Co-Founder Samantha Cook shares her tips on mentoring kids in the Maker community:
1. Model what you would like to see.
The process for learning is not that different for adults as it is for kids. When children see us working hard, trying new things, accepting failure as a challenge and an opportunity, they are inspired to do the same. Modeling also sets up a deeper relationship, much like that of an apprentice. There is a subtle transfer of information that happens from mentor to student. The body language, verbal communication, storytelling/history, and observation between student and expert is irreplaceable. Mentors serve as a role model and a source of safety in both attempt and failure.
2. Failure is an option.
Showing both success and failure in the process of Making exposes the reality that not everything works the first time. Solving a particularly hard challenge after many attempts can build confidence and self esteem., and turns the idea of mistakes into learning and growth. It also supports the development of empathy, patience, and delayed gratification.
3. Honor the stages of development.
Be aware if the child you are working with is truly capable of what you are asking.
Children in the 6-12 year old range, for example, can not usually think both abstractly and logically. Instead they are limited to thinking concretely. Their knowledge is tangible, definitive, and exact based on real, concrete experiences rather than abstractions.One of the reasons math and science becomes so attractive in this age period, is because their thinking process is moving from imagination to fact and classification. They are also developing memory strategies for retention of knowledge and skills. Children are recognizing and actively seeking out the ability to gain new knowledge and skills, assessing their personal method, and competence, often comparing themselves to peers. This is an essential time for self esteem, the building of relationships, and providing opportunities for success as well as failure.Children in this age range need quite a bit of praise and reinforcement around competence and self-image, mentors to help them recognize and develop their own unique talents and abilities, and guidance with relationships, problem solving, and communication. Learning, or the forming of synapses in the brain, occur through repeated experiences, and like younger children they are still learning mostly through movement and tasks their body must perform physically. These pathways become more complex when subjected to multiple sensory input, language, and relationships. But the problem is that these pathways are a “use it or lose it” system, so if a function is not repeated to ensure retention, that pathway disappears. In other words, when you plan activities that build upon previous experiences, you are helping to form a more complex understanding and knowledge of a subject. Short term projects are often best with this age group, because they often lack the focus and the ability to visualize the end result of a long term project. They need concrete results in a timely, regular manner.
So then, in order to truly meet the developmental needs of this age group, we need to recognize their strengths and limitations and foster activities and community that supports children where they are as much as their potential.
4. Encourage confidence and independence while building community.
Often, starting off kids with structured or pre-designed activities is an excellent way to build interest in Making. One benefit is that it helps them build new skills they will need later on for their own projects in a way that promotes correct technique and use. You have to know the rules before you can break them, after all. It also builds confidence by giving a child a taste of success. Making something that turns out exactly how it is supposed to is exciting and satisfying, resulting in a higher level of risk-taking down the road. When all the kids work together in community, they often teach each other skills by exposure or intentional instruction, inspiring new ideas and a willingness to try new things while maintaining their own interests and identity. Simply the act of being in the same room with other Makers can promote a sense of belonging and security in their own passions. Also, document the experience. This not only shows kids how far they have come both independently and together, but also allows the mentor to see patterns of interest and skill and support the learner in where they are and where they want to go.
5. Respect the autonomy of the children.
It is very easy for adults to make judgements about what children should or could be learning. But it is not about us, it is about them. Try to offer a diverse array of projects at your open lab that will appeal to different learning styles and interests. And then get out of the way. Even children come in with their own set of experiences and ideas, which need to be respected. Let them choose what they will, even if they choose it every single time. Most often, there is something in that skill or subject they are trying to work out for themselves. Eventually, most kids try something new after a while. But even if they don't, there is value in simply being exposed to a variety of activities, whether they ever choose them or not.