User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Becoming a Lifelong Maker: Start Young

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I was recently asked what is was about my childhood that led to me being an adult who makes and who advocates that everyone should make in one form or another.  I believe there were several childhood experiences that contributed to me becoming a lifelong maker.

  • I was born a very curious and creative kid. This was accepted by my mother who gave me the freedom to be so. My mother let me go free range. I spent lots of my out of school time with the neighborhood kids. We engaged in lots of unstructured play with no adults telling us how to play.
  • Related to my unstructured play, I was given the permission, time, resources, and support to create. One of my favorite activities for a number of years was creating a type of midway fair in my backyard out of cardboard boxes.
  • I went to a summer day camp every summer for about 10 years. The focus on the creative arts, peer and informal learning, and lots of hands-on activities helped me develop skills for being creative.
  • My mother supported my interests by allowing for and paying for interest-driven classes at a local community center. I remember taking a “how to make a radio” class. She wasn’t thrilled about my interest in this boy populated class but still let me take the class.
  • The word “failed” didn’t exist during my young age. My play, projects, making things worked or didn’t work. If it didn’t work, I either moved on to something else or tried again doing something different.

In her book, Making Makers: Makers as Children, Children as Makers, AnneMarie Thomas interviewed dozens of adult makers to find out what childhood experiences helped lead to their becoming “makers of things.” Here are some excerpts about those early childhood experiences:

When I asked what drove them as children, all three Hillises explicitly mentioned “curiosity.” Noah and Asa, twins now in their twenties, have fallen into the “take things apart” category for as long as they could remember. They recalled a time when they, as toddlers, managed to take apart their crib and, subsequently, their window’s locks.

As an elementary school student, Eric Rosen Baum he often spent long creative afternoons with a friend named Elan, who lived just up the street. They were constantly making up new games to play. Some involved chasing each other with stuffed animals, others involved running up and down the stairs or dueling with Wiffleball bats, blankets, and laundry hampers.

Steve Hoefer maintains that a childhood on a farm instilled this in him. So many of his daily tasks as a child could be summed up as “Go and do something you’ve never done before. Figure it out. Learn something. Maybe even discover a better way of doing it.” Steve recalled, “[T]here were daily events where we were told to go off and do something, usually important, given the tools and materials, and the rest we had to figure out for ourselves. And usually it worked out. And when it didn’t, it wasn’t the end of the world.”

It is not surprising, then, that making, innovating, and being creative as a child leads to being innovative as an adult.

A new study from Michigan State University found that childhood participation in arts and crafts leads to innovation, patents, and increases the odds of starting a business as an adult. If you look at the mavericks of science and technology you will see a pattern of creative outlets being a key to their childhood. Creative activity in childhood rewires your brain into think out-of-the-box according to the researchers. In fact, the group reported using artistic skills—such as analogies, playing, intuition and imagination—are all key to to solving complex problems (Childhood Creativity Leads to Innovation in Adulthood).

What follows are some suggestions about how to set up an environment where kids feel free and inspired to make:

  • Provide kids with camp-like activities.
  • Let go of expectations about the learning process and end products.
  • Allow kids to go free range.
  • Allow for and encourage unstructured play time.
  • Help kids locate human and material resources that support their creative making.
  • Normalize failure as part of the learning process; as part of everyday life.

Provide Camp-like Activities

If school were more like camp, students would spend less time sitting at a desk quietly working by themselves on a work sheet and more time practicing teamwork and collaboration, working on science projects and presentations, acting out a book they are reading, and building their creativity and problem-solving skills Students would be encouraged to delve deeply into topics that interest them, regardless of what’s on the list of standards (Why Can’t School Be More Like Camp?).

See more at a blog post I wrote – School Should Be More Like Camp.

Let Go of Expectations About the Learning Process and End Products

Too often kids are told what they need to learn, how they need to learn it, and what they need to produce. Too often, though, this overly structured education environment stifles learning. Learning occurs naturally with most kids when expectations on what and how to learn is not presented as part of the process. This freedom to learn has lots of potential rewards, not just for the learner but for the larger community.

The thrill of jumping off a cliff by deciding to do so yourself is a high you will never have if someone else pushes you off of it. In other words, the top-down, teacher-student model of learning does not maximize learning as it devours curiosity and eliminates intrinsic motivation. Students of all ages must be afforded liberties to pursue educational opportunities and approaches for learning that are appropriate for them (Manifesto 15).

Provide Time for Unstructured Play and Allow Kids to Go Free Range

Kids need to have unstructured, unscheduled time just to be kids. Play is natural to kids. If their time is always structured, they learn, sadly often at a young age, how not to play. They don’t know what to do with themselves when given any free time. They lose their sense of freestyle and joyful play. Somewhere in the evolution (or devolution) of education; parents, educators, policy makers have forgotten the value of unstructured play in promoting significant learning:

Humans have an amazing natural sense of curiosity that will lead us to learn everything we need. We’re born with a drive to explore, with imagination and curiosity and wonder, which we retain throughout our lives, if they aren’t ‘taught’ out of us. We learn from experience; in fact, we learn all the time from everything we do. We live our life by living our lives (Free Range Learning: A Dialogue).

At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults. what children in our culture want to learn when they are free turns out to be skills that are valued in our culture and that lead to good jobs and satisfying lives. When they play, these students learn to read, calculate, and use computers with the same playful passion with which hunter-gatherer kids learn to hunt and gather. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as learning. They think of themselves as just playing, or ‘doing things’, but in the process they are learning.

Help kids locate human and material resources that support their creative making.

How do we as teachers, become activists who help our students form relationships and build alliances based on particular interest or issues and passions? Our role (as the adults in kids’ lives) takes a different kind of vision of what adults should do–we’re not there to tell students what to be interested in; we’re there to take their interests and help them run with it by introducing them to resources they might not have thought of (Mimi Ito in What Does “Interest-Driven” Look Like?)

Normalize Failure as Part of the Learning Process

We need to give our children more opportunities to build a relationship with failure. Children are innately risk-takers. If there is a curb, they will try to balance on it. If there is a shiny object, they will reach out for it. This is how they discover the world. Failure and risk-taking are how they learn. However, that sense of discovery and wonder is squelched in the classroom. We need to bring risk-taking back (Making Friends with Failure).

The bottom line is that if kids are given the time, opportunity, resources, and encouragement, they will do what comes naturally. They will make. If Kids What is your childhood story about why and how you become a maker? An aggregate of these stories can help educators identify and then use similar strategies in their own maker education settings.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

May 6, 2015 at 9:51 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I love this! Thank you for posting such insightful words.
    I have a blog that talks about encouraging second language acquisition in children, in a similar gentle nurturing fashion to the way you describe creating “makers”. Here is the link if you would like to check it out.
    It is a new blog, so bear with me!


    May 7, 2015 at 11:42 pm

  2. Love it

    My childhood has similar experiences, I was the kid pulling things apart before I could walk. I also add that mine was a combination of creative freedom and no money for entetainment. Therfore creating to get something that my parents could not afford to buy and also to occupy myself was inevitable.

    I am convinced that my creativity and the lateral thinking that comes with it is directly responsible for my prosperity.

    The challenge I have is finding ways to foster the creativity in my kids when entertainment and stuff is everywhere. Is the current level of prosperity killing creativity?

    I hope not, because I love being a maker

    Richard F

    May 13, 2015 at 10:33 pm

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