Children and teens learn by doing in the MakeShop at The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

The MakeShop is a new three-room learning space invites children to design and construct objects as part of maker culture, a growing DIY movement for all ages.

It’s nearing lunchtime at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh when Shaylee Fagan, age 5, sits down to sew.

“This right here turns it on,” Chris Davidson, a museum volunteer, tells her.

Davidson points to a small switch on the sewing machine, one of many hands-on tools housed in the museum’s latest permanent exhibit, MakeShop. The new three-room learning space invites children to design and construct objects as part of maker culture, a growing DIY movement for all ages.

“[Maker culture] is best summarized as people wanting to get back to making things with their hands, to inventing, to tinkering,” said Children’s Museum Program Manager Angela Seals, who curated the exhibit. “It has to do with people being divorced from the objects we’ve used for so long. With consumer culture, we have no idea where things come from. This is a backlash to all of that.”

Increasingly, maker principals are being employed in early childhood education as means for imparting 21st-century learning skills, such as creative problem solving, innovation, and media and technology literacy.

Entering the MakeShop, kids are immediately posed one question: “What do you want to make?” They work independently and with staff members to draw loose design plans for items ranging from trucks to kittens to cartoon characters. Then, a variety of stations are made available for woodworking, circuitry, and 3-D modeling.

Shaylee sits in the open shop room, which offers soft materials, like bright fabrics and plastics, for textile making. Her moment in the shop is a quiet one: She has decided to make a small pillow, and today she will use a sewing machine for the first time.

“Ready, go!” Davidson whispers.

Shaylee presses the pedal with her fingers and watches at eye level as the needle thrums up and down.

The exhibit space also hosts lectures and show-how sessions by professional makers, so far including a blacksmith,  wool spinner and origami maker.

The MakeShop Show

Seals is quick to point out that while the MakeShop space is new, a vibrant maker culture has been in the works for years.

“There was a movement like this in the 70s when people went back to making things with their hands. What makes it distinct right now is all the use of new technology,” she said.

Continuing that trend, this winter the Children’s Museum is teaming up with artistic innovators The Schmutz Company to launch The MakeShop Show, a weekly webisode created for and by kids that will bundle all the action of the MakeShop into quirky, colorful video episodes for ages 6 to 10.

Funded by a Sprout Super Spark award, the show will film sporadically in the MakeShop, featuring kids as hosts and makers and ultimately involving them in production. Using a reflection booth, young makers will also be able to independently record their own stories about what they’ve created.

“There’s still a lot of debate about the use of technology in early childhood, but we feel like if we can introduce it as a tool toward creativity and not something they can just sit in front of, that we’re empowering them to be a part of the solution, too,” Seals said.

For viewers at home, two to three episodes a month will be posted online that alternate between segments like craft show-hows, maker interviews, junkyard war challenges and take-apart sessions. Each segment is voted on directly by the kids and can be used as a launching pad for activities at home and in the classroom.

Several early segments of the show have already been posted, including a tutorial for sewing an LED bracelet with conductive thread. However, Seals says audiences should expect the look of the show to improve throughout the pilot season due to new technology and a polished production process.

“We’ve had to learn a lot technically as a production team, and we know the show doesn’t represent exactly what our end goal is right now,” Seals said of the first episode, which recorded its video and sound on a basic Handycam. Using Sprout funding, the team has since invested in higher quality film and production equipment, including a video camera topped with the MakeShop logo—which, when seen in the MakeShop, is an immediate sign that tape is rolling.

“One of the great aspects of the Super Spark funding is that it’s allowing us to get the infrastructure built and to get the equipment we need to do this and set it up in a sustainable way,” Seals said.

To her, it’s okay the team didn’t hit it out of the park right away.

“We tell kids to try again, try again, try again, and we have to model it,” she said. “We know once we set that tone of fun, people follow us there.”

The show team is mentored by kids programming vet Alice Wilder, a former producer of “Blue’s Clues,” and is inspired by the life’s work of long-time museum friend Fred Rogers.

Published January 24, 2012