A key part of our process of refining and deepening our understanding of the Learning Practices of Making as a tool for assessment and design has been, and continues to be, that of identifying elements of the space, activity and facilitation in MAKESHOP that can be improved to better support all children’s engagement in the learning practices. On an ongoing basis, each Teaching Artist chooses a problem of practice on which to focus for a while; to iteratively test, collect data, reflect, and discuss with the rest of the team in order to improve MAKESHOP as a learning environment. The team uses the Learning Practices of Making as a lens and language through which to assess and modify their designs.


The circuit blocks in MAKESHOP are a collection of wooden blocks with different components and power sources affixed to them. The circuit blocks are a very common activity in MAKESHOP because they both embody fundamental qualities of maker-based experiences, as well as uniquely support learners’ engagement in the Learning Practices of Making. The Teaching Artists in MAKESHOP are constantly creating and adapting these blocks to better support all children’s engagement in making as a learning process. Below,  we will share how these blocks have been modified through a design experiment conducted by Kevin, one of our MAKESHOP Teaching Artists, to better support young children's engagement in making as a learning process. 

See this White Paper on the Learning Practices of Making to find out more about how the circuit blocks are designed to generally support children's and families' engagement in the Learning Practices of Making.

 

The initial design of the circuit blocks—which included nails as conductors and alligator clips as connectors (see image to left)—presented barriers to young children’s full engagement, and therefore inhibited young children’s learning process in MAKESHOP. In particular, the alligator clips were very challenging for young children to open as they are just developing dexterity and strength.

Recognizing this challenge, Kevin sought to better support young children’s engagement in the circuit blocks as the problem of practice he wanted to address through a design experiment. Kevin wanted to modify the circuit blocks so that young children could feel empowered and successful, while maintaining the qualities of design that afford both engagement in the learning practices and communicate important qualities of making. 

Specifically, he wanted to enable young children to engage in the learning practices:

Inquire - Learners’ openness and curious approach to the possibilities of the context through exploration and questioning of its material properties.

Tinker - Learners’ purposeful play, testing, risk taking and evaluation of the properties of materials, tools and processes


Kevin determined that, as conductive metal, the alligator clips are magnetic. This magnetism proved to be the missing link in the initial design. By replacing magnets for nails, young children can use the alligator clips to make a working connection between power source and output component, but do not need to open and close the clip. This, he thought, would allow children to more easily explore the materials at hand, as well as test and evaluate the properties of those materials with greater facility. 

His first attempts at redesign featured raised posts with small powerful magnets embedded into the posts (see image to right). This design drew attention to the point of connection, but the embedded magnets hid elements of construction, therefore preventing opportunities for children to potentially engage in ancillary practices, such as Hack and Repurpose or Simplify to Complexify. These blocks were also quite difficult and time consuming to make for our team .


His next iteration used magnetic screws instead of the small magnets (see image to left). This both lessened the time of creation, simply twisting the screw into the base of the block, as well as utilized a material that was more identifiable to visitors, enabling important inquiry-based discussions about screws as a material of attachment and conductivity. Through collaboration and discussion with the team, Kevin designed a template for circuit blocks that honors important elements of design, while affording young children’s successful engagement in an authentic making activity.  

As the team constructs new circuit blocks using Kevin's tested method, we have discovered that these blocks are enabling and approachable for young children, but that they also increase accessibility for engagement with the concepts of electronics and the learning practices for everyone, especially for important learner-groups who visit MAKESHOP. This includes anyone with low dexterity or vision. 

These days, the MAKESHOP Team often makes available and facilitates visitor engagement using a collection of originally constructed circuit blocks with those constructed using Kevin's accessible method. This variety and juxtaposition encourages further engagement in related Learning Practices, as children and families collaborate to combine elements of design, make connections, build understanding and meaning, and develop comfort and competence with the diverse associated materials and processes.