How to Engage Your Family by Making Together

One of my family’s favorite activities is when we all take time to make things together. By making, I mean time spent together cooking, painting (our son loves painting parties!), or reclaiming and repurposing found items like old cardboard boxes. Once, at Cub Scouts, we recycled milk cartons and turned them into bird houses!

In the book Lifelong Kindergarten, Mitch Resnick proposed making, tinkering, and inventing as a way to learn. “Tinkering is at the intersection of playing and making,” he wrote. When I read these words, I wondered how my fellow maker colleagues engage their own families in maker culture. So, I reached out some experts to learn more.

Making with The Nerdy Teacher

Nicholas Provenzano, known to Twitter followers as @thenerdyteacher, has always been a maker. “I grew up making things,” he explained. A former English language arts teacher, and current full-time maker space director and technology coordinator for the University Liggett School, in Michigan, Provenzano is the author of Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces. This summer his newest book, The Maker Mentality, about the kind of school culture that is required to impact the community the most, was published.

Provenzano’s maker journey began early in his youth: his father, a doctor, was also a maker. “He once built a deck in the backyard with his friends,” Provenzano explained. “He was an extremely handy person.”

Watching his father tinker and build was a source of inspiration. Provenzano recalled helping his father build things, and now his son, age 7, does the same. “I think the best thing you can do—if you want your kids to become makers—is for yourself to be a maker. You learn by watching, and from asking questions. That is what I do in my house. My kid, who just finished first grade, sees me in my workspace.”

Watching Provenzano code got his son interested in programming with Scratch (from Mitch Resnick’s MIT Lifelong Kindergarten Lab). “He already loves Minecraft, and now he can code and hack in Minecraft [using Code Builder in Minecraft: Education Edition], as well with [the physical computer kit] Raspberry Pi.”

“People forget, [making] doesn’t have to be technology—it can be LEGO, knitting, cooking.” To get started, Provenzano recommended SparkFun, a repository of maker kits for people at different skill levels. He then described his family’s use of Micro:Bits’ climate: kit, which collects data on windspeed and outdoor temperatures. “It is something you build, and then track as a family over time. Just set it up outside of your house, and watch it collect data. You can take out the MicroSD card, put it in your computer, and, as a family, analyze the data.” For more on this maker family project, check out his related blog post.

Provenzano doesn’t task his son to make things. When he starts a project, his son may come over and start making too. The act of making things around the house can pique kids’ maker interests. “Just start doing and let them join in when they are comfortable,” he advised. “Make it part of your house culture.”

Creating with Colleen

Based in Austin, Texas, Colleen Graves (@gravescolleen on Twitter) is the director of community and creative content for Makey Makey, an “invention kit” that enables anyone to hack a computer keyboard (for some innovative and fun uses of Makey Makey, check out this video). Graves is also a speaker, blogger, and—along with her teacher/librarian husband, Aaron—co-author of two maker-themed books: The Big Book of Makerspace Projects and 20 Makey Makey Projects for the Evil Genius.

A former teacher and school librarian, in 2012 Graves began hearing more and more about maker spaces and maker education. Then, while advising her Circuit Girls Club, she learned about paper circuits—copper stickers that can conduct electricity to power mini LED lights. From there she was hooked on making, hacking, and designing with her students.

Sometimes, before teaching her students, Graves and her husband test out ideas with their two daughters, ages 4 and 9. Her 9-year-old has a Kano computer kit, which she codes games on. Her 4-year-old daughter is a maker too, preferring LEGO bricks as her primary maker material.

“The culture of making is embedded in everything we do as a family,” she explained. “Everything we do as a family is maker-centered. I think it’s important to set aside time and to make stuff with your kids. For us, part of it is not being on the screen all of the time. It’s a time to spend being creative.”

One time, from home, Graves’ older daughter helped her prototype a cardboard automata [a mechanical machine of cams and levers]. In school, “she ended up being a helper, helping others in her class how to make it work,” Graves recalled. For more, check out Graves’ blog about this.

“You have to follow what your kids want to do,” Colleen advised. “You can’t force them to do things that they are not interested in. When she wanted to learn how to sew, we got her a sewing machine. She didn’t care about sewing at all—or paper circuits—until I did it in her classroom.”

Get Started on Your Family Maker Journey

Making is really just an extension of DIY (do-it-yourself) culture. Aside from cooking and painting, making can include building with LEGO bricks, coding games, hacking toys, as well as knitting and crafting. For some starter maker project ideas, check out Make Magazine, the Instructables website, or attend a local Maker Faire. Or check out the family-friendly shared projects on colleengraves.org or on thenerdyteacher.com.

Photo Courtesy Dover AFB
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