Inside MakerKids, a workshop space in Toronto's west end, children are presented with what's called the Possibility Wall. The shelves on the wall are filled with bins of just about anything a child might think to create with – motors, gears, crayons, glitter, electrical tape, scissors and even power drills. There's also a 3-D printer and soldering guns in the space, along with several tables and computers.
From this, kids are free to create whatever their imaginations come up with.
"The light turns on when they realize it's anything that they want to do," says Andy Forest, a Web developer who co-founded MakerKids with his wife, a planetary scientist.
Since the space opened in April, 2012, it has seen a steady stream of kids age three and up keen to attend "open shop" nights where kids are free to work on anything they want, and attend a range of classes that include inventing, programming and robotics. Children also regularly attend the workshop's open space events, where toy hacking – taking a toy and redesigning it into something entirely new – is especially popular, as is making things on the 3-D printer and working with Arduinos, programmable circuit boards.
The maker movement is on the cusp of mainstream recognition. Christened in 2006, makers represent a do-it-yourself culture informed by a hacker ethos that often has a strong tech element. It includes everything from robotics, 3-D printing and electronics to traditional arts and crafts. Maker Faires that attract thousands of visitors are cropping up all over the world, including several in Canada. And maker spaces are also sprouting up in Canada, where kids can develop a passion for science and technology.
The cost of open nights at MakerKids is on a pay-what-you-can basis, with a suggested donation of $20, plus materials. Other maker spaces for kids offer classes that stretch over months and cost $150.
These classes are perhaps the latest example of how the way children play is changing. While kids have long tinkered in the garage with a parent, maker spaces provide kids with the chance to explore science, technology and engineering in a more formalized way.
"For kids, you can get all sorts of other activities, like arts, dance, music, sports, starting at a very early age. But it's odd that there's no supplemental fun things to do in science and engineering," says Henry Houh, a self-described "geek engineering-type dad" who launched workshop space in Burlington, Mass., in December, 2012.
Sandy Beaman, manager of Victoria Island Technology Park, the new home of the Victoria Makerspace, says that developing an interest in science and engineering will help inspire kids to pursue careers in these fields, not to mention give them a leg up on peers when they finally begin taking classes.
The Edmonton Public Library launched a maker space last month. It features a green screen and computers loaded with things such as game-creation software and 3-D modelling software. It also has two 3-D printers and a machine that allows you to make a fully formed book.
"Our maker space is very focused on the digital," says Pam Ryan, the library's director of collections and technology. "Anything around learning to be a digital citizen, to participate in the digital environment, is really key right now."
The Ottawa Public Library has plans to open a maker space next March. "Learning is changing," says Danielle McDonald, CEO of the Ottawa Public Library. "It's how young people want to learn. They don't want to sit in a classroom and have it taught to them. They want to create."
Jason Nolan, an associate professor at the school of early-childhood education at Toronto's Ryerson University, says that, "In terms of maker culture, laser cutters, 3-D scanners and 3-D printers, Arduino circuits and DIY robotics are great ways of extending a child's interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] beyond what they've done on their own at home. However, there must always be an intrinsic interest on which to build."
"It is a way to shape, if not create, the culture we live in," says Dale Dougherty, founder of Maker Media, a company based in Sebastopol, Calif. He coined the term maker in 2006; it appealed because it was broad enough to include a wide array of pursuits.
At Toronto's MakerKids, recent projects have included an underwater robot and one seven-year-old girl's remote-controlled teddy bear, which she learned to use a soldering gun to make.
Monica Peschmann drives her nine-year-old son Patrick Burns across town so he can attend MakerKids. On a recent Friday evening, he was busy working on a security system to keep his sister out of his room. It would be made from a television remote taken from home – with mom's permission, of course – and taken apart.
"I wanted the infrared LED," Patrick explained. The system would also include a pressure plate for outside his door, which would trigger an alarm if his sister stood on it.
The space's ambition, says Jennifer Turliuk, MakerKids's co-executive director, is to show kids a way of thinking about themselves and the way they relate to the world.
"You think of the world a different way when you know you can fix it," she says.