Why has making become such a coveted way for kids to spend their free time? Why do they pick up skills and concepts so quickly and connect it to real life experiences? We can see why by looking at a snapshot of development in this age group.
Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget referred to the cognitive development occurring between ages 7-11 as the “concrete operations stage”. Children in this stage can not think both abstractly and logically, instead they are limited to thinking concretely. Their knowledge is tangible, definitive, and exact based on real, concrete experiences rather than abstractions. Unlike younger children, they have moved past magical thinking into a thinking process that relies on classification, serial ordering, cause and effect, stable identity, and conservation. This is one of the reasons math and science becomes so attractive in this age period. Working with raw materials, tinkering, and designing/implementing projects all supports this interests and builds the skills listed above.
Kids are also developing memory strategies for retention of knowledge and skills. Developmental psychologist and theorist Erik Erikson names the stage between the ages of 6 and 12 “Industry vs Inferiority.” In other words, children are recognizing and actively seeking out the ability to gain new knowledge and skills and assessing their personal method and competence, often comparing themselves to peers. This is an essential time for self esteem, the building of relationships, and providing opportunities for success as well as failure. According to Erikson, it is critical children successfully master this stage before moving on the the stage of “Identity vs Role Confusion,” in which adolescents grapple with devotion and fidelity, purpose and potential. Children in this age range need quite a bit of praise and reinforcement around competence and self-image, mentors to help them recognize and develop their own unique talents and abilities, and guidance with relationships, problem solving, and communication.
Beyond theory, there is a very practical connection between making and development. The use of fine and large motor skills, critical thinking, time management, material identification and sourcing, networking, and creativity all support building learners who can take these skills and apply them to other subject areas. But because they developed them through their own interests and passions, they embrace learning differently- not as something to trudge through, but as something to look forward to, something they have the power to make their own. So then, if we marry this with what we know about development, it means that making is helping to build children who not only are able to develop these physical, cognitive, and emotional skills, but that it also becomes a part of their identity and practice as they move into adolescence and adulthood. That is the pathway to creating life long learners.
A few years ago, on a late Monday afternoon, I am mentoring my Hacker Sparks, a group of 4-7 year olds passionate about making. We are working on a robotics project, using the technology we learned from completing brush bots and art bots to create robots that will go over a variety of surfaces. One of my 5 year olds is having a rough time. “I can’t get it to work!” she is screaming, tears pouring down her face. “What is not working?” I ask, trying to identify her goal for this project. “It won’t go! I can’t calm down until it goes! I can’t calm down until it works!” she continues to cry.
Frustration can be hard for a young maker. Often, their vision and imagination is ahead of their skill set. We often tell young makers to accept failure as a part of learning, but we don’t often provide the emotional support they need for this process. Emotional resilience comes from experience, something young makers don’t have yet. Something I have spoken a lot about in the past few years is the physical impact of stress in learning. Children, under duress, start to lose functions such as peripheral vision and auditory processing, which their bodies try to compensate for with movement. This is where most children get into trouble in the classroom. When children have more control of their learning, they experience this kind of stress less, the retain more information, and they exhibit more mastery. More complex neuron pathways are formed in the brain. They experience emotion in a way that builds, not breaks. They figure out who they are.
If you think about it, the most incredible inventions and projects we see at Maker Faire or online tend to be fueled by emotion. They were a response by the maker to an experience or a feeling or a need they saw that inspired them. As adults, when we learn new skills or work on our own ideas, we are affected just as much by emotion as children. When we spend hours on something only to have it not work, we feel that disappointment keenly. When it does work, our elation is tangible and real.
I once had a mother come with her children to one of our public programs on a day that we were focused on electronics. Both children had never soldered before, and while we had mentors helping, she felt overwhelmed at the idea of supporting her kids in something she had never done herself. “I don’t know how to do this. I should have sent my husband instead.” she told me. In that moment, I really understood where she was coming from. I am constantly surrounded by new technology and skills, some of which are completely out of my comfort zone. So it was with great compassion that I challenged the notion she should have sent her husband and I worked with her and her kids to get them all proficient and ready to take on the project. In the end, we journeyed through anxiety, hesitation, self-doubt, and identity together and came out with pride and enthusiasm. She saw herself differently, she saw her kids’ interest in a new way, and her kids got to see a wonderful and different side of their mom.
The emotional side of making is essential to the movement. Kids may have less experience in channeling it, but it never subsides. It would stand to reason, then, that as adults we need to pay more attention to this side of the maker movement, and see our shared emotional experiences as an asset to guiding the next generation of makers.
So what happened to my little Spark? Even though her family was nearby, I could tell she needed some space from everyone. I validated her frustration and asked her if she wanted me to assist her. It is very important that we never dismiss feelings, or worse, take over the project as if a child is incapable of creating due to their emotions. That is not the message we ever want to send. In the end, she allowed me to ask a few questions (I tend to be very Socratic in my mentoring) that led her to a design revelation. She also let me hold the motor while she re-attached her design. “I did it! It works!” she beamed at me, tears still visible on her face. That is the moment I live for.
Making can also support the emotional development of older kids as well. I was hanging out at a Guild meeting one evening and saw that a middle school age girl seemed distracted and edgy. Instead of asking the obvious question (what’s wrong?) I asked her if she would like to take apart some electronics with me. Her eyes lit up and we happily started unscrewing and identifying the parts. About halfway through, she volunteered that she was having trouble with one of her friends, whom she had known since they started Kindergarten. This friend, it seems, had fallen in with a group who were exhibiting “mean girl” behavior and she didn’t know what to do. So far, the administration had been trying to help, but she was feeling torn on how to relate to this friend. On the fly, I suggested we start labeling the parts we were slowly piecing out from the greater whole. What if the friendship was like the computer and we could tease it apart and name them according to their value? So, we did. We labeled parts things like “honesty” and “laughter” and “fun playing in the pool during summer” and we also labeled parts “cruel” and “feeling made fun of” and “betrayed.” Then we looked at all those parts and mused over whether there was enough to maintain the friendship and build something new. She decided there was, so she build an art piece made of of the pieces that represented the light in the friendship and took it home to remind herself that she holds power. That she can take responsibility in who she has a relationship with and how others are allowed to treat her. This was a very powerful evening for her, and for me, and I have had several others like it with both boys and girls of all ages. In the end, the kinesthetic experience of making combined with empowering the learner supports the development of children in a way very few other situations can.
Making (and mentoring) comes down to trust. I speak a lot about trust because it is something that we have almost eliminated entirely from our society. The kids have to trust us to mentor them in their visions and see their ideas as valuable. We have to trust them to know themselves. We have to trust ourselves to be able to not only hold the space for them, but to embody the kind of confidence, flexibility and self knowledge we would like them to emulate. And most importantly, we have to trust that by supporting the natural development of each child, we are focused on who they are in this moment. We are invested in their happiness right now. Because with that kind of childhood, they will likely grow up to be exactly who they want to be and who they were meant to be.