A Maker Space for Little Ones

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh supplies real tools and materials for preschoolers in its MAKESHOP.

The family-oriented MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh
Photos courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

Once young families cross the carpeted entryway into the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh (CMP), they may find the iPads, 3-D printers, and sewing supplies that are ubiquitous in the maker movement. Or they may find a table full of old electronics that they can take apart with hammers and screwdrivers. The museum’s philosophy is that maker spaces aren’t just places to get kids dreaming about STEM careers, but environments to pique the whole family’s curiosity. “It’s a little bit different than a lot of other maker spaces,” says Peter Wardrip, learning scientist at the CMP. “We think of MAKESHOP as designed to support family engagement.”

Aimed at children ages three to eight, the 1,800-square-foot MAKESHOP is a place where kids can develop interpersonal skills as well as technical skills. The activities are open-ended, encouraging parents to interact with their little ones while playing with items such as circuit blocks, which museum staff make from pieces of wood and recycled wires and LED lights. “If they’re very young, they’re just exploring the nature of the materials, they’re stacking the blocks and connecting the wires just to see what they feel like,” says Wardrip. “Simultaneously, parents are able to imagine [next steps], such as ‘How many power sources can you connect to your circuit? Do you think we could get four fans running with this battery pack?’”

The MAKESHOP, which has been up and running at CMP since 2011, is the culmination of many years of testing out prototype exhibits and partnering with the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE). Activities encourage tinkering in keeping with the “Learning Practices of Making,” a framework developed by the museum in conjunction with the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Instead of prescribing what equipment a maker space should contain or what content should be taught, the framework outlines skills that should be reinforced by maker spaces, such as curiosity, initiative, taking risks, identifying patterns, and persisting. The framework supports early childhood education standards for the state of Pennsylvania.

Tools for the youngest learners

Tim Carrigan, senior program officer at IMLS who helped lead development of the framework, says the guidelines encourage libraries to “carefully consider how making aligns with their mission, how staff—including librarians, other staffers, and volunteers—facilitates experiences that activate the space for patrons, and what tools and materials are most appropriate depending on their specific context.”

While it encourages libraries and museums to consider their own community’s needs when developing maker spaces, the framework has some general tips for planning activities for preschoolers. For example, Wardrip says the wood block circuits were tailored to very young children by “switching magnets in for alligator clips to make the circuit blocks more accessible to younger hands.”

“Ultimately, we put a premium on using real tools and real materials with our preschoolers, but we know that some things have to be adapted for their size,” he adds. “We have young children use saws, but they often have to be smaller. We have young children use screwdrivers, but they sometimes have to be smaller.”

A key part of the philosophy is that human relationships are still essential in a tech-oriented society. Activities are designed to encourage kids to interact with their parents, other children, or the three or four teaching artists who staff MAKESHOP at any given time. They hope youngsters will see how technology relates to their everyday lives, such as understanding that circuits control the light switches at home. Another aspect of this approach is that when starting a maker space, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. “There have been challenges in some libraries, as far as its culture and willingness to bring on hands-on learning experiences,” says Wardrip. He suggests libraries find out what their community is interested in and create a maker space that serves patrons and fits into existing programming.

The museum recently conducted a yearlong study with the University of Pittsburgh to assess the relationship between engagement in MAKESHOP and making activities outside of the museum. “A really cool pattern is emerging in which young children use their imaginations,” says Wardrip. “One boy was really fascinated with the seashore [and] wanted to do seashore role play at his house. He made scuba gear from found materials,” he recalls. “You don’t necessarily have to make something that is immediately marketable or translatable into a scientific or math skill.” Maker activities don’t even have to involve technology, he adds. Basic sewing, building marble ramps, small-scale woodworking, and taking apart old toys can be age-appropriate and fun for preschoolers.

The Learning Practices of Making framework is available online at makingandlearning.org.

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