Counting smiles at the Tinkering Lab

I visited Chicago Children’s Museum’s new Tinkering Lab with my 3 year old over the weekend. (“Chicago’s first DIY maker-space for families!”) Image

Neither O. nor I am are particularly handy– both of our first reactions to the drills, saws and wood glue was to split. Because I was with out-of-town guests who were into it, I put up a brave face and ended up learning a lot. 

The Lab’s staff were *way* into being there, but not garrulous about pushing their passion on kids or parents. I watched one of them warily eye a father and son precariously saw some wood, and asked him at what point he intervenes. “I try to wait for that point between after a kid begins to be frustrated but before they want to give up.”

Other things I saw while tinkering:

  • Guidelines, not rules: They want to create a space that encourages learning through experimentation, and obedience and rote behaviors. For instance, they’ve established a guideline that kids leave what they create at the Lab to display to other visitors, but if a kid makes something they want to take home, that’s cool. (The two clear rules I observed were 1) parents are responsible for their kids, and 2) eye protection is a must when working a drill or saw.)
  • Focus:  It’s rare that we’re fully focussed on a single activity. (Texting while driving, case in point.) When you’re using a real saw or drill, you’re focussed on that. 
  • Injuries: It’d be inaccurate to say there was a casualness about injuries, but their was a pragmatic realization that when kids are around real tools, cuts and splinters are likely outcomes, and they deal with them as they arise. 
  • Assessing impact and counting smiles: My day job focuses on the impact of social projects so I was curious how they’d evaluate the success of their project. As we spoke about what they might measure (attendance, repeat customers, consumption of materials), a boy broke out a smile just as we finished sawing a piece of plywood. “I did that!” the smile declared clearly. I wonder if the Lab could count those smiles and report them to. Boeing (the Lab’s main supporter).
  • Parents and letting go: As with youth hockey and ballet, I suspect the Lab will find that corralling parents may prove to be as much work as working with the kids. There’s a moment as a parent where you step back and say “holy shit, my kid can do that!” It’s a scary moment, a moment that drums home, yet again, that this little person is not yours, but their own, and that your time with them is fleeting. It’s awesome and terrifying at the same time. Image

The Lab has been open for less than three weeks and looking for volunteers who want to help out. Whether or not you have a tinkering kid, it’s worth braving Navy Pier to check it out. 

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