Sometimes I feel like a broken record: “Kids, get away from your screen and make something!”At times it feels as if nothing short of Divine Intervention will get my teens to look away from a screen. TVs, tablets, computers, cell phones — in today’s digital culture, it’s easy to get caught up in consuming media and entertainment. But the future belongs to the creators — the Makers.
The Maker Movement
Have you heard of the Maker Movement? It’s a modern DIY (do it yourself) movement that embraces electronics and technology. The Maker Movement is best known through Maker Faires, which pop up annually on a large scale in cities like New York and San Francisco and on a smaller scale across the U.S. Even the White House got in on the action last year by not only hosting an exclusive event, but also declaring June 18th a National Day of Making.
Making requires hands-on learning, problem-solving and critical thinking. Best of all, creating just about anything provides engaging opportunities to learn Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, collectively known as STEM.
Make a Makerspace
It’s easy to create some kind of makerspace at home, whether it’s filled with paper towel tubes and tape or the latest microprocessors. No room for a dedicated makerspace in your home? Libraries and community centers nationwide are getting in on the Maker action. In fact, there might even be an independent, family-friendly makerspace (also called hacker spaces) in your town.
The physical space is less important than the actual making: the dreaming up of a project, solidifying plans, executing them and (likely) learning from mistakes in order to perfect the project. That’s the engineering cycle in a nutshell.
For a science-y spin on making, step into the kitchen (AKA personal chemistry lab). With a handful of basic household supplies, your family can mix up a batch of science learning! Whether your child prefers baking up a batch of cookies, or stirring up a bowl of slime (my boys’ preference), there’s math in the measuring and science in the creation of the final product.
Take a trusted cookie recipe and bake a batch. Next pose a question like, “What if we…?” Then mix up another batch to answer that question. “What if we double the amount of sugar?” “What if we use a dark cookie sheet instead of a light-colored one?” Keep recreating the recipe, changing just one variable each time to see how it affects the chemical reactions that occur during baking. If all goes well, you’ll be ready for your holiday cookie exchange. If not, well, that’s the way the experimental cookie crumbles.
Engineering and Math
Engineering is just another name for good old problem solving. Your child will learn about how the world works, whether building a ramp or a marble rollercoaster. Activities that have been typically associated with girls, like sewing, knitting and crocheting, don’t get enough credit for the math and engineering skills they develop. Creating complex patterns and designs builds math skills like understanding and envisioning objects in three dimensions. Getting your child into activities like Sylvan’s Math Edge program can help increase his or her math proficiency in a fun, kid-friendly environment alongside kids with similar interests.
Start with a Question
You don’t have to get heavy-handed with stressing the learning that’s involved in all this fun making but a few well-timed simple questions might get the gears in your child’s head churning. At the very least, their answers will help you understand what they’re thinking.
Good questions to ask as your child brainstorms a Maker project:
- How might we..?
- Why does..?
- How does…?
- Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could..?
Not Inspired to Make? Let Them Destroy!
If you’re having a hard time enticing your child to create, consider letting them destroy. I don’t recommend taking a hammer to a discarded TV (as one of my boys once tried), but you can hand over an old electronic toy or appliance like a clock radio or electric toothbrush along with an old-fashioned screwdriver. Chances are your child won’t be able to put it back together and that’s okay. Getting a glimpse at the inner workings may lead to a future building project.
As much as I like to get my kids to unplug, technology is simply a part of life for our digital natives. If getting them to power down drains your energy, then consider projects that allow them to create on the screen while building their technology skills.
For many kids, building on Minecraft is a gateway to computer programming. There are other ways to “hack” Minecraft. For example, my son used the Makey-Makey, a $50device that makes anything into a keyboard, to wire up a real-life bow that shoots arrows on screen in Minecraft.
Developing a Maker Mindset
Sure, it’s great if your kids make cool stuff but the most important aspect of getting your children to be makers is watching them develop a sense of creative confidence, a so-called “Maker Mindset.” That is, developing a curiosity about our world and an understanding that they can play a role in shaping it. This mindset will fuel future STEM learning far beyond classroom walls.