Meet Melanie Tumlin: Tool Goddess who's been building since she was a kid!
Photo courtesy of Melanie Tumlin
"When her partner Sarah Storey first suggested they move out of their tiny apartment in downtown Seattle and into a bus, Melanie Tumlin thought she was joking." - Morgan Smith in People magazine, March 5, 2021
What's it like to be so skilled with tools that you convert an old school bus into a 240 square foot dream home for your family of FOUR (five, including the dog)?
Melanie Tumlin and I worked together for STE(A)M Truck back in 2018. She is now on an amazing DIY-fueled adventure with her family that's so intriguing that both Insider magazine and People magazine have featured them.
Melanie, her partner Sarah, son Baylor, daughter Hayes, and dog Lump now travel the country in an old school bus they converted themselves into a tiny home on wheels!
They bought the bus for $5500, spent another $20K renovating it, and now live in it full-time! They chronicle their journey on their Instagram account, mamaswandering.
Photo courtesy of Melanie Tumlin
Getting girls comfortable with tools at an early age was one of the cornerstones of my TEDxAlpharettaWomen talk. The Tumlin-Storey home-on-wheels is a inspiring example of what is possible when you develop tool confidence early in life.
Here is a picture of Melanie around age seven...already wearing a tool belt.
Photo courtesy of Melanie Tumlin
We had the good fortune of interviewing her recently.
You're clearly creative and comfortable with tools! What a powerful combo. Getting tools in girls' hands empowers them. Tell us about your first DIY project. How old were you and what was it like?
Melanie T.: I can't remember a time in my life when I wasn't trying to build or create something. There was this summer when I was 7 or 8 and I was convinced that the only barrier to having a swimming pool in our yard was that no one else had the time to dig one, so I conscripted siblings and neighbors into service digging a giant pit for us to fill with water and play in. I was forever rummaging in the garage for tools and scrap materials that I could fashion into a fort or a flying machine (seriously) or an attachment for our swing set. Basically everything I did was half-baked at best and at least moderately dangerous, but as long as injury or property damage didn't appear imminent the adults in my life rarely intervened.
The first really useful and semi-successful DIY project I can recall came the summer I graduated from college. I really wanted a longboard [skateboard], but I really didn't like the price tag on them so I decided I could make my own. I think I had a coping saw and a screwdriver and a couple of clamps, but I managed to build myself a functional skateboard that got me around Atlanta for a summer. At this point, I'm a pretty relentless DIYer, and I'm willing to try my hand at just about anything. I've made many pieces of furniture, sewed my own bridesmaid's dress for my best friend's wedding, and built the home in which my family currently lives. I look back at nearly everything I've ever made with an extremely critical eye -- I see every single imperfection and mistake -- but I can also say that I usually learn from my mistakes and improve with each project I do.
A playroom is probably not in the cards for your family at the moment (or is it?). I'm sure you've had to get really creative and resourceful in order to provide toys and play opportunities for the kids. What are your go-to strategies? What advice would you give parents wanting to encourage their children to become makers and creators (vs. consumers)?
Melanie T.: Less is more. It sounds trite, but it's the most important parenting maxim I have. Our kids have toys, of course, but it's a smaller collection than most kids have, both in size as well as quantity. We rotate the toy selection so a manageable subset is accessible at any given time, and what we have is intentionally curated so that the vast majority are open-ended items that encourage creative, imaginative play -- blocks, figurines, stuffies, and vehicles are the bulk of our collection right now. And Baylor (2.5) definitely has favorite toys, but he's equally likely to turn sticks and rocks and grass into characters or feasts or playscapes.
The "less is more" philosophy is also about how much we as adults dictate the way kids play. It can be really tempting to show or tell a kid how to interact with a toy, but play is a kid's work. Figuring out how to play is a huge part of figuring out how the world works, and kids are wildly capable of doing that if we step back and let them work it out for themselves. I think the temptation to show a kid how to use a toy is strong for a lot of adults, but if you have to show someone how to use something it's probably a tool, not a toy.
I'm learning to embrace and allow boredom - for my own kids and all kids I work with - because when kids are given the space to get bored, finding their way to the other side of that boredom sparks so much innovation and creativity.
Baylor playing in a sandbox on the bus (Photo courtesy of Melanie Tumlin)
Hayes hanging out on the bus (Photo courtesy of Melanie Tumlin)
You've helped kids develop their innovative muscles through your work at the Knowledge Distillery, STEAM Truck, and Steve & Kate's. I'm sure you've got some great stories through the years. What's one of your favorite memories?
Melanie T.: I've had some phenomenal opportunities to work with learners of all ages in my career. One moment that really stands out to me involved a young man in fifth grade at a school where I was leading a program. We had empowered the students to reimagine, redesign, and finally rebuild elements of their playground over a six week period. Initially, this student was pretty quiet, not very engaged, didn't make much of an impression on me. But about halfway through, he became really animated and invested in the project. He said to me, "You tricked me! We're doing math, but I'm actually having fun!"
Fast forward to the end of the program, and he had made himself a business card to give me and wanted to know what he needed to do to become my intern. He thought my job was just about the coolest thing in the world, because I had managed in a few weeks to do something that no one had done for him in all of his years of formal education: I had created an opportunity for him to discover why it mattered. He wanted an internship so he could pass that along to other kids. I reflect on that experience when I need to remember my own why. It's not about teaching kids the content that adults think is important; it's about creating the conditions and providing the resources for kids to interact with the world in a meaningful way and discover knowledge for themselves.
Anything else you'd like to share?
Melanie T.: I'm 35, which doesn't seem very old at all now that I'm here but appeared absolutely ancient to my younger self. I spent a lot of years worrying about whether going off on tangents and left turns would completely derail my career, and I wish I had realized earlier that a nonlinear path isn't only okay but maybe it's actually what has helped me flourish today. I have done a lot of things and worn many hats that seem completely unrelated, but I wouldn't trade any of it. Even the experiences that seemed like wrong turns or dead ends continue to influence my thinking and my work.
The other epiphany I've had in the last few years is that perhaps the most important facet of my work is cultivating relationships. I'm actually an introvert by nature -- I've worked hard to push past my wallflower, do-it-all-myself tendencies -- and just in the last couple of years I've begun really leaning into my relationships with others to help me become a better, smarter, more capable human. I have a short list of women whose diverse expertise, experience, and worldviews I respect tremendously, and I half-jokingly refer to them as my personal board of advisors as I seek their counsel in different realms of my life. My default is to not ask for help, but I've been shown time and again that we are so much better together, and I'm taking that lesson to heart and striving to connect and learn from the people around me. The investment in relationships and in knowing myself is so well worth it.
We're grateful to Melanie T. for sharing her story with us! She shows us what's possible when you develop tool confidence early.
This photo was taken just last week...Sebastian bought a jigsaw, plywood, and some LED lights so that he could make a sign for his room.
and these are TJ's hands as he's fixing our toilet.
The next time something breaks around your house, consider asking your child to help you fix it. Working with tools builds confidence and spatial awareness. Get them modifying tangible objects to accomplish a task. They'll thank you for it later in life!