The Research-Practice teams of Children's Museum of Pittsburgh's MAKESHOP and NYSCI's Little Makers program have been engaged in a comparative study of our design of facilitation, activity and space as they relate to family learning through making. Core to this work has been rich discussion and iterative design of contextualized elements of our practice. From this work have emerged comparative frameworks that serve as a conceptual tool for identifying, describing and ultimately designing for making as a learning process within and across our spaces.  Below we describe each museum's process of working across research and practice to empirically identify and describe learning through making.

makeshop at Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

At Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, our approach has been to apply a practice-based learning lens to making in the context of a museum-based makerspace. We draw upon theories of cultural and social learning which assert an understanding of learning as fundamentally tied to the social and cultural contexts in which it occurs, and focuses on the “practices” that define learning communities (Brown, Collins, & Daguid, 1989; Lave & Wenger 1991; Wenger, 1998). By practice, we mean the “…more or less coordinated, patterned, and meaningful interactions of people at work” (Spillane, 2012).

When we began this work in 2012, the fields of learning research and informal practice knew very little about making as a learning process. Our first step in developing a framework for the Learning Practices of making was to identify core practices at the center of the making community (Brahms & Crowley, 2016). Through a content analysis of Make Magazine, the most popular and nationally recognized textual source of maker community participation in the United States, we identified seven central learning practices of making as they are understood and translated by the community of makers themselves. Using this initial set of practices as a baseline, we looked to see whether and how such core making practices might be enacted and studied as part of family activity in MAKESHOP. Through microanalysis of participant interaction in 20 video-based observational episodes of family participation (Erickson, 1992), we were able to locate and trace children’s participation in maker practices through an afternoon of making in the museum. (Brahms, 2014)

Next, we sought to understand how these practices resonate as a framework for learning in context. MAKESHOP Teaching Artists and museum researchers engaged in a collaborative process of testing and refining the practices.  We participated in weekly critical discussions to consider the conceptual space that existed within each of the learning practices, and whether and how such learning practices were core to the experiences of the teaching artists as designers and facilitators of making. Through these efforts, various practices were collapsed and modified and language was changed to reflect the realities of the context.

In addition, our research-practice team at the Museum has identified missing links between the learning practices we consider to be central to making in our space and our ability to comprehensively support such forms of participation.  In response, each teaching artist has identified aspects of activity, program, space, and/or facilitation design that may be modified and tested through small design experiments to better support learner’s engagement in the practices (for an example, see In Practice). Through regular iterative testing, data collection, reflection, and discussion, teaching artists have presented their evolving designs and observations of visitor experience to the team for feedback. Together, the team has generated new understanding as we have considered the ways in which the iterative designs align with or challenge our assumptions and aspirations as designers of rich learning experiences. Importantly, this messy and rich design process has offered concrete examples for our practices, surfaced counter-examples, and generated new categories that help shape the core of what we consider ambitious making experiences.

This work has enabled the team to close gaps between desired learning behavior and current museum practice, to further reveal observable and reportable evidence of children’s engagement in the learning practices, and to point towards elements of design that support children’s engagement in these practices. Through this work, we have established a common language for learning that is shared across research and practice.

This common language is intended to guide discussions across settings about making as a learning process by identifying ways to conceptualize, support, and assess such forms of learning through design. Ultimately, this work will enable us to make empirical claims about making based on the actions, interactions, and work of making as it is being carried out in informal and formal learning contexts.

Little Makers at New York Hall of Science

Little Makers - Wood Works_NYSCI_8-31-2015.jpg

At the outset of our Principles of Practice work, NYSCI was just beginning to articulate its institutional design engineering and making pedagogy. The early childhood education team first gathered definitions, principles and approaches from across the institution. We sidled up to the Design Lab, SciPlay, and newly minted Maker Space teams and posed myriad questions: What did making look like for a toddler? What skills and exposures did young children need to be ready for tackling design engineering? What did we need to know before putting hammers in the hands of 4-year-olds? What research in the field should guide us? What did we value as an institution, and how could we create a shared language around our budding definitions of design and making?

These early conversations helped us map out a two-prong strategy: 1) Reimagining tried and true early childhood activities, from making play dough to papier-mâché, and opening them up to include opportunities for discovery and more decision points to encourage divergent and creative thinking. 2) Intentionally and thoughtfully tackling popular maker space activities designed for older learners, and breaking them down into developmentally appropriate, bite-sized exposures and skills that young children need to tackle more complex making projects. For example, in Wood Works, young learners start at a sanding table and drive nails into insulation foam to hone practical skills before diving into creating.

At the project’s start, we collected video of parent-child pairs engaging in Little Makers activities, conducted brief interviews with families, and shared the data collected with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh team for coding and analysis. We not only learned a great deal from the outpouring of rich research led by CMP and UPCLOSE, and we also used the video in weekly team meetings to guide our discussion, drawing out what we noticed in family interactions and conversations. We studied our facilitation, what Residents and Explainers did to scaffold and support families. We noted how the selection of materials, the organization of tools and the setup of the Maker Space impacted families’ experiences. We leveraged discoveries in both the formal research and our own informal study of the video as pathways to articulate key learning, make the family learning happening in the Maker Space visible, refine our approach, and plant the seeds for our team’s transformation as practitioners and advocates for how capable young children are.

To compliment what we were learning through video analysis and in rich conversations with colleagues across the museum, Little Makers facilitators engaged in a diligent practice of reflection after each workshop that helps refine our approach, tweak the setup of the space to be more welcoming for the diverse families we serve, share facilitation techniques, spark ideas for new projects, and learn from our missteps. Through this process of research and reflection, we developed a set of guiding principles that are rooted in the museum’s learning philosophy, Design-Make-Play. Design emphasizes intentionality in problem-solving and helps people see the possibilities in the world; Make highlights hands-on experience with materials, tools and processes and nurtures the development of skills and confidence; and Play promotes intrinsic motivation. When combined, these strategies support open-ended exploration, imaginative learning, deep engagement, and delight — ingredients that inspire passionate learners and critical thinkers.


Brahms, L. J. (2014). Making as a learning process: Identifying and supporting family learning in informal settings (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh).

Brahms, L., & Crowley K. (2016). Making sense of making: Defining learning practices in MAKE Magazine. In Peppler, K., Halverson, E. & Kafai, Y. (Eds.), Makeology: Makers as Learners. New York, NY: Routledge.

Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.

Erickson, F. (1992). Qualitative research methods for science education. In. B.J. Fraser & K. G. Tobin (eds.), Second International Handbook of Science Education (1155-1173). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Bluwer.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Spillane, J. P. (2012). Data in practice: Conceptualizing the data-based decision-making phenomena. American Journal of Education, 118(2), 113-141.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, Meaning, and identity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.