A+ Advice for Parents

Young 'Makers' Learning to Stimulate Their Imaginations

Q: My daughter is a fifth-grader. On her teacher's website, it says the class will have "Maker Days" once a month. Students should bring "raw materials for tinkering." My daughter professes ignorance. What's this about?

A: You have one lucky daughter! Her teacher has joined the "maker movement," a growing initiative among educators to provide students with more hands-on activities to stimulate their imaginations.

A couple of events accelerated the movement. A Los Angeles boy, Caine Monroy, made an entire game arcade of used cardboard and tape. A neighbor's video of it went viral. (Visit cainesarcade.com.)

Joey Hudy, a 12-year-old from Arizona, demonstrated a marshmallow cannon he constructed at the 2012 White House Science Fair. When President Barack Obama used the cannon to launch a marshmallow across the State Dining Room, the maker movement made national news. (See Make Magazine to recapture the moment: makezine.com.)

The maker movement is fueled by a sense that schools are focusing too much on testing and not enough on creativity, draining students of opportunities to explore, imagine, problem-solve, design and invent real things in the arts and STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math).

The movement is also fueled by parents who want kids to learn to create with technology, rather than simply consume it. A fast-growing array of technology tools -- like robotics programs, coding websites and 3-D printers -- makes it easier than ever for young people to dream up cool projects.

A new book, "Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom," by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager (Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, 2013), gives educators and parents guidance on how to support young makers in learner-centered activities.

The authors say, "Projects are what students remember long after the bell rings."

They add that the "maker movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of curious children and the power of learning by doing." They say that middle school, "where students can shift seamlessly between childhood play and preparation for serious academics," is the perfect time to engage in the real work of mathematicians, scientists, composers, filmmakers, authors, computer scientists, engineers and so on.

Edsurge.com contributing editor Marie Bjerede runs a local makers club with her daughter. In an Edsurge blog post, she writes about ways parents can inspire and nurture kids like hers: "What does it take to inspire, raise and nurture young makers? Do they need lots of 'stuff' lying around the house to create with? Do they need Internet access to connect with and learn from other makers? Do they need parents who respect and protect their need to make?

"Let (young makers) go their own way, support the accumulation of maker treasure, and help (only) when asked (and provide the minimum amount of help needed to make it possible for them to take that next step)."

Heather Russell, a Seattle mom says, "Our boys learn so much by tinkering. Neighbors save junk for them to cobble together into spaceships, submarines, robots, whatever. But it does accumulate, so our rule is to triage every few weeks.

"That, too, is a learning opportunity. What to save? Toss? Trade with friends? It's worth it though. Each project becomes a memory maker."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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