A New Maker Lab: Finding the Rhythm
We started Maker Lab with faith. We had faith that, given access to materials and tools and support, the kids would find their inspiration and be productive. We had faith that the kids would find a way toward their own betterment.
Keep in mind that this was a brand-new Maker Lab. We had no previous community to keep the culture. There was no group of kids who already knew they needed to wear safety glasses, who would confidently stride over to a soldering iron and just get to work.
We had to model and do and be and explain (last resort) what our values and objectives were. We relied on the aformentioned faith: faith that our Young Makers had it in them, and we just needed to create the right environment.
We knew we didn’t have all the right tools yet. (Where are those specialty bits? We can’t find the solder for the soldering projects. Where the heck did the extra batteries go?) But at some point, we stocked the Lab with art supplies, all the tools we had, as much support as we could muster, and jumped.
The first week, it was gentle (or maybe tentative), interesting, and explorative, and we were encouraged.
The second week, we added several new families, and it was a disaster. Too many kids, with lots of tense parents hovering over kids and unintentionally oozing a sense of urgency and disappointment. (Shockingly, no one seems to perform well in such an environment. Most kids headed for the trampoline or the driveway, I think to escape the suffocation.) I don’t blame parents. They (we?) are trying, and they don’t know what to expect.
Week three was still fairly tentative, as the kids got comfortable with using power and manual tools to carefully take things apart.
Week four was characterized by lots and lots of destruction. Lots of banging things apart. This might seem like a step backwards, but in truth, the kids now felt comfortable enough to experiment: they brought zeal, confidence, and a certain fearlessness. I’m a fan of fearlessness, and a good deal of time spent exploring it.
But at some point, to move forward, one has to get the hang of technically taking something apart. Just smashing things with a hammer isn’t a long-term strategy. (In jiu jitsu, this is generally known as the Still Using Too Much Muscle Phase.) In Maker Lab, we call it the Hammer Phase.
Week five we were able to glide into the Screwdriver Phase: more technique, less power. This is really a philosophical choice: choosing to take things apart instead of smash them apart. Kids generally find themselves very satisfied by smashing, as do most of us: it’s empowering to know we can break things.
But we really start to get better when the allure of feeling powerful gives way to the satisfaction of solving a problem without having to resort to unnecessary force.
Power Tool Phase
At some point, we stopped counting in weeks, and started thinking in terms of process. (This is really when we had succeeded, though we didn’t know it yet.) Next came the Power Tool Phase.
This is awesome: a 5-year-old can handle a power tool and dismantle a house (as much as she can reach) if she does it properly. This is also the phase at which people can start to really reuse and repurpose materials on a large scale. In jiu jitsu terms, we start to think with our feet and hands at the same time, with an eye toward creating an opening.
I’m not really qualified to express this in jiu jitsu terms, being only a purple belt myself, but Chris Haueter has said that one achieves a jiu jitsu brown belt through one’s creativity. If this is the case, then this and Maker Lab have much in common. In Maker Lab, once you get used to using hand tools and power tools, the next step is to progress to making one’s own tool use. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean you start whipping up a combination 3D printer/welder in your backyard, and “printing” out metal wind chimes. (Probably save that for a bit later, when you are more experienced… and have more insurance.)
DIY tools is about taking the tools you have and using them in ways no one has shown you to use them before. It means understanding the tools you have well enough to start using them in new ways. This means building with unexpected materials: using cardboard to build furniture, masking tape to create sculpture, and a circuit board as an art material. It means using the wire attachment to a power drill to decorate a computer case, for instance. Now, funnily enough, children tend to do this more easily than adults do. (This may be why kids that do jiu jitsu often need nothing more than just mat time and some basic training to start creating their own art.) Adults, however, sometimes don’t see connections unless they are made for them. This is one reason that kids benefit tremendously from early exposure to any set of tools and time to play with them. Like mat time, your own hands and feet, brain, and a little help are often all you need.
Children frequently make associations outside of cultural rules. The very thing that can drive us crazy about children is the thing that can make them so successful as Makers: they don’t follow expectations. They create a space for themselves. The best thing we can do is help them trust themselves enough to keep going.
This breaking of accepted social tradition has driven me crazy as a parent. But in the case of Making, the idea of turning materials and tools inside out is precisely what you must do. This is innovation and creativity at its best: solving problems in ways that haven’t been tried before. It begins with cardboard, but has truly endless possibility.
The line between a child using a drill to decorate a computer case and the latest startup genius is very thin. At Maker Camp this past week, a Young Maker took a medium we intended to be used with a pen (a square of styrofoam) and instead modified it with a power tool. At first I was surprised, but when I saw the result, I wondered why I never thought of it. Simply put, I never thought about using a power tool on styrofoam for printmaking because, as an adult, I only thought about the context I was given. You know kids are doing it right when they finish something at the build station and take it over to the paint station. (“Um, can I paint this?”) Whenever possible, the answer is YES.