So you want to build a MakerSpace…?

Over the last couple of years, when talking to teachers about Maker Spaces like Hive13 and Manufactory, here in Cincinnati, or just talking about new approaches to providing opportunities for students in innovation, problem solving, design and creation, the questions usually comes up – “But how do I create a MakerSpace in my school?”

I think the best and simplest answer is –

1. Start small.  Rarely do we have an opportunity and do anything at scale the first time, so I would say start with a few activities that give students the opportunity to design, build, and just create with their hands.

Assume nothing.  Don’t assume that students have had a chance to run a glue gun, or pick up a hand tool recently, so take every opportunity to build learning into the process, but make it discovery driven.  Start with the bare essentials of safety, and let students explore, test, iterate, and fail. (Did I mention safety?)

I wish everyone would take 5 and watch Gever Tulley’s 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do

For me – it captures a childhood of play, discovery and a few scrapes and bruises that invites exploration, curiosity and a Million Why?’s.  Yes – there’s fire – of course, but we know there is tremendous growth that happens in the brain from discovery, exploration and play. (see below)

2. What will you do with a space?  What do you hope students would do?  Can you do those things today (albeit it may be a little more squished and awkward),  can you put things on carts?  Can you store stuff in tubs?  Surely there may be a corner in a cupboard, or some old TV’s, file cabinets, etc that may afford a little room.

As student (and fellow faculty) interest grows, spaces seem to free up a little more with collaboration, and demand from interested students and parents.  One of three reading nooks in a library of dwindling print resources may get a small table, a cart and a few bins to refresh a learning space.

Challenge student with bridge building; break from testing day.

Activities?  Simple projects like designing a simple solution of a ‘bug’ in life with craft materials will get students thinking about empathy, design and iteration.  Make a bug wall of items that ‘bug’ students in their daily life to solve.  These may include:

  • where do all my unmatched socks go?
  • why does the dog always want to go out when it’s raining?
  • how can i remember when it’s my turn to do _______ (insert chore name)
  • how can i build something to automatically water mom’s plants?
  • fill a birdfeeder in the winter with deep snow?
  • …you get the idea

Perhaps instead – if students are stuck – have students solve an engineering challenge like “make a device to move a ping pong ball 20 feet.” They can use found objects, recycle bin treasure (washed) and you can set constraints (no batteries or cords).

3. Let students drive discovery and learning – pick a space in the classroom, and inviste students to post ‘hard’ questions (those not easily answered with the help of Google) and see how students fair in their learning, research and even prototyping.

Mobile Maker Cart


See, the space is wonderful, but the intention sets the tone, and creates the environment of curiosity, discovery, creation, trial though iterations, and design.  By creating habits of minds fur students, you can easily add more materials and tools to go with it.

Look at short circuits – the hobby electronics kits that someone may love to get out of their basements, or LittleBits for electronics.  Consider glue guns, box cutters and cardboard rivets like Makedo.  Try out a Finch Robot, or an Ozobot – depending on age and see where students want to go.

Of course – though messy, a tub of Legos can go a long way for tactile play and design, as well as engineering and physics curriculum that can easily be found online.  Hack a small motor and 9volt battery instead of a$250 Mindstorsm kit and see if there is interest in robotics, and let it grow from there.

Tubs can store lots of donated items, stack on warehouse or old shelving.

One of the best successes that I have had is accepting donations of old technology equipment, where students can find old motors, wires, LED’s and more and can also simply disassemble an appliance or old printer to see how it works.  You may find servo’s linear rods and more which may come in handy for a student wanting to create simple automation.

Get out there, be brave, and be curious.  Start the conversation with your students and ask the questions – what can I do with 1000 Popsicle sticks?  See where discovery will take you.


References for the above include – from Gwen Dewar’s Cognitive Benefits of Play,  -For a popular defense of the benefits of play, check out the book
Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn–and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less
by developmental psychologists Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Diane Eyer (Rodale 2003). It’s a good resource for parents who want to resist the pressure to “over-program” their children’s lives. The authors make a strong theoretical case for the cognitive benefits of play, and offer many research-based suggestions for making playtime more stimulating and educational.
And here are the scientific studies cited in this article:
Bjorkland DF and Pellegrini AD. 2000. Child development and evolutionary psychology. Child Development 71: 1687-1708.
Buchsbaum D, Bridgers S, Skolnick Weisberg D, Gopnik A. 2012. The power of possibility: causal learning, counterfactual reasoning, and pretend play. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 367(1599):2202-12.
Carlson SM, White RE, Davis-Unger A. 2014. Evidence for a relation between executive function and pretense representation in preschool children. Cogn Dev. 29: 1-16.
Dickinson, D.K., & Tabors, P.O. (Eds.) (2001). Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing.
Fisher, Edward P. (1992). The impact of play on development: A meta-analysis. Play and Culture, 5(2), 159-181.
Gordon NS, Burke S, Akil H, Watson SJ, and Panskepp J. 2003. Socially-induced brain ‘fertilization’: play promotes brain derived neurotrophic factor transcription in the amygdala and dorsolateral frontal cortex in juvenile rats. Neuroscience Letters 341(1): 17-20.
Gosso Y., Otta E., Morais M. L. S., Ribeiro F. J. L., Bussab V. S. R. 2005. Play in hunter-gatherer society. In The nature of play: great apes and humans (eds Pellegrini A. D., Smith P. K., editors. ), pp. 213–253 New York, NY: Guilford.
Greenough WT and Black JE. Induction of brain structure by experience: substrates for cognitive development. In: Gunnar MR, Nelson CA, eds. Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology: Developmental Neuroscience. Vol 24. Hillside, NJ: Lawrence A Erlbaum Associates; 1992:155-200.
Huber R, Tonini G, and Cirelli C. 2007. Exploratory behavior, cortical BDNF expression, and sleep homeostasis. Sleep 30(2):129-39.
Inzlicht M, Schmeichel BJ, and Macrae CN. 2014. Why self-control seems (but may not be) limited. Trends in Cognitive Sciences
Lewis P, Boucher J, Lupton L and Watson S. 2000. Relationships between symbolic play, functional play, verbal and non-verbal ability in young children. Int J Lang Commun Disord. 35(1):117-27.
Pelligrini AD and Holmes RM. 2006. The role of recess in primary school. In D.Singer, R. Golinkoff, & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play=learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and socio-emotional growth. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pepler DJ and Ross HS. 1981. The effects of play on convergent and divergent problem solving. Child Development 52(4): 1202-1210.
Stevenson HW and Lee SY. 1990.Contexts of achievement: a study of American, Chinese, and Japanese children. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 55(1-2):1-123.
Sutherland SL and Friedman O. 2013. Just pretending can be really learning: children use pretend play as a source for acquiring generic knowledge. Dev Psychol. 49(9):1660-8.
Sutherland SL and Friedman O. 2012. Preschoolers acquire general knowledge by sharing in pretense. Child Dev. 83(3):1064-71.
Walker CM and Gopnik A. 2013. Pretense and possibility–a theoretical proposal about the effects of pretend play on development: comment on Lillard et al. (2013). Psychol Bull. 139(1):40-4.
Wolfgang, Charles H.; Stannard, Laura L.; & Jones, Ithel. (2001). Block play performance among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 15(2), 173-180.
Wyver SR and Spence SH. 1999. Play and divergent problem solving: Evidence supporting a reciprocal relationship. Early Education and Development, 10(4): 419 – 44.
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