Turning Menlo Park kids into “doers” is parents’ responsibility, not the schools

by Mike Lanza on January 18, 2013

Kids’ lives are increasingly structured to discourage independent problem solving of real world problems – i.e. “doing.” The two biggest trends is their alarming increase in screen time and the increase they spend on adult-administered activities – school, homework, and afterschool activities.

So, how do we combat this trend? I’m amazed to find that many people think schools are the answer. For instance, this recent article highlights schools’ efforts to make kids into “makers” – people who make physical things. (“Doers” is a broader term than “makers,” since it includes all sorts of doing to solve problems, including making, software hacking, social activism, and entrepreneurship.)

What’s wrong with the idea that schools will teach kids to be makers? Let’s examine the ideal conditions that children need to become makers:

  1. Large blocks of uninterrupted time: You can’t discover the maker in you on a 45-minutes-once-a-week schedule.
  2.  A real problem (not a made-up project): It’s hard to get passionate and absorbed into a project unless you have a compelling reason for doing it.
  3. Adequate facilities
  4. Mentoring by someone more skilled (adult or older child): Kids need to be inspired to see how they can make something they hadn’t imagined they could.

Schools should be able to provide #3 because of their “economies of scale” – their ability to buy once for hundreds of kids. However, they can’t do a good job at #1 and #2: Teaching the three Rs will always be considered the most important job  for most schools, few schools will actually want to use 90 of something.

Re #4, I’d argue that the average teacher is no more skilled at making than we parents are, and even if a teacher is, the 20-30 to 1 ratio is unlikely to result in real mentoring.

Home projects are much better than school projects because kids can have large blocks of time, and because homes have many authentic needs of makers. My son Marco (8) has been making things for our house out of wood. He just made a decorative bird for his bedroom, and now he’s making a decorative mailbox that we’ll use as our family’s mailbox. He and his brothers are also learning to help me make wooden signs to sell to neighbors, and also as gifts.

So, how do parents provide those four conditions above?

  1. Time: Cut down on screen time and activities, give time to tinker.
  2. Real problem: All homes have lots of maker problems. Rooms always need more decorating, kids always need more kid-friendly furniture, and there are always things that need fixing.
  3. Facilities: These don’t need to be elaborate – just a part of a garage or a playroom, plus some basic materials, will do. Schools do have that “economies of scale” advantage over homes, but one thing that makes home facilities better than school facilities is that at home, kids can come back to the same project day after day. At school, because of shared use, things need to be put away after every maker session. Over the past few months, I’ve created a rather elaborate “maker space” in my garage (photo above right).
  4. Mentoring: We can’t expect our kids to “walk the walk” unless we parents do. Parents who watch TV every night after dinner won’t inspire their kids to be doers. So, what do we parents who don’t have any maker skills “do?” Well, we need to find an area of making that we like and bone up. For the last year or so, I’ve been learning a lot about woodworking and electronics.

Raising kids to be doers is a big deal. Doing is a total mindset, so changing kids from passive takers to doers requires big cultural change.

Ask yourself, are you a doer? Do you inspire your kids to do? If you’re a doer, and if you make doing an explicit goal for your kids, you’ll raise doers.

Photos courtesy of Menlo Park resident Mike Lanza, author of Playborhood


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