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Can Kids As Young As Three Learn to Design and Create In Fab Labs?

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Fascinated kids explore how the laser cutter produces the cardboard pieces during the city pilot program. (Courtesy of Bay Area Discovery Museum)

Screen time for young children has been a hotly contested debate among parents for years. Many worry that passive consumption of media through screens harms young children’s brain development, or at the very least means they are getting less interaction with caregivers, other children and hands-on play. On the other hand, most children under the age of 8 have access to a mobile device in the home and it can be hard to enforce an absolutely-no-screen-time rule. The Bay Area Discovery Museum, which focuses on hands-on, play-based learning, is trying to introduce a more active kind of technology use with the first Fab Lab for kids ages 3 and up.

The Discovery Museum is open to families and partners with schools to bring schoolchildren to the museum in coordination with a multi-part visiting structure to help bring hands-on, creative learning back into the classroom. In contrast to a makerspace, which is a more free-form experience of making, the Fab Lab that museum educators are designing is explicitly connected to the ideas of design and engineering and connects to the Next Generation Science Standards.

“In many ways it’s very connected to the maker movement, but there is more of an intentional focus on some of the skills connected to engineering, electrical engineering and more of an intentional draw back to math concepts,” said Elizabeth Rood, vice president of education strategy for the museum. Rood says young kids have always been fascinated by building things, and educators at the museum hope to help even the youngest kids begin to understand that the built world is designed by people. It doesn’t appear by magic.

“It’s really trying to take away the black box and helping kids understand the made-world around them,” Rood said.

The museum will be one of the first institutions in the country to pilot a Fab Lab for kids this young, and they are doing a lot of learning along the way. They’ve already started bringing in test groups and will start inviting classes to participate in the spring. All along, they are taking video, watching how interactions take place in the space and modifying activities, materials and curriculum based on what they see.



Rood said the space is designed with multiple age groups in mind. If a family brings their 8-year-old and their 3-year-old, both kids should have developmentally appropriate activities available to them. The space has a laser cutter, 3-D printer, vinyl cutter (fun for little guys, making stickers), software, and soon hopefully an industrial sewing machine, which automatically sews based on a digital design. The Discovery Museum Fab Lab is three rooms, one room with the more complicated machines requiring more adult facilitation, and two rooms requiring less adult supervision and lots of materials at kid height.

In a recent test of the space, museum staff set up activities related to building a city. They had precut cardboard pieces that kids could use to construct buildings, and the laser cutter ran in a corner so kids could see where those pieces came from (although in this activity they didn’t get to cut pieces themselves). They also had a circuitry table so older kids could wire up lighting for the buildings and streets, along with programmable cars. Little kids had access to lots of stickers, tape and paint to beautify the city.

A dad and son beautify the building they built with pre-cut cardboard pieces.
A dad and son beautify the building they built with precut cardboard pieces. (Courtesy Bay Area Discovery Museum)

“It’s all very hands-on, even with the kids who are at the point where they can interact with the software, it’s very hands-on,” Rood said.

She imagines the space as a place where kids can experiment with moving from three dimensions to two dimensions and back again. Perhaps children will build something with Play-Doh or clay first and then try to replicate what they’ve built using design software. That 2-D design can then be sent to the laser cutter for cutting. Inevitably the first design won’t work, so they’ll go back and tweak, in the process learning about iteration, trial and error, proportions and other engineering and math concepts.

“One of the things we’re really grappling with now is that a major limiting factor is the software,” Rood said. Most design software isn’t appropriate for kids younger than 6 or 7. The museum is committed to keeping the Fab Lab child-centered, where parents are encouraged to interact with their kids, but activities are explicitly designed to be child-led. Most of the commercially available software would require lots of one-on-one adult-to-child attention, so the museum is looking into commissioning its own software.

The museum already has a strong focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities, and often trains teachers on ways to bring more hands-on approaches into the classroom. Some of those activities, like “fairytale engineering,” could easily be taken a step further with access to the Fab Lab. The activity is designed for kids ages 4 to 6.  The educator begins by reading a version of "The Three Little Pigs" story, but with a focus on designing and engineering stronger houses. The story introduces the idea of prototyping. Then they read parts of the "Three Billy Goats Gruff" story and ask kids what they would design to get the goats across the bridge safely.

The kids come up with lots of creative ideas and then they get to play with designing and prototyping their ideas. Often that starts with cardboard, but in the Fab Lab, kids could take their exploration of materials further, printing the same design in plastic or wood and experimenting with how the same design works differently when made in different materials.


There’s been a lot of concern from parents and early education teachers about the encroachment of screens into young children’s lives. There are tons of apps and gadgets marketed to parents of young children, many of which require the child only to passively consume content on a device. Rood agrees that kind of passive screen time can be a concern and that parents will ultimately make those decisions for their children.

“What’s exciting about this is it offers a different way of using technology that’s much more active,” Rood said. Her goal is to make technology use in the Fab Lab all about creating, with clear tie-ins to what’s happening in the material world. Even the lead curriculum designer was a little unsure that technology would be appropriate for young children.

A facilitator helps kids figure out how to program one of the cars in the Fab Lab.
A facilitator helps kids figure out how to program one of the cars in the Fab Lab. (Courtesy of Bay Area Discovery Museum)

“I was a teacher who really strongly pushed back against introducing technology into the classroom,” said Sara Norris, associate director of STEM education and partnerships. Most of the technology she saw being pushed on classrooms was passive, or limited to keyboarding or projecting things onto a smartboard. She wanted her kindergarten classroom to stay focused on interactive, interpersonal learning. So she was skeptical in her new job with the museum when they started talking about Fab Lab software for very young learners.

“I felt that experiential learning couldn’t mean time with screens,” Norris said. “It felt counterintuitive to me.”

As the museum has built out the idea over the past several months, Norris has come to see the technology in the Fab Lab as just another tool, equal to any other tool in the space. The museum is working hard to make any technology time active time and Norris is watching how kids interact with the space to make sure it remains developmentally appropriate. She’s open to the idea that they may discover that 3 is too young for the technology side of things. She’s looking to see how long the little kids stick with the technology, whether they’re able to create what they wanted and if it sparks curiosity. All those things would be good signs.

“It’s also about equity and empowering kids so they feel they can shape the world around them,” Norris said. Both she and Rood are passionate about bringing their design-thinking, creative, hands-on approach to kids from all backgrounds. As they experiment with the Fab Lab space, they’ve tried to bring in students from many backgrounds to make sure the space works for all learners.

“We are seeing that these tools and this kind of technology is popping up in schools that serve affluent kids,” Rood said. “It is not happening in our public schools. I’m deeply concerned that there’s a divide not only in access, but I worry the answer will be putting technology in without understanding how we’re really going to use it.”

When visiting less affluent schools, Rood sees a focus on reproducing knowledge instead of creating it, a gap she hopes the museum can help correct.

For the past year, the museum has been piloting a multivisit program. Museum educators visit the classroom and teach about design thinking before bringing the class to the museum, where they get to work with hands-on materials. In the Fab Lab, that hands-on time will mean using the software to design prototypes and using the machines to make their designs real. Then, back in the classroom, the museum educators continue to work with teachers to apply the same ideas to the rest of the curriculum, drawing direct parallels to the standards teachers are required to cover.

“We’ve made it really explicit to teachers that all of our projects are connected to the standards,” Norris said. For example, the lessons look at more hands-on and creative ways to think about form and function, or cause and effect.

“We want to not only hit things they need to address anyway, but enrich the experience and introduce new and creative ways for how to teach,” Norris said. Bay Area teachers they’ve worked with have been appreciative of this work, asking for more resources and lessons to extend the learning beyond the three-visit structure.

Norris said a lot of her time with teachers is spent helping them recognize the creative work they are doing daily in the classroom.

“Classroom teachers are constantly involved in design-thinking process all the time, whether they know it or not,” Norris said. They design lessons, see how their “end user” -- students -- respond, and tweak the idea. Norris says more and more public school teachers are seeing how creativity ties into the STEM subjects they are teaching, and are hungry for more resources and training in this model.


While the museum Fab Lab is in a “soft opening” phase right now, museum staff are already seeing some interesting things. “The most exciting thing for me was the collaboration I saw between younger and older children,” Norris said. Parents were also excited about the new space and many were down on the floor with their kids, instead of on their phones or having side conversations with other parents.

Rood is excited about how the Fab Lab can push forward the museum’s mission to improve math education. “We really feel strongly that early math learning is the gateway to so many next steps,” Rood said. “We are working a lot in trying to help teachers make mathematics more visual, more conceptual and less performance based.”

The interplay between building and designing is a great way to help make theoretical concepts more concrete and visual. “The FabLab is a great way to build math learning in the early years especially as we think about shapes, proportionality, how shapes fit together, angles and going from two dimensions to three dimensions,” Rood said. “There is so much you can teach in a FabLab using the equipment that’s so engaging and hands-on that is also so rich with math.”

As the museum continues to invite families and classes into the space to test their activities, they will be reporting back to a global network of educators interested in replicating any promising practices that come out of this pilot. The museum will also be commissioning a third-party evaluation of the program after it is formally up and running and has found its feet.



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