Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Making and Tinkering: The Missing Piece

Young makers at NYSCI's Maker Space
 Across four days at the Association of Children’s Museum (ACM) conference in Portland, OR recently, three speakers, several sessions, and countless conversations contributed a valuable element to how children’s museums can contribute to public value in their communities.

Making is the piece. The do-it-yourself (DIY), from-scratch mindset of working with materials, tools, and processes to create arts, crafts, science, and engineering projects, making has been bubbling up at Maker Faires; in garages, basements, and backyards; and in science centers and children’s museums over nearly a decade. 

Play is Learning has characterized the territory where children’s museums have positioned themselves on the local early learning landscape and where they work to contribute to the developmental outcomes for children who grow up in these settings. Along with museums and community-based organizations, children’s museums try to make their value recognized. While true and important, Play is Learning alone has yet to be complete enough or robust enough to demonstrate children’s museums’ public value. Not only is play often undervalued, but not all play is learning. Furthermore, learning, especially in school settings, is not considered play. Play is Learning can come across as simplistic and limited in expressing the rich, complex relationship between the wide-ranging experiences of play and the thinking and learning that come from it.

Adding making to playing and learning is like adding beans to corn and rice to create a complete protein. 

Making and unmaking at The New Children's Museum
The Making Piece Comes into Focus
Dale Dougherty, founder of MAKE Magazine and the popular Maker Faires, spoke about making at ACM’s Reimagining Children’s Museums pre-conference. Dougherty says we are all makers, regardless of what we make. Once we make something we realize that the world can be made, that we can influence it. The joy of making, delivers pride in accomplishment and evidence of understanding.

Independent scholar and author John Seeley Brown (JSB) added making to a pair of ideas familiar in children’s museums, playing, and knowing. In a set of clear, simple graphics, JSB illustrated a relationship among knowing, making, and playing. While playing and making may currently be disproportionately underrepresented, JSB asserts that robust interactions among these three areas provide the dynamic for an arc of life learning in a constantly changing world.

In her acceptance speech for ACM’s Great Friend to Kids award on behalf of Reggio Children, Lella Gandini, underscored the contribution making can bring to children’s museums’ value. Gandini, the United States liaison for the dissemination of early childhood education known as the Reggio Emilia approach, wove together background and foundational ideas of the Reggio approach including the richness of materials exploration. Hands-on, a term often used in children’s museums she gently pointed out, is too limited for capturing the possibilities of investigating the affordances of materials and the thinking and knowing from touching and using the hands.

Making a Case for Making
Tools and workspace at Explora!
Possible making activities reach as far as the imagination can stretch. They can be goofy gizmos, time-saving gadgets, a flying bike for a pet, or power drill operated scooter shown in Dougherty’s TED Talk. Some projects lean more towards crafts, while others more towards electronics. Making happens at many scales using familiar, found, discarded, and repurposed materials. Making may involve, sticking, stitching, or soldering with tools or objects used as tools.

Like play and a hands-on approach, making values process–the doing, getting there, and what happens along the way. Maker projects also encourage a tinkering mindset that touches on processes of puttering, inventing, failing, and repairing; building, unbuilding, and sometimes destroying. In addition to materials, tools, and processes, making needs time, extensive time, for exploring the affordances of materials, letting an idea incubate, testing hunches, backing up, and trying again. This can be a challenge in a museum setting where visitors may sample an exhibit and move on to sample another. Yet, extended engagement is precisely where museums in general will find an opportunity to engage learners and makers more deeply and to deepen their impact.

A family visit to Assemble (from makeshoppgh.wordpress.com)
To the joy of starting from scratch, working out an idea in one’s mind, figuring out how something works, and controlling a piece of the world, making adds evidence of what that engagement accomplished. A child who explains how to operate a whirligig, describes how he built a ball run, or demonstrates the strength of rolled newspaper stools offers glimpses into his thinking and understanding of systems, materials and their properties, forces, and structure. His enthusiasm, persistence, pride, and product affirm that he is a creator and an active participant, not just a consumer of others’ inventions and creativity.

Making a Maker Space
Many, if not most, children’s museums have some kind of a maker space, often a hybrid exhibit-program area, sometimes a studio space or creativity center. When limited to make-it-take-it projects with directions, these spaces don’t offer the richness of a maker space with the material exploration and selection, decision-making, testing, and opportunities for failure. But they could. 

Incorporating a making focus is a museum’s opportunity to reflect on its deeper purpose, how it reflects community priorities, or better serves age and interest groups across its audience. For one museum, a maker space might lean more towards art, for another, more towards STEM. It might be set on a course for a younger audience, an older audience, or a clearly multi-generational audience. Developing and preparing a maker space is an extensive and valuable process involving people from across the museum and makers near and far. It involves framing questions, gathering materials, testing projects, observing how visitors use materials, imagining the types of conversations that could occur, and knowing by making.

Whatever particular direction a museum chooses, making will assist it in accomplishing strategic, audience, experience, and learning goals. Maker projects, spaces, and activities broaden and deepen museum experiences and its possible outcomes by:
-        offering multiple entry points through the rich collection of materials, tools, and projects;
-        providing opportunities for makers to personalize a project based on interest, familiarity with materials, or skill with a tool;
-         inviting adults to get into the maker spirit;
-        supporting multi-generational connections with grandparents who tinkered in the garage, knitted, or felted;
-        extending exhibits concepts, allowing makers to tinker with simple machines, principles and properties;
-        connecting and integrating STEM, arts, culture and history topics;
-        increasing exit points and extending experiences beyond the museum: sharing with others; explaining how something was made; making it again, or trying the next generation; and
-        creating social connections among people, through conversations  questions and learning together.

Making brings a necessary piece to the playing and learning that enliven children's museums and characterize them in their communities. It combines a playful spirit with evidence of knowing how to shape and change the world. It expands the possibilities of what children can do and of what children's museums can do. Making is definitely in the mix.

Museum Maker Spaces
A number of museums have added maker spaces and more maker spaces are in the works at other museums.