Starting a hackerspace for kids

This january we started weekly teaching for 7 to 10 year olds in Käsityokoulu Robotti, which could be translated as arts & crafts school, but also as a hackerspace or as a makerspace.

Käsityökoulu Robotti has a permanent space in Espoo Pikku Aurora art house. We have standard makerspace equipment such as 3D-printer, laser-cutter, computers, microcontrollers and some standard tools. But we also have suitable electronics for younger makers called Little Bits, which allows even 3 to 4-year olds to try out electronics and build things.

All this equipment is not there to just to impress or amaze, but it truly allows us to empower children to make, tinker and create new kinds of things. To learn how technology works, how to take control of it and how to use it creatively. This is very important point for us. The whole reason why we first founded Käsityökoulu Robotti a few years ago and started giving workshops was because we wanted to show children that they needn't just to be mere users of electrical toys or computer games but that they could also be makers and tinkerers in the electronics and software. 

Children are natural makers, they create worlds filled with the most creative things. Children naturally design, engineer, create things in their own play. The problem with many modern electrical and software toys are that they don't allow any "hacking", making tinkering natural for children. You can just use the toy as intended and then discard it. Naturally childrens curiosity dies fast. What we wanted to show is that you can actually make your own electrical things or software. Or you can open your broken RC-car and fix it or mod it. Give it a new life.

Another very important point in teaching children these skills is that our society is becoming more and more digital. Understanding how all of this works is not just a benefit but critical skill for everyone in our society. Digital native is almost worn out buzzword associated with children born in digital age today. Meaning being that they have a innate way of understanding digital devices. Unfortunately this is not the whole story. What children are good at is that they understand how the user interface works and how to consume the digital devices and it's content. What we want to give them is the understanding and the possibility to look beyond that and to create the whole world themselves. This is also the reason we are called art & craft school. We are not only focusing on programming or electronics, rather we’d like to think we have a larger picture in mind. We like to join together art and science. Creating and thinking. Creative thinking or doing something completely silly. Enjoying your hands work. Making art. Many of our teachers have artistic backgrounds, some from film, some from fine art, some from media art and most of us have background from art education. For us this this sort of ” creative and free” art educational thinking comes naturally. And I think it suits engineering and programming wonderfully. Sure we know how to program and how structured that needs to be, but we also value the lessons you get when you make errors and the stuff you get when you trail off to side paths. I think programming should not be taught as a dry mathematic manner, nor should it be taught as a gamified manner. That takes a way the seriousness of the thing. -Art and playing is serious business after all! Making your own art piece or your own robot is nothing to be laughed at and is so much better than completing some level in some programming game.

Käsityökoulu Robotti is based on the same ideas as normal makerspaces or fablabs in the worlds. We want to give children the same opportunities to discover new technologies as we adults now can have. From the start we also decided that it is important that we use as much open source technologies as possible. This is important in that it truly enables children to learn read the code of the programs they are using (-if they so wish) and open source also makes it affordable if they wish to get the software or hardware for themselves.  

One thing that might differ us from your ordinary hackerspace (if you could yet call hackerspaces ordinary?) is that we also have pedagogical structure to guide us. I think this is important as we are dealing with children and is also natural to us as we are teachers by profession. Our main pedagogocal inspiration comes from Reggio Emilia and constructivist learning theories  These happen to be roughly the same theories Maker movement draws it's ideologies from. Specially important for us is Reggio Emilia with it's respect for childrens own creativity, thinking, rights and needs. Reggio Emilia also gives special significance for the environment as it regards it as a third teacher. We feel that our school and the cultural center in Pikku Aurora really helps nurture childrens own thinking and creativity. Reggio Emilia approaches founder Loris Malaguzzis poem ”The Hundred Languages of Childhood” really could be out of a maker motto and is something we value in Käsityökoulu Robotti. 

"The Hundred Languages of Childhood
The child
is made of one hundred.
The child has
A hundred languages
A hundred hands
A hundred thoughts
A hundred ways of thinking
Of playing, of speaking.
A hundred always a hundred
Ways of listening of marveling of loving
A hundred joys
For singing and understanding
A hundred worlds
To discover
A hundred worlds
To invent
A hundred worlds
To dream
The child has
A hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
But they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture
Separate the head from the body.
They tell the child;
To think without hands
To do without head
To listen and not to speak
To understand without joy
To love and to marvel
Only at Easter and Christmas
They tell the child:
To discover the world already there
And of the hundred
They steal ninety-nine.
They tell the child:
That work and play
Reality and fantasy
Science and imagination
Sky and earth
Reason and dream
Are things
That do not belong together
And thus they tell the child
That the hundred is not there
The child says: NO WAY the hundred is there--

-Loris Malaguzzi
Founder of the Reggio Approach" 

From ideological standpoint making and letting children tinker on their own lets children build the knowledge they need and let’s them build on to  the knowledge they already have. We feel that our job as a school is to give children tools and necessary information to let them discover the world around them. Digital technologies need not to be restricted sandboxes nor illegal or dangerous places but could and should be places for empowering and emancipatory action.

Last week we just started our first class that meets every week to learn new things. We started with Arduino and learning to code. We are really looking forward for the spring and see what we can learn together. I will be posting about our progress, what we have learned in this blog later on this blog.

Besides the continious teaching we are also offering weekend workshops, winter camps and summer camps
and are looking forward to expand our activity next autumn. If you are interested in our activity you can find out more from our website at (In finnish only) or from me.