Back to School With the Maker Movement

My 5-year-old spent the summer getting very messy. When I picked her up at preschool one day in July, she was barefoot, shirtless, and covered in mud from head to toe. She and three friends had been building a mountain in their school’s play yard. Their materials: rocks, gold paint, feathers, and lots of good old-fashioned mud.

That was one of many projects she did in preschool. She and her friends played with liquid water color. They mixed cement, and wove pieces of fabric on a gigantic loom. And one day, playing in the water table, they experimented with plastic rollers, masking tape, and bouncy balls to see if they could build a “boat” that would float.

My mountain builder started kindergarten last week, and she will likely be spending a lot less time getting her hands dirty as her teachers focus more on academic skills like learning to read. But I hope this new focus doesn’t mean less time for play and project-based learning.

{photo_2}We’ve been paying close attention to the growing network of making enthusiasts throughout the country. These DIY-ers are building everything from marshmallow cannons to hovercrafts at makeshops, maker faires, and, most exciting, inside public schools.

In the Pittsburgh region where the Fred Rogers Center is located, the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum’s MAKESHOP has partnered with Head Start so students can make regular visits to the makeshop to play with woodworking tools, circuitry, sewing materials, and more. At Elizabeth Forward Middle School’s Dream Factory, students get to experiment with 3D printers and robotics during the school day.

Advocates like Dale Dougherty, editor of Maker Magazine, argue that the “spirit of play and discovery of knowledge is missing from much of formal education.” Efforts like the Maker Education Initiative are working to make sure kids get more of this informal tinkering and tactile exploration experiences in school as they grow.

Play, Fred Rogers said, “is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

Through her play, my daughter learned to experiment, explore new materials with her hands, and developed new fine motor skills. But she also had to learn to work next to her friends, express herself, and negotiate conflict.

“As the children work together or side by side,” wrote NAEYC’s Angie Dorrell, “they learn to understand someone else’s viewpoint. The children also have the opportunity to express themselves and become confident in sharing their ideas with others.”

Research shows that play builds social-emotional competence in many domains: language skills, social skills, empathy, imagination, self-control, persistence, and higher-order thinking. And many advocates argue that our focus on early learning and academic achievement has been at the expense of valuable play-based programs, particularly in kindergarten. The maker movement may be a way of bringing play back into the picture.

Personally, I’m inspired by folks like preschool teacher Pete Kaser who, for the good of his students, decided to remove all of the toys and regular classroom materials and replace them with cardboard and other reused scraps. Or preschool teachers in Australia who hung tennis balls inside stockings from the ceiling and gave their students boxes, cardboard cylinders, and small yogurt containers with which to build towers that the swinging pendulum couldn’t knock down.

When kids play and make things,” responded Steve Davee with the Maker Education Initiative, “when they are put in charge of what they build and make, wonderful things happen: personalities, relationships and abilities are forged. I never get tired of seeing it.

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