Making and Learning Together

Kids learn everywhere today — libraries, museums, afterschool programs, summer camps, and even on the phones we carry in our pockets. It can be hard for some families to figure out where and how to engage; it can be hard for others to gain access in the first place.

But these out-of-bounds learning experiences — when they’re open and accessible to all kids and families — can provide exciting new avenues for connection, says Heather Weiss, the director of the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP), in a new essay published in Ed Tech Digest.

Maker education is a great example of a learning experience that’s designed to be shared, says Weiss and her co-author, Gregg Behr. “Emphasizing exploration and risk, the hands-on maker movement creates abundant opportunities for families to get directly involved in their children’s schooling and learning. Ambitious and creative maker projects demand and inspire collaboration with parents and caregivers.” The projects also help children connect their interests to the world around them.

Weiss cites the innovative work of Makeshop, the makerspace at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, which engages caregivers and children in joint projects of mutual discovery. Some of the tools and gadgets that Makeshop uses will be new to parents as well as to kids, Weiss and Behr say, “giving each the chance to be a teacher, or the option for both to learn as peers.”

OPPORTUNITIES TO CONNECT

Public spaces for co-creation and discovery — whether at libraries or in places like Makeshop or the New York Hall of Science makerspace — open a door for families that otherwise might miss out on these rich learning opportunities. As Weiss and Behr write, the HFRP “has spent years tracking the boom in informal learning opportunities and advocating for wider access.” Low-income families have less money and time to spend on extracurricular enrichment than middle-income peers, and the research has documented a dramatic gap. “By sixth grade, middle-class kids have spent 6,000 more hours in extracurricular learning programs than poor students, according to The After-School Corporation.”

Open-access spaces “facilitate connection between family members and also act as community resources. Like Makeshop — where low-income families can present an EBT card to receive $2 admission for up to four people — many maker sites are affiliated with museums, libraries, or community centers where families can join a social network or find access to other public programming.”