Real Tools of Discovery

by Rebecca Shulman Herz
Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum

The first step in developing entrepreneurial traits is to engage in work and play, with adults who provide both challenge and support.

In his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Chris Anderson imagines children at work in spaces where they design and make things. “Just consider what it would mean to them to hold something they dreamed up. This is how a generation of Makers will be created. This is how the next wave of manufacturing entrepreneurs will be born.”

Instilling a Mindset
At the PlayHouse, children learn to be entrepreneurs and makers in an exhibit area called “Real Tools.” This circular room, just behind the museum’s main entrance, is filled with work benches, stools, and bin after bin of materials: wood and wood scraps, different types of plastic, cork, cardboard, tape, fabric, hardware. Each work station is stocked with hammers, screwdrivers and pliers, but children can also ask for saws, drills, glue guns, box cutters, wood-burning tools and more.

In this space, children have created everything from a life-sized flamingo to musical instruments to doll furniture. The museum estimates that 16,000 visitors a year spend time making something in Real Tools. Another 150 or so children participate in related maker workshops and camps. In these programs, children have refinished furniture, transformed clothing, fabricated puppet theaters, built looms and then used them to weave, and even made candy.

An effective makerspace teaches children not only how to make, but how to invent. It teaches them to solve problems, and also compels them to find the problems they want to solve. It challenges them not only to learn to use tools, but to identify the best tools for the task they want to complete. Each child is working on something different, which is what allows makerspaces to foster innovation and creativity.

In order to be effective, makerspaces must address a number of educational and practical challenges. Because they provide a space and materials but not a set curriculum, staff facilitators are challenged to guide and support five or 10 individuals, each with their own project, at one time. These facilitators do not teach children to make things; rather, they are trained to help them figure out how to make things on their own. Makerspaces must stock as many materials and tools as possible, so that no project is impossible. They must be flexible, to allow making on any scale.

Effective Practices in Makerspaces
The field is still determining effective practices for makerspaces, which are growing more and more popular in children’s museums, libraries and schools. Thanks to an $87,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the PlayHouse is establishing itself as a leader in makerspaces for young children. Over the next two years, in partnership with the University of Illinois, the PlayHouse will identify effective practices in makerspaces, adapt these practices to suit a small children’s museum, implement and evaluate, and share these practices with similar museums around the country.

Entrepreneurship is less a business practice than a way of approaching the world. Entrepreneurs identify and solve problems; they persevere even when faced with challenges; they value learning and continue to learn throughout their lives; they tolerate ambiguity; and they keep going—even when they don’t know where they will end up. The first step in developing these traits is to engage in work and play in which these traits are needed, with adults who provide both challenge and support. The PlayHouse is proud to provide a space in which thousands of children each year discover that they can make anything and solve any problem, once they put their mind to it. iBi

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