More and more parents are taking it upon themselves to organize groups of kids for after-school hands-on learning projects. Read Joe Mayer’s account of building robots with 7- to 10-year-olds at makezine.com/go/educate for inspiration. To gather pearls of wisdom, we asked a few of our favorite educators, “What are your top five tips for building projects with a group of kids?”
Founder of Tinkering School and Brightworks School, author of 50 Dangerous Things (gevertulley.com)
1. Don’t be a backseat driver. It’s OK to drive the project when it really needs help, but let them drive as much as possible, even if they’re going in the wrong direction. Mistakes often lead to deeper understanding, and blind alleys sometimes lead to new possibilities.
2. Make a plan at the start of the project that gives chunks of work to smaller groups of kids. If you’re building a go-kart, then two kids are working on the chassis and two kids are working on the steering, until all the participants have jobs. Let each sub-team make their own implementation decisions and act on them.
3. Use real tools and real materials. There are very few tools that children can’t learn to use safely and well — except “kid-friendly tools.”
4. Build big. The bigger, the better. If you’re building a treehouse, make it two stories; if you’re building a boat, build one big enough for the whole team. There’s nothing so memorable as being a part of building something bigger than yourself.
5. Prevent catastrophic error, but allow small mistakes to happen naturally. Nobody needs to break a bone just to learn to pay more attention, but a bruise or scrape can be an excellent teacher.
Middle school teacher, MAKE author, after-school project build organizer
1. Safety first. Glue guns are hot and eyes fragile, but don’t be so cautious you take the fun out of making. See Gever Tulley’s book 50 Dangerous Things for more on this.
2. Don’t edit kids’ work. Let them create without adult intervention.
3. Practice what you teach. Be working on projects yourself!
4. Mostly lab, minimal lecture. Kids always learn and remember more when they’re experiencing and doing.
5. Plan ahead to keep things moving. As a teacher with 35 students in my class, I’m always thinking of flow and logistics to manage things sanely.
Michael Shiloh and Judy Castro
Engineer and artist, both educators who lead electronics/mechanics workshops for kids (teachmetomake.com)
1. Make it easy for children to feel they can do as well as, or even better than, you. If you do something that looks too perfect, it can be intimidating. Build prototypes that make the viewer think, “Oh, I could build that.”
2. Always bring LEDs, whether the project needs them or not. Everyone loves LEDs, and they can be added to almost anything.
3. Use familiar objects. They’re a lot less intimidating. Clothespins, chopsticks, popsicle sticks, and wine corks are some of our favorite construction materials.
4. Encourage children to add their own items to the projects, either as functional or decorative parts. These can be toys they no longer use or parts of broken toys, scraps from other projects, pictures, etc. This creates a sense of personalization and ownership.
5. Have things on hand to take apart. Often when kids are stuck in a project, we have them spend some time taking stuff apart. This is inspirational, educational, and provides components for use in their projects. It’s also environmentally friendly and teaches responsible resource utilization. Teach safety as needed, but don’t overwhelm with long lectures.
Educator, parent, after-school project build organizer
1. Start by asking each kid, in turn, what his or her interests are. By knowing those interests and some experiences they tell you of, you can often relate a new skill they’re trying to learn with one they already feel confident about.
2. Be ready to break a task into smaller steps by thinking through the task ahead of time. Some kids may have trouble with multiple-step procedures, and this allows everyone in the group to feel good. Kids who finish a task sooner can be enlisted to help others.
3. Remember, you can take the time you need, and it’s more fun that way. Building stuff is not like in school, where you have to finish up in that class period. This advice is from my 9-year-old son, Nicko.
4. Be mindful of setting a serious and, most importantly, a consistent example with regard to safety. Safety glasses must be worn by all!
5. Be flexible, adaptable, and always patient. Breaks are essential, so make them part of your planning. Learning can and should be great fun. Be fearless in the pursuit of know-ledge, and the kids will be too.
Educator specializing in working with kids who need extra help or alternative learning environments
1. Teach kids that only they have the right and responsibility to clean up what they’ve created. No one will come along and “tidy up” something they were still working on, so they need not worry that their creations will be destroyed. By the same token, no one will come along and do their cleanup, so they should be considerate of others and clean up messes.
2. Encourage them to be brave and do hard things. Embrace challenge instead of fear it. If it isn’t at least a little hard it probably isn’t as valuable as a learning piece. Keep ideas in “the flow”: not too hard, not too easy, just right.
3. As an educator, embrace your own ignorance and delight in the wonder of exploration. Let kids see you make mistakes and learn that these mistakes lead to new understandings. Find ways to ask questions that motivate your learners to ask their own questions and to then seek out the answers.
4. Establish, keep, and honor relationships first. Everyone learns best from folks they feel the most comfortable around.
5. Above all, do no harm. The old saying that it’s all fun until someone loses an eye really is true! It’s very important that the kids know this. Consistency is key.