Makerspaces: how parents support young children’s learning

Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone, London School of Economics

Although the learning of young children is prioritised in the MaKEY project, it also involves understanding the different roles played by the adults who ‘facilitate’ children’s experiences, including teachers, maker educators and, crucially, parents and caregivers, who not only ‘broker’ young children’s making by bringing them in the first place, but who also play a number of other supportive roles during the making itself.


Skills for the digital world

Since January 2017, alongside other research on parenting, we’ve been studying how parents support children’s learning and engagement in three makerspaces in the San Francisco Bay Area. Working with the Tech Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley, the Bay Area Discovery Museum (home to the world’s first early childhood FabLab) and the , Lawrence Hall of Science, and in collaboration with our international MakEY colleagues, we have been considering how parents act as co-learners and co-facilitators alongside their children as they learn and engage in makerspaces.

This has given us a unique window into the beliefs and practices of parents living and working within or nearby a worldwide centre of technological innovation. Many are tech workers themselves, and so experience pressure to ensure their children are successful in a highly competitive world, which, in some cases, is actually expressed as resistance to technology or the limitation of ‘screen time’. Conversely, we also interviewed low-income parents living in the shadow of Silicon Valley who want their children to keep up in this new technological world.

More than ‘mindless’ screen time

Thus this research on makerspaces overlaps with our wider interest in how parents talk and worry about ‘screen time’. In the Parenting for a Digital Future project we repeatedly heard parents’ concerns about children being ‘sucked in’ to ‘mindless’ screen use, but yet there was a contrasting enthusiasm for children learning ‘creative’ technical skills. As evidenced by the growing popularity among some parents of programmes like code clubs or even the (sometimes grudging) appreciation of Minecraft, there is an awareness that children need some understanding of how technology is created (and manipulated) in this digital age. One mother said she didn’t really ‘do technology’ at home other than occasionally ‘educational TV’, and yet she liked coming to the makerspace because:

“I think games, he doesn’t need to do anything, but coming here, [it is] hands-on, you’re learning. It’s going to help you in the future…”

Although our initial rationale was to study the relationship between making and digital literacy, makerspaces for young children vary considerably in whether they incorporate digital technology. We observed:

  • Engineering challenges – children and parents constructed ‘Mars rovers’ that had to deliver a ‘payload’ (a 3D-printed alien) over a gap
  • Design challenges – young children considered different kinds of wings, designed their own versions with pen and paper, then drew them on tablets and printed their wings with a laser cutter on balsa wood, and attempted to fly their planes
  • Games design challenges – families constructed basic circuits using conductive materials, hooked these up to a physical computing device (a Makey Makey) and used this to play Space Invaders.


Parents’ roles

Given this spectrum, we analysed the projects not just in terms of digital literacy, but also in terms of the interplay of different forms of scientific, technical, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) concepts.

We are particularly interested in understanding parents’ different roles as they learn to support their children in these sometimes-new kinds of interactions. We observed parents:

  • Standing at the edges and tending to other children (or looking at their phones) while their children ‘play’
  • Sitting next to their children and asking them questions or prompting new discoveries
  • Helping their children prepare materials or assisting them with tasks requiring physical dexterity or strength
  • Competing with their children (usually friendly!) over who could build the best design
  • ‘Taking over’ for their children when they got stuck, using their own knowledge and expertise.

As part of a recent design sprint, organised by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s Families learning across boundaries project and the Technology for Equity in Learning Opportunities initiative at Stanford, we are also considering how our research might inform some hands-on initiatives for parents and children to engage in together, part-inspired by the work of Ricarose Roque we have shared before.

There is much resonance with our other research on parenting, in terms of identifying a wide variety of ways that parents support their children’s digital and technological interests, or do not. Some parents are partners, learning alongside their children; others monitor from a distance. Most lack a language for describing what it is, exactly, that they think their children are learning, even if they are broadly supportive.

 Encouraging shared engagement

We have much to reflect on when we consider how children’s learning with and through technology might be made more visible to parents – in makerspaces and beyond. Parents already play a variety of roles when it comes to supporting their children, but they often do so according to their own comfort levels and skills, and not because they have a strong sense of how their actions relate to their children’s learning outcomes. Makerspaces are but one example of how parents could be better supported to understand what and how children learn, and be empowered not just to stand back, or take over, but to be active in fostering new kinds of shared engagement with their children.

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