By Kati Hornung, Powhatan
Originally published in the November-December 2015 VaHomeschoolers Voice
Written in loving memory of Dori Orr, VaHomeschoolers member and maker extraordinaire
“Mom, Mom, wake up, wake up! It’s Monday again!” My girls enthusiastically rouse me from the end of my weekend restfulness to tell me it is the beginning of another week. How is it that Monday has become our family’s favorite day of the week?
Creating Something Out of Nothing
To invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.
—Thomas A. Edison
Last fall, inspired by the book Maker Dad by Mark Frauenfelder, I asked my girls what they thought of the idea of hosting “Maker Mondays” at our new farm. The details were a bit fuzzy, since I essentially made up the idea as I talked to them. Like any good marketer, I threw out a wide variety of possibilities to see which would garner the most enthusiasm. I described a day where kids could build, invent, and learn whatever they wanted to teach themselves through hands-on projects. When I mentioned the possibility of Maker Mondays being led only/mostly by kids, my girls’ enthusiasm rose to a whole new level.
Life’s Best Lessons
Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.
Over our past four years of homeschooling, one of my greatest revelations was that I am not the teacher. My children, through their brains’ assimilation of information and environment, choose how to decipher each teachable moment as it is presented. Like almost every other enlightened moment I have experienced over this past decade, it was something I learned only after my child showed it to me. One day, as I read my child a storybook selected specifically to convey the mathematical magic of compound interest, she took from it a completely unrelated, yet equally valuable, lesson. At that moment, I realized that no matter what I am trying to teach her, her own brain will incorporate what it is ready to process regardless of my intention. This perspective has shaped my homeschool approach in an incredibly positive manner and has, in turn, shaped our Maker Mondays.
When I turned over the Maker Monday framework to the kids, it began to resemble a combination of Democratic School + Forest School + Maker Event. Apparently my focus group of two was pretty accurate in its prediction of mass appeal; when I turned the event entirely over to the kids, the crowd went wild. They enthusiastically created ground rules and brainstormed an assortment of possible projects. I believe kids are generally very fair-minded, and if I facilitated their discussion of the kind of environment they wanted to create, they would build reasonable guidelines for each other. They created a comprehensive list of which anyone would be proud. Although we review it regularly so they can modify boundaries as necessary, so far there have been no modifications. All in all, the community the kids are building is just as cohesive and comfortable as the circle of adults sitting nearby sharing tips, tricks, trials, and tribulations. With only minor exceptions, the kids have worked within the guidelines they set for themselves as a community.
At the beginning of each Maker Monday, the kids sit on campfire-style logs while we have “opening circle:” a time during which we review their ground rules, make sure the rules still meet everyone’s approval, and then discuss their desired activities for the day. If there is something of interest or importance to discuss, we will spend a few minutes on that as well. We also make sure everyone has an idea of what they want to do, and the kids set their schedule for the day (making time vs. play time). Recently I began offering the kids an option to join me on something I have going on in the yard, because farms are naturally abundant in rich learning experiences. After their making time is over we have a “closing circle;” this works like a show-and-tell moment, during which the kids share the day’s building activities with their friends who were working on something else. Afterwards they enjoy free play until they leave.
Our closing circle has been valuable because it creates accountability for the kids’ priorities and time management skills. It also offers the opportunity to distinguish between negative comments and constructive criticism, with constructive criticism being the only allowed critique (and only offered when requested). Some kids do not want peer input, and we all respect that boundary. Other kids eagerly welcome the input and happily request it each closing circle.
Over time, I hope the kids will eventually grow to trust the process and open themselves to the experience of receiving thoughtful, helpful feedback. Requesting, accepting, and knowing how to respectfully give constructive criticism is surely one of life’s best lessons. Of course, the kids learn many good lessons while working on their self-directed activities and navigating working with others. But the constructive feedback lesson is one I think is particularly unique to this environment.
A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.
During our first year of Maker Mondays I learned a few things that may be of assistance to others interested in hosting events, particularly if there is no ready-made format or curriculum.
If your event is to be child-led, put them in charge from the very beginning and do not undermine it with parent-created “warm-ups.” (Oops!) At the first meeting, have the kids set their ground rules, with input from the host(s). Working through minor issues in a peaceful, respectful manner is easier when you can refer back to the values embedded in their ground rules. To keep it simple we remind kids that they have three ultimate options: conform to the guideline, advocate for a change in rules, or (in the extreme) opt out of the event.
Meet regularly enough so the kids can get into a groove. Also, give the kids larger blocks of time for brainstorming and planning if they are not diving into a ready-to-go activity. The brainstorming, planning, and problem-solving time requirements can be surprisingly large, but the skills these activities build are worth the investment.
Get comfortable asking participating families for things you need, whether it is firm start/stop times, materials, ideas, or help with clean-up. Community events are better and stronger with more shoulders sharing the responsibilities.
Accountability is essential to a child-led event, but our context for this is sharing (closing circle and inviting friends/family after key progress points). Allowing a complete lack of structure for a while is a worthy experiment; but if there is a consistent lack of progress, consider whether it is because they need a certain resource or skill or if it is because they need some structure. In my opinion, helping kids observe their choices is a respectful form of constructive criticism.
Keep each family ultimately responsible for their own children. We set this expectation up front by establishing that each child’s toolbox was his or her own and the tools inside were at the sole discretion of each family. We did, ultimately, create a skill-building space to try out new tools under supervision and we instituted tool checkout sheets for borrowing tools. The checkout sheet highlights the essence of our agreement: “I know how to use this tool; I have my parent’s permission; I will use it carefully; I will return it.”
Why Invest in Non-Academic Play
Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.
Ultimately, we host Maker Mondays not just to enjoy a weekly bit of fun, but also to encourage the growth of our blossoming community. Learning through play is something we embrace in our family, and sharing that with others brings us joy. This time is also an investment in the future—not just that of my children but also of their full community. We plan to continue hosting this and other classes every year; that way, as the kids achieve a variety of milestones over the coming years, they will have an ever-widening network of deep, trusting relationships. Building this network is, in some ways, more important than the clubhouse they are constructing.
I didn’t know it when we started out, but Maker Mondays is our cornerstone for building close homeschool friendships in our new town. It is a unique event that brings together rural and urban backgrounds in an unstructured, playful environment. What we have in our yard is a lot of space and freedom, and we are willing to share it. What we did not have before Maker Mondays was a high number of kids with whom we could play and learn. By sharing what we have, we gained what we were seeking.
Want to do a trial run with a Mini-Maker Session?
One quick and easy way to get started is to order a Tinker Crate from the shop at tinker.kiwicrate.com. The online store can be perused for a “lesson in a box” in an area of interest. There are also Doodle Crates, Kiwi Crates, and Koala Crates for a wider range of ages and interests.
My kids love these products and have greatly enjoyed the background and educational materials included in their boxes. Each box is a hands-on building lesson of some sort combined with a newsletter full of background information. The “Hydraulic Claw” and “Zoetrope” were Tinker Crate favorites and the “Stamping” and “Bookbinding” were Doodle Crate favorites.
Coordinate an order with friends or just let your kiddos give it a shot. Either way it is a great way to dip your toe in the water for your first Maker event. No stress or planning required!
Creating a New, Out-of-the-Box Event
Getting started with any event is as easy as defining your goals and what success looks like for you and your event.
- Is this an immediate-family-only event? Just a few special friends? Something to do with a homeschool co-op? A way of building relationships with new homeschool (or non-homeschool) friends you meet in the park?
- Will your event be planned and guided by an adult, will it be 100 percent child-driven, or will it exist in some middle ground between these two frameworks? How will you set boundaries, expectations, and responsibilities? Who will be your sounding board (for me, it was other moms in the group and my spouse) when you need to talk through a challenge? You are doing something that doesn’t have an easy curriculum or book to reference, so having a plan in mind and a team for feedback is invaluable!
- Will you arrange for knowledgeable older kids or adults to assist participants? Will you provide resources (as simple as an internet search engine) for research and skill building?
- What is your heart’s desire for the kids to learn from their time together? What are your highest priorities? Is it about the details of how a hydraulic jack works? Is it problem-solving? Is it social awareness for handling disagreements among teammates? Is it perseverance? Think through your desires for your child and your priorities for hosting.
- If you put your most valuable resources (time, in particular) toward creating and hosting anything, make sure to first take a few minutes to envision success and joy. Know in your heart what you want it to look like. You might even take the time to make a list of measures for success.
Knowing your desired outcome will create a target toward which you can consistently direct decisions and activities. This should, in turn, help you achieve it more efficiently. When you see the learning and joy on the kids’ faces combined with pride of ownership and especially the desire to continue during the summertime, you know you have hit the sweet spot of epic homeschooling.
About the Author
Kati Hornung and her husband, Andrew, homeschool their girls through a variety of adventures, experiments, research, and mistakes-turned-opportunities.
Originally published in the November-December 2015 VaHomeschoolers Voice.
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