Makerspaces and maker “spaces” for kids: A month’s dispatches from Germany and LA

A common thread running through my transcontinental travels, conferences, and festivals this past month has been about creating and sustaining educational contexts that enable children of all abilities to hone their “hacker literacies” (as my friend and fellow Ph.D. student Rafi Santo has written and spoken about.)  As Rafi frames it, a hacker literacies paradigm is about blending critical media and participatory media literacies.  Developing hacker literacies in kids means physically, cultural, socially, and emotionally supporting young people’s cultivation of an empowered stance in relation to technology – specifically the way tech is formulated, coded, and designed (technology across the no, low, and high tech spectrum.)  Hacker literacies also incorporate a critical perspective on how that technology impacts society (e.g. labor relations, working conditions, and small electronics manufacturing; how e-readers might disenfranchise blind users.)  For example, one possible ethnography that I’m looking into conducting this coming school year is on how parents and children with disabilities foster hacker literacies in relation to assistive technologies.

One place potentially friendly towards supporting a child’s cultivation of hacker literacies is a “makerspace.”  A makerspace is a dedicated place where people with an affinity for creating meet up.  Though originally popularized as more of an adults-only space (think fire, toxic chemicals, and sharp objects), makerspaces can support a community of practice for learners of all ages around shared interests in taking things apart, learning how things work, and creative expression.  (Ideally, the all ages/genders part would also incorporate babysitting/childcare into the makerspace site, as well as being wheelchair accessible/disability inclusive.)

Niches might include soldering, sewing, computer programming, laser cutting/papel picado, digital media, and arts & crafts.  Makerspaces might be in stand-alone offices, museums, or reside in church basements, like the awesome Mt Elliott Makerspace in Detroit.  Being in Detroit, home of the US automotive industry, Mt Elliott focuses partly on technologies of transportation, while other makerspaces may reflect other components of the local economy and culture.

My June 2012 included seeing makerspaces as a featured location within episodes of children’s television, considering children’s television a site of informal “maker education,” learning about new (and old) tools for supporting hacker literacies, and volunteering at a pop-up physical hackerspace for kids.

Makerspace as setting for children’s non-fiction TV

At Prix Jeunesse, the winner of the under-6 non-fiction category was the show Ene Mene Bu (And It’s Up To You) by KI.KA – Der Kinderkanal von ARD und ZDF, Germany.  The show portrays young children as capable makers and artists.  The real preschoolers in the show describe their creative works, processes, and hobbies; craft stories about their creations; and transfer their creations into physical play – all in their own voices without adult voice over.  Young viewers also have the opportunity to participate in the show’s production by sending in their own art through the online portal, which then gets incorporated into the show’s graphic elements.

What particularly struck me about EMB was the implicit understanding that adults were nearby (or at least behind the camera) while children operated materials or tools that in a US context might not be considered “child-safe.”  For example, in the episode of EMB I saw, a group of four preschool-age girls and boys (probably around ages 5-6) sit around a communal workshop table, sawing at wood and screwing blocks into vices.  They gave one another constructive feedback and helped each other problem solve (e.g. “Does this stick look good as the antenna on my birdhouse?”).  In another scene in that episode, a boy uses different implements to imprint mud patterns on a piece of paper – including his foot, a bike, and a horse hoof.  (An adult assists the boy to drive a tractor over the paper, too.)

The makerspace-oriented shows at Prix Jeunesse were not without their issues.  One such area was gender.  For example, the lauded show Uit-Me-Kaar (Toolbox Kids) from KRO Youth/Netherlands features exclusively boys (from the episodes I’ve seen) dismantling appliances.  In one of the discussion panels, a delegate from Southeast Asia noted that Uit-Me-Kaar would not be a good fit in her country, since children there learn to repair objects and to take a perfectly good working machine apart would be terribly wasteful.  Another audience gripe was that these “maker” shows look a lot more fun to do in person that to watch on screen.

Educational children’s TV with a maker curriculum

Earlier in the month, I attended a presentation at the International Communication Association’s annual conference by Rosemarie Truglio, SVP of Research and Education for Sesame Workshop.  Her presentation was entitled “The Words on the Street are Nature and Science: An Evaluation of Sesame Street’s Curriculum.”  As Sesame Street looks to expand their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum into STEAM education (STEM + art), it occurred to me that next season’s Sesame Street should consider adding a family-friendly makerspace to the block as a model for kids-teaching-kids, kids-teaching-adults, and adults-teaching-kids in a safe place to share knowledge about STEAM-related things.

A “maker curriculum” does not necessarily have to involve a makerspace though.  The top prizewinner at Prix Jeunesse was the very engineering and arts oriented age 7-11 series Design Ah! from NHK/Japan.  Despite the category of entry, the visually and aurally alluring show has appeal for preschoolers, parents, and grandparents alike.

Deconstructed playing cards as animation in Design Ah!


Tools and contexts for supporting hacker literacies

Following Prix Jeunesse (with a long vacation in Berlin in between), I had a fantastic time at the Interaction Design and Children (IDC) conference in Bremen, Germany, where I co-organized a workshop on interactive technologies for children with special needs.  One of the highlights of the conference was the keynote by Dr. Shakuntala Banaji of the London School of Economics.  Her talk was entitled “Beyond Wild Dreams and High-Tech Fetishes: Learning About Media from Children in the Global South.”  As the slides from her talk I captured below reflect, her talk was provocative in the best possible way, challenging conference attendees to consider multiple meanings and sociocultural contexts for children’s learning with media and technology, particularly children in non-urban areas in the developing world.  “Hacker literacies” and “civic participation” in this context takes on unique textures and reflects different lived experiences.

Physical makerspaces and democratic materials

In between layovers at the Munich/Dusseldorff/Berlin/Bremen airports, I read “The Developing Scientist as Craftsperson” by Drs. Mike and Ann Eisenberg, computer scientists at University of Colorado, Boulder.  I highly suggest it for anyone interested in embodied cognition, creativity, and science education.  The chapter looks at the role of “scientific handicrafts” and “personal laboratories” in children’s day-to-day lives, and how mixing virtual and real world craftspaces might promote more affective, social, and relevant science learning for students.

Pleasurable and tactile experiences with science and computer programming as described in the paper inspired me at IDC to think of this radical idea: If Lego blocks have been used to teach computer programming and robotics to sighted children (See Mitch Resnick’s work at the MIT Media Lab), what about using Tack Tiles (hacked Lego blocks that teach Braille) for teaching computer programming to children with visual impairments?

Next year’s IDC will held in June in NYC at the Sesame Workshop HQ near Lincoln Center.  I am delighted to serve as co-workshop chair of the conference next year alongside Dr. Shuli Gilutz – and think (hint, hint) that it would be great for someone to propose a workshop on child and family-friendly makerspaces, besides a follow-up to our workshop on technologies developed for, with, and by children with disabilities.

Since returning from Germany, I also had the pleasure to volunteer at the LA Youth Hack Jam on June 23.  Tara Tiger Brown, who is spearheading the creation of a kid-friendly DIY/hacker/makerspace in LA, organized the event.  Things ran super smoothly, thanks in part to the generosity of Wildwood School in West LA for hosting.  I hope that in the near future, kids who live in the east side and downtown areas of LA will also have more local opportunities to participate in hacker/makerspaces.  A great deal of fantastic work is already being done by Luz Rivas (who led a Scratch workshop at the Hack Jam) and Iridescent Learning LA.  In addition, the Caine’s Arcade Imagination Foundation (for which I am volunteering currently as an educational advisor) hopes to find, foster, and fund creativity and entreprenership in kids, particularly in East LA.

Making sense of it all

It’s been a packed June, and so naturally, July and August will necessitate a whole lot of idea unpacking in order to make sense of all this kids, makerspaces, and children’s TV as maker “space” stuff!  I’d love to know if any of these ideas resonate with you as well, so please feel free to reach out.


Eisenberg, M. & Eisenberg, A. (2000). The developing scientist as craftsperson. In N. Roberts, W. Feurzeig, & B. Hunter (eds). Computer modeling and simulation in pre-college science education (pp. 259-281). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Santo, R. (in press). Hacker literacies: User-generated resistance and reconfiguration of networked publics. In J. Avila & J. Zacher-Pandya (Eds.), Critical digital literacies as social praxis: Intersections & challenges, New literacies and digital epistemologies. New York: Peter Lang.

One response to “Makerspaces and maker “spaces” for kids: A month’s dispatches from Germany and LA

  1. Thank you Meryl, inspiring thoughts and insights. Maya

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