleto, innovation and technology specialist at Cranbrook Schools’ Brookside Lower School.

“When kids of all ages go through the process of setting goals, creating a plan, then building and rebuilding something, they develop perseverance and grit, and it helps them understand their world better,” he says. “STEM learning involves critical thinking, problem solving and even dealing with failure, which is important in any field.”

As parents, we’re often inclined to hand over a tablet, laptop or phone when our kids want to dive into science and technology — which, to be fair, reflects how tech-centric our world has become. But a hands-on approach to STEM is a valuable thing because it encourages active participation, rather than passive consumption, Kurleto says.

So how can a parent create an environment for their child to dig into STEM learning at home without the use of electronic devices? Here, Kurleto offers some great, screen-free suggestions to nurture that love of STEM.

Open the toolbox

The simplest of tools are fascinating to young kids, so don’t be afraid to explore, old school. “Screwdrivers, hammers, saws and scissors are all new technologies to young children, and they provide a starting point for an understanding about how tools can help them create something that meets a goal, such as being strong and tall,” Kurleto says.

If you’re worried about safety, look for kid-friendly versions that are lighter and have shorter handles than grown-up tools, suggests Kurleto. “Go over the ground rules and supervise them as they develop the skills to use tools safely,” he says.

Or, borrow a trick from teachers who provided instruction remotely during the pandemic and challenge your child to a treasure hunt to find materials they can use to design and create their own problem-solving machines. “This goes beyond blocks or LEGOSs to recycled materials and things they find in the basement. You can gather these items and put them in a box as an innovation station,” Kurleto explains.

Take stuff apart

There’s no better way to understand how things work than by taking them apart and seeing what’s inside. “This really unveils the mystery of how the old radio, clock or VCR works. They’re not just mysterious boxes that magically work, but are designed and built from components that come together in a certain way to solve a problem,” Kurleto says.

Younger kids do very well with open-ended tinkering, but older kids may do better with an end goal, so create some design and engineering challenges. “They may find problems they’d like to solve on their own, but if not, challenge them to create a shelf that is 5 feet tall and strong enough to hold three books, for example. Guide the process by limiting the materials or the amount of time they can use,” Kurleto suggests.

To help this process, educators at Cranbrook use The Extraordinaires Design Studio, a product that allows kids to select a character or end-user they are designing for, a project and “think cards” that prompt ideas for questions to ask to better create their design. Kids then innovate by drawing or even physically building their designs.

Make the screen work

Eliminating screens entirely is more of a challenge as kids get older and their engineering tasks become more complex, so find ways for the screens to play a role — rather than take over the project. In many cases, the screen is optional, but when used, can provide some balance between physical and electronic tasks.

Microcontroller boards like those made by Adafruit and Raspberry Pi are designed specifically for low-barrier entry to learn coding techniques with or without a screen. Young children can play with kits like Osmo that blend physical pieces and an iPad or Kindle Fire app, and learners design creations using physical objects that are reflected digitally on the app.

While these products do use screens, they also create thinking pathways that allow children to question and iterate, rather than passively consume videos or games, Kurleto explains.

“The key is to find ways to balance passive consumption of games or TV with the act of creating so kids don’t get set in a way of thinking that doesn’t challenge them to actively come up with ideas and solutions,” he says.

The big picture

By encouraging your child to innovate and physically build their designs, you’re giving credence to their design thinking and problem-solving abilities, Kurleto says, so create time and space for this important work, even from the youngest age.

“It’s important to allow children to recognize that their own ideas have value. By writing them down and drawing them — and then actually building and testing them, they are boosting their own confidence to pursue their ideas, rather than dismissing them as unrealistic or not feasible,” he says. “It’s great for parents to provide their kids the time, space and materials to try out their ideas. Kids learn that it’s not always a straightforward process, but takes time and effort to achieve what they are trying to do.”

Learn more about Cranbrook Schools, the independent school for grades PK-12 in Bloomfield Hills at


Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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