My name is Jennifer Turliuk and I’m the Co-Executive Director of MakerKids. We’re one of the only makerspaces for kids in the world. I gave a talk about this at Maker Faire Rome (where the conference theme was ‘How to Remake the World’) and decided to put it into article format for those who are interested. I’m going to tell you about how to remake the world by making with kids and how we’re working on doing that.
Today in the world there exist a lot of different problems. At the Singularity University program at NASA, we grouped them into areas including global health, water, energy, environment, food, education, security, and poverty. How are we going to solve these problems? Well, unfortunately over 80% of workers are dissatisfied with their work, and one in four people are experiencing mental health issues. With these two things going on, it’s pretty hard to do work that’s awesome and that changes the world — yet everything around us that we see, including companies and buildings, was created by humans. So the main way that we can solve these problems is by increasing human potential.
How can we increase human potential and have more real innovations, like the Google self-driving car? Humans are said to have more chance of reaching their potential if they have a good career fit, and that’s said to be made up of a mixture of what you’re good at, what you like to do, and what the world needs. To me, the three elements that are required to achieve this are first confidence, second skills and knowledge (including self-knowledge), and third opportunities. So the way to maximize the chances of finding and securing a good career fit is by maximizing each of these three elements. How can we do that? Childhood is said to be the most formative stage of a person’s life, so the best way to do this is during childhood. If you can convince someone that they’re a leader when they’re a child, they’ll carry that with them for the rest of their life, whereas it’s much harder to convince an adult who’s 45 that they’re a leader when they’ve spent their whole life thinking that they’re not.
How can we create more people like the founders of Google, the CEO of Amazon, the founder of Wikipedia, and more? Each of these people has something in common in their education and I’d like you to take a moment to think about what it might be. You’re probably thinking that they all either graduated from or dropped out from an Ivy League university. Well that’s actually not the case. The main commonality each of them have in terms of education is that they went to Montessori schools when they were children.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Montessori, it’s a school system that was invented in Italy for children ages 2-1/2 to 7. It involves self-directed learning and discovery for long blocks of time, as well as collaborative learning, no grades, and tasks and materials mainly in the areas of math, language, music, art, and science. A typical Montessori classroom is called a prepared environment where there’s lots of stimulating materials that children can choose from, and teachers are seen mainly as observers rather than what we would typically think of as a teacher.
Montessori has been extremely successful. Edison, Wozniak, Ericsson, Alexander Graham Bell and more were all supporters of Montessori. And when the founders of Google were asked if having parents who are college professors influenced their success, they instead credited Montessori. Larry Page said it was part of the training of not following rules and orders, being self motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, and doing things differently. And Sergey Brin credited his willingness to go out on his own to Montessori. Will Wright, the inventor of The Sims, said it taught him the joy of discovery and that it’s all about learning on your own terms rather than the teacher explaining stuff to you. And Jeff Bezos, the CEO at Amazon, used to get so engrossed in his activities at Montessori that the teachers would literally have to pick him up and move him on to the next activity. So it’s no wonder that by age 5, Montessori students test better in areas such as reading, math, and executive function (the ability to solve problems in a constantly changing world like the one we live in today).
Yet there’s still a number of barriers to kids doing the kind of high-tech making with the tools that are becoming more popular today. One of the reasons is that many of the technology activities available to kids at schools and extracurriculars are basic and step-by-step, like building a spice rack. Spice racks are great, but not exactly the type of high-tech tool kids might use in their careers, and it’s very basic, prescriptive, and step-by-step so it doesn’t allow for much creativity to be used. Secondly, there are hundreds or even thousands of adult hackerspaces around the world, which were mainly born out of the desire to share the costs of high-tech machines, but very few of them offer activities for children. That’s mainly because they’re not sure how, there are liability issues, and they’re not necessarily set up for supervision or mentorship. In the absence of access to adult hackerspaces, the main way kids can access tools like 3D printers is their families purchasing them, but we all know that 3D printers and other high-tech tools are pretty expensive.
For all these reasons, MakerKids was created. As I mentioned, it’s one of the first and only makerspaces for kids in the world. We work with kids ages 3 and up, and like Montessori, we do self-directed learning and discovery as well as collaborative learning, but instead of math, language, and art materials, we’re using 3D printing, electronics, and woodworking. So I really feel like it’s Montessori for the 21st century. Our makerspace has a possibility wall with all different types of tools and materials that kids can use freely. We think about our instructors more as mentors who are there to support the children and make sure they’re safe rather than telling them what to do or doing things for them.
Some of the topics that we do at our activities include 3D printing, electronics, woodworking, Arduino, Minecraft, robotics, inventions, etc. Toy hacking is a very popular activity — it’s where kids are able to smash apart brand new toys (which they take great pleasure in doing) and then put them back together in order to create a new toy. We also do rocket-launching, where kids can create rockets and see how far they can launch them, as well as jewelry-making, sewing, candy and food making, chariot building (where kids can create chariots that they can actually ride in), programming, crafts, and robot battles, which we’ve done at several Maker Faires, where kids get to dress up our robot platforms with cardboard and balloons and pointy objects and then try to pop the balloons of the other robots.
We do this through our nine main offerings. The first of these is Kids Open Shop, a three-hour window where kids can come in and make whatever they want with the help of our instructors and mentors. It’s $10 per hour plus materials as a suggested donation, but it’s pay-what-you-can so it’s really inclusive. And similarly we also have an Educators Night, which allows us to reach new demographics and find new mentors. We also have Minecraft drop-in since Minecraft is a very popular video game and we use it as a gateway to things like 3D printing (kids can 3D-print projects they created in Minecraft). We have after-school programs, like robotics and inventions, which are 10 weeks in length, themed workshop summer camps (such as a toy and game inventor camp), birthday parties for both kids and adults. We’ve also started to do more and more external events — like 3D printing at the Textile Museum of Canada — which has allowed us to reach new audiences and also to support our pay-what-you-can programs.
This is our recipe. The first element is a dedicated space where kids know that they can be safe, be creative, and have autonomy, and we’ve seen that they really take ownership and do things like tell other kids to clean up after themselves or to act more safely with tools, which I haven’t seen elsewhere. Secondly, we have real tools — we give kids the ability to use soldering irons, saws, glue guns, things that are quite dangerous. If kids ask us if we can do something for them because they’re too scared or they’re not sure how, we generally say no and help them learn to do it safely and become more comfortable with it, or find another way to achieve their goals. Thirdly, process over product — we emphasize that it’s okay to fail, and we value experiential learning (learning by doing), so instead of telling them step-by-step instructions, we advise them to try and figure out how to do it themselves, ask other kids, or research it online.
We choose to celebrate the fact that they’re making, not just taking home some shiny object that they’ve made. It’s also interest-driven, so kids choose what projects or challenges they’re going to do. We find that if we tell them what to do or how to do it, they quickly lose interest. Another principle is kids teaching kids — kids are really smart these days and they’re the experts at things like Minecraft, so we have kids teaching classes and we also encourage them to teach each other within classes and to share their knowledge and what they’ve learned. Kids also teach us — they know more about Minecraft, for example, than we do and we encourage them to share this online so other people can benefit from their knowledge. Another element is exhibition — each program has a presentation to the parents, which kids get really excited about. It helps them to organize their thoughts knowing that at the end of their project, they’ll have to explain it to someone else. And finally community — we connect to the Toronto community, the Toronto maker community, and the global maker community through events like Maker Faire Rome and through participation in online discussions.
In terms of results, I think this tweet from a mother sums it up really nicely — she said, “Going to MakerKids this afternoon and my daughter says ‘I’m more excited than Christmas — I’ve been looking forward to this my whole life.'” And after they came, she tweeted, “And it was as great as she imagined it would be — thanks again.” I think this is one of the reasons that we’ve had thousands of kids go through our program since we opened our space a year and a half ago, have had regulars coming in from as far as an hour to two hours drive, and people emailing from all over the world asking if they can have programs in their cities. We’ve been featured by a number of press outlets.
Another great result is good behavior — a number of kids come to us whose parents tell us that they have severe behavioral problems and they act like little devils in school, but what we see is them acting like little angels. I think this is because we treat them like adults and they live up to that. Secondly, they’re having fun and are finally in the presence of seriously dangerous tools, so they know if they goof off they could hurt themselves. Something I’m really proud of is that we started to get more and more kids coming to us who have mental health diagnoses such as Aspergers, autism, ADHD, and severe anxiety, and parents are telling us that they’re using MakerKids as a form of art therapy for their kids — the kids act and feel better both during and after the programs. I think this is because making allows you to express yourself, to feel power, to develop social skills when in a community, and to be recognized for creativity in an area that’s not traditionally recognized (arts, writing, and music are the traditional forms of creativity that are recognized).
And yet another exciting result is that kids are making awesome stuff. For example, a three-year-old created a 3D-printed bow tie with LEDs for his dad for Father’s Day. A 10-year-old created an underwater robot. Imagine if kids under 10 are able to create this now, what they’ll be able to create later on in life. And if they’re able to see themselves as creators rather than consumers, what sort of impact they will be able to have in the world.
I love the Steve Jobs quote which says:
When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, and save a little money – but that’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact – everything around you that you call life was made up by people that are no smarter than you, and you can change it, you can influence it, you could build your own things that other people can use. … Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
Imagine what type of impact people can have if they learn this as kids.
Now we are developing activity modules for companies like Intel and 3D Systems, and we envision a future where we have chapters of MakerKids all around the world, so if you’re interested in having kids making activities in your city, please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out this video to see the inside of MakerKids and know what it looks like in Toronto: