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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  • Tim Johnson / 16 February 2017 6:03

    This was a very nice post to read. I wish more was written on the topic of preschool makerspaces and how the are similar and different from makerspaces designed for an older clientele.

    One thing inherent in your post, but not stated outright, is the fact that little kids are less about making “something” and more about the fun of exploring materials. It’s the product versus process discussion in a new setting I suppose. But in my work with kids in various makerspaces here in the Newport Rhode Island area, the visitors are not only encouraged to “make something” (and prompted to do so) but this is REQUIRED if you are to stay in the makerspace after school. I realize I made this sound rather unpleasant, but it isn’t. Kids just know when they come into the makers space it’s not to “hang out” but rather to engage in the art and science of making things.

    Having spent my life teaching wee kids I have a natural tendency to just put a bunch of stuff out on a table and see what kids are inspired to do with the materials. Wee ones would not think to ask the adult what it is they are to make with the items, but kids that are older and have been to school almost always ask me, “What’s this stuff FOR?” The FOR implies there’s a set expectation or product that one is to create with the materials set out. If I respond, “Oh, I didn’t have anything in mind. I just thought it would be fun to place these things out so if someone wanted to explore them they could.”

    Explore? Huh? Most kids will walk away from the table thinking the materials have no purpose at all and so why bother even touching them?

    Kids during the last half century have moved away from the idea of free exploration of materials to see if something comes to mind that they might like to “make” and are more inclined to have a parent buy a “kit” of things designed to make one thing, and come with the step by step directions in pictoral format to follow in making the object depicted on the kit’s box cover. Let’s say a LEGO kit is purchased to be used in making a pirate ship. With great determination, and often with the help of a parent, the children who get such a kit work to complete a model. Once done, they are unlikely going to take it apart and use the pieces to create a design of their own.

    Makerspaces are intended to be places where there are no right or wrongs, where kids and adults are not required to make anything in particular, but invited to make something they want or need or feel they must have and the only way to actualize this needed object is to create it themselves.

    But again, wee kids don’t come to a makerspace (not usually anyways) with a specific idea or need or want in mind. No, they come in hoping their senses will be excited and to have some fun.

    I totally understand the inclenation of the teacher you describe who decided to remove all “toys” from the classroom. We all wish that kids were more inclined to explore materials, invent things, make things. The media has played havoc with what was once a child’s natural inclenation to make things wherever they were. If in the woods they made things with sticks and limbs. If they were on the beach they made things with shells and sand. All too often we see kids dragging electronic devices into the world and use the devices to entertain themselves, to keep from feeling bored, rather than looking around them and allowing their imaginations direct their curiosities and to find the incentive to do something with, or make something out of the things they see.

    Oh my goodness. I just meant to write a simple thank you for the post. And look, I let your words inspire, question and reflect on my life as a teacher.

  • Diana / 30 November 2019 3:11

    Thank you! 🥰 Your comment made a wonderful addition to the original piece.

    Last night my family watched the 2019 movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and today my education about Fred Rogers continues to be enriched by his ongoing legacy of learning and love.


    Empathy is the answer.
    ~ Ryan Dowd

  • Diana / 30 November 2019 3:15

    Oooops. It should be