The story of two new planets

A Story drawn, written and played by the participants of the Global Makerspace project

By Anca Velicu, Klaus Thestrup & Greg Giannis

Researchers from the MakEY project set in place The Global Makerspace project during the 41st week of 2018. The idea was to create a makerspace for young children that spanned the globe. Three teams of children were involved in this first stage of the project situated in: St. Stephen’s Primary School[1], Melbourne (AU) with which the authors of this article were involved, Katrinebjergskolen[2], Aarhus (DE), and Montgomery School[3], Sheffield (UK).

The Melbourne context

St. Stephen’s PS, is a small Catholic primary school in a working-class region in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. It has low numbers and an ethnically diverse student cohort. Dr Greg Giannis had commenced establishing a makerspace at this school prior to the arrival of Klaus and Anca, after having abandoned a makerspace at Collingwood College P-12 that previous MakEY researchers had visited. [link to blog entries?] The principal, staff members and students at St. Stephen’s had shown great enthusiasm for the establishment of, and for engagement with, the makerspace and embraced the possibility of being involved in an international project. This was very important as trust and a working relationship had been established, enabling the researchers to conduct this ‘experiment’.

The main idea was to expand the ‘space’ beyond the physical makerspace and to engage children at a global scale to communicate and to form a community. This was to be achieved by providing a platform that would be both a source of inspiration and place of exposition for their creations. The Google+ platform was chosen for this purpose. A private group was created with limited access, in order to comply with the ethical requirements of the project. In general, researchers’ accounts were used, and in some instances researchers mediated the uploading of content to the platform. In Melbourne, researchers’ devices were given to the students to upload themselves the content they wanted to share with others, under the researchers’ supervision. Furthermore, some adult students from the Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media, Aarhus University had been involved with the platform, not only as observers, but actually contributing to stirring discussion and creating things and sharing online.

In this text, the transformations of one of the children’s creations will be described. This will make visible how children and adults engaged with each other and with the platform, how the flow of communication between children and/or teams that are in different and far away venues is prompted by their creations/objects and how the discussions that pop-up during these transformations of the objects contribute to new meanings and understandings of what creating, naming and playing represent. Please note that this describes but one of the many wonderful and inspiring creations and exchanges that occurred.

Two brand new planets

The story began with two strange and brand new planets that one of the girls from Melbourne drew. They were not the image of known planets, but, as she put it, “They are entirely from my imagination”. Therefore, she did not label them in her first drawing, on paper, but just put some question marks next to them to signal her –at that moment, unfinished– creation. One of the researchers suggested to ask for some help in naming the planets from the other groups of children (see Picture 1).

 

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 5.50.58 PMPicture 1. Screenshot from the Global makerspace Google+ page with the first stage of the drawing, the researchers request for help and the first answers from the community.

The post received six comments and a like. The first comments came from adult students from Aarhus who were engaged with the platform and, along with compliments, provided possible names for planets and the reasons behind these names. For instance, Trine proposed the names “Electrise” – because “I get an electric vibe from it” – and “Fozzoid” – because the second planet “looks kinds a fuzzy and cute”, whereas Merethe proposed “Cubish or dichish” –because of “the chequered patterns” – and “Squarish” – because she imagined that the creators got to the planet by dividing into squares.

After adults had played around and named things, children took over and came up with ideas (see Picture 2); this time, no reasons were given for their choices. Mark and Jack had been the suggestions for naming the planets from children in Sheffield. They had probably been shown the previous proposed names and the reasons/explanation for them; still, they approached things differently, coming up with proper, human names (and very common/frequent ones) without any other explanation.

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 5.12.24 PMPicture 2. Children’s suggestions in naming the two unknown planets

The girl who created the drawing (“the creator” as she named herself when she posted on the platform herself and answered to her respondents) decided to use the first suggestions, and put the new names on the photo of her now final drawing using the You Doodle application on an ipad (see the Picture 3). She took the picture without the name on it, then added the names by editing the picture in YouDoodle, and then uploaded the picture (with the researcher’s help in choosing the privacy settings) on the platform and wrote the post. The post received one more comment.

 

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 5.52.43 PMPicture 3. The final version of the drawing and the creator’s answer to the respondents. Temporarily, this was the third post related to the two planets.

Despite the fact that the creator did not choose the names suggested by her young colleagues from Sheffield, it is worth mentioning that, by naming the planets as they did, children wanted to appropriate them in a way that was familiar to them and this was the first step they took in the process of getting to be engaged with the planets. This has to be seen as a domestication process. On the other hand, the adults’ suggestions were conscious creative acts; by naming the two planets with new words or neologisms, they extended them creatively, giving them new meanings; a performative act.

The second post having the same planets as characters was initiated by adults (other undergraduate students from Aarhus) who went forward with this creative process, imagining an environment for one of the planets. As can be seen in Picture 4, they cut one of the planets out from the initial drawing and created two possible worlds inhabited by two aliens and a “lost spaceship” that could (or could not) represent another link between the two new stories of the worlds (they were already linked, as started off from the same planets). The post explicitly prompted for the involvement of the others (asking for suggestions for aliens’ names and their habits) and got 14 comments, some from its authors –who explained/ documented some of their processes in their creation– and some from the global community who engaged with them.

 

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 5.54.32 PMPicture 4. One of the planets gets some stories on its own by some university students.

The British students took on the challenge and answered, by the voice of prof. Marsh: “C says she would call the aliens Bob and Robert. She thinks they eat any colour slime and grains of wheat. She thinks they drink leaves – they mix it up and drink it. They eat in their spare time, and they play “Cheeky Monkey”. To play this, you run around and then you go crazy, waving arms quickly.”. This represents a good example of children bringing their playground into the makerspace. They did not try hard to be creative, but just went on describing the ways in which they really play outside, in the physical playground, where their creativity come up naturally; they do mix leaves and come up with miraculous potions (that adults have to drink in a second stage), they do play Cheeky Monkey and for sure they have friends that are called Bob and Robert. Danish students from the university entered the game British kids proposed and created a short video in which one of their characters seems to play Cheeky Monkey, calling others to play with it. This time, the process of appropriation is complete and kids can now engage with the story, contributing in their way to further create into it.

And they surely did, by creating two short animations (1-2 seconds each) in which two characters made with play-doh play Cheeky Monkey (Picture 5). This time, no information on how the animations had been made was provided. The kids just created something for continuing a play that was, by that moment, fully theirs.

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 5.20.53 PMPicture 5. The two characters created and animated by the British kids for playing Cheeky Monkey together with the Danish character

The workshops in the first stage of The Global Makerspace project finished and so did the play when, as what regularly happens in all schools, the sound of the bell put an abrupt (but natural) end to a very engaging play.

Some reflections on the episode and lessons to be learned

The hook. If one attentively observes what children do when they first meet in a playground, one can notice the key question: ‘Do you want to play with me?’. Some shy kids could wait for the other to come with the connecting question –meanwhile displaying their toys or their activities in an attempt to allure– but sooner or later the question emerges. Similarly, if we think of the global makerspace as a playground and want kids to engage with unknown others, we have to understand the importance of the direct approach/hook. Asking for an opinion, for help or any other direct way to hook the other’s attention is required for initiating successful engagement. Furthermore, despite the familiarity of many children at this age with connected devices, the proposition of initiating engagement with a disembodied other on the other side of a screen, in another distant location thousands of miles away, living in a time zone that must seem baffling, and speaking a different language must have been in and of itself a daunting and intimidating proposition.

The place of the adults in a makerspace of / for children. There is much to be said and discussed on this topic. Discussing only what we observed by participating in the team in Melbourne, we can say that adults played a significant role, although they always tried to withdraw and leave the kids to take the stage. Firstly, the adults have been the initiators of the general topic of the makerspace (Space-Spaceships and planets). Having said this, outcomes of activities from previous sessions with Dr Greg Giannis had merged with the planets theme, creating an easy to follow trajectory allowing the children to move with little effort from dismantling electronic junk to creating what could best be described as android type creatures (Picture 6) to creating a habitat (Picture 7) for these creatures that often took the form of a distant planet (Picture 8), for where else could such creatures come from? So, whilst the adults initiated the space/planet theme, the previous iteration of creativity emerged from a simple provocation, (Mechanica by L. Balchin) and some children went their own way due to either misinterpretation or a simple desire to follow a line of thought that was very much their own. We allowed this.

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 5.24.59 PM

Secondly, the adults provided materials (e.g. from paper, and colored pencils, to older and broken toys to be dismantled, from glitter to tape) for kids to make with and therefore shaped in a way what they could do. It is true that, in Melbourne at least where the space was already set for a makerspace, other materials were available in boxes and once permission was given, children took the initiative to look for other things/materials and use them in their creation. But in general kids in a makerspace are dependent on adults for materials. A strategy to disrupt this is the use of discarded toys, electronics, etc. One outcome of the process of dismantling junk, is that the available materials can be a surprise to both the adults and the children, creating opportunities for emergent creativity as the materials are essentially an unknown quantity.

Thirdly, adults provided kids with technology (digital or not) and teach them to use it efficiently and safely (from iPad to Virtual Reality system, from screwdrivers to batteries, leds, engines for drawbots, etc.). This kind of initial tutoring had been given as an introduction, once a technology was presented to children. Later on, some children would ask for more help when using the technology themselves or an adult would scaffold providing supplementary explanation and help when needed. There were also instances where the children actively supported one another in the use of tools.

Fourthly, the adults were involved in initiating the communication flow and most of the time in mediating it between the three teams. There are some objective reasons for this mediation (e.g. language barriers for non-English speakers, poor literacy skills at this age, lack of time for children to truly engage both in communication and in creation process in a very short period of time allotted for this project  by schools). There are nevertheless not insurmountable with the help of technology (voice recording messages, automatic translation etc.). One also could reflect on whether an unmediated communication between children at this age in an global makerspace is advisable or to be encouraged.

Materials and tools. Almost any kind of material can find its place and be used in a makerspace. This is something to be truly encouraged as it creates myriad affordances. The beauty of this space is that it allows creation with the most common materials, as paper and crayons, to the most natural ones – tree bark, seeds, sands, leaves – or the most technologically advanced, as VR, laser cutter, 3D printing machines and that which is deemed obsolete, also known as junk. Although the discussion around this topic is far to be settled, there are many voices who agree that there is not a sine qua non material or technology in these spaces; what unifies instead all the makerspaces in a concept is rather a state of mind of the participants (an attitude of play, experimentation, exploration and art) or a common approach in which design or art making is central.

In our exploratory project of a Global Makerspace this change of the materials and the transformation of the object created by using other materials is what popped-up as an important element in keeping the flow of communication alive. In transformation of the two planets, the participants had used crayons and paper, play-doh, plastic bottles socks etc. and later on transformed them by  using editing options on photos taken to the objects, created video-animation, etc.

Children’s versus adults’ appropriation of the story. As the story of the two planets just showed, there are some notable differences between how children and adults enter into play by appropriating the story. What could be seen at a superficial level as just an act of ‘killing’ the creativity of the story from an adult’s point of view –by proposing to name the planets Mark and Jack after more fancy and made up names had been proposed – could be instead just a necessary act of domestication of the game that subsequently allows a proper entering into play. Later on, kids will exercise their creativity in this space of playing as it is familiar to them. What should be stressed here is that if the creativity was the frame of reference for adults, for kids this frame was the very playing process, and playfulness is a precursor or enabler of creativity.

Leaving the playground. Finally, the last point that we want to propose for reflection is the ending point; how should one withdraw from a communication/creation process without disturbing the process? For example, the withdraw was smoothed in the case of the creator of the two planets and the play continued afterward, but it can happen that some questions are left without an answer, or some creation passed uncommented or un-appreciated and this can create some disappointment or even frustration for kids. A good understanding of the culture of these spaces, where sometimes kids have to cope with other’s critics, challenges but also with lack of attention is maybe a precondition of its success. And in this point adults have an important role to play in educating children about these challenges and ensuring a friendly space where kids could thrive.

On a final note, consider the consequences of a lack of end point. What affordances are created when the adult does not dictate an outcome or theme, and there is on-going access? Where tools and materials are provided and only instruction in the safe operation of those tools is given, and the role of the adult is supervisory. Dr Greg Giannis conducted such a makerspace at a school that operated after hours and children came and used what resources were available at their leisure. Many children thrived in this environment as there were very few constraints, and the space operated more like a collective artists/tinkering studio. Parents & guardians also frequented the space and were as equally, if not more so engaged. Perhaps this is the context under which a makerspace can come into its full potential, free of curriculum requirements and other inhibiting conditions, where children can explore at their leisure, socialise, co-learn, mentor and truly follow their own interests.

Acknowledgement: The authors of this text would like to thank all the participants, children and adults, who contributed to this project and also to principals and teachers of the schools who make this possible

[1] The facilitators who worked with this team of children were: Dr. Greg Giannis, Dr Klaus Thestrup and Anca Velicu.

[2] The facilitator who worked with Danish children was Louisa Haugaard Pedersen

[3] The facilitators who worked with Sheffield team of children were Dr. Becky Perry, Dr. Bobby Nisha and Prof. Jackie Marsh.

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