Call it an industrial evolution. As the maker movement outgrows the garage and shifts into popular culture, anyone with an internet connection can click into a world full of creative possibilities. That includes kids, some of whom can code, craft, and build with the best of us by elementary school.
A slew of websites, fairs, and maker’s guilds are available to introduce kids to the basics of design and engineering, and tech-savvy parents often bring their children into the fold by starting with small projects. Experimental schools, such as the Tinkering School or Brightworks Academy in San Francisco, are also tailoring their curricula towards hands-on skills aimed specifically at boosting fluency in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math).
But you don’t need a formal program or DIY-fluency to empower your kid to chase their creativity. All they need are some interesting tools, a little guidance, and the space to pursue their passions. For the parents of some kids, like Alonzo King, 12, that means letting him tear apart cassette players and see what he can build out of the parts. For others, like the parents of Miles Hacker (yes, that’s his real name), 10, that means waking up to a living-room-sized spider web that their son made from a roll of tape.
The secret sauce is time and space to let kids get creative: “A lot of boredism,” says Annabelle Armstrong-Temple, 8.
“I think there’s way too much emphasis put on career path instead of a child’s happiness right in the moment when they’re forming their identity,” says Samantha Cook, the founder of Curiosity Hacked, a non-profit youth program that teaches applied skills in STEAM and creative innovation. “I always get this gasp of shock when I say that I don’t care what they grow up to be. Because I don’t. They will figure that out. That’s not my responsibility. My responsibility is to help create who they want to be right now.”
So we interviewed 10 kids who make, craft, code, build, tinker, and hack, and got them to talk about what gets them to geek out. We also asked them how parents can encourage their own kids to chase their creativity. “Be open,” says Simon Scheuer, 10. “Don’t let them do something really dangerous, but if maybe they just see something cool that somebody is giving away, and they want to do something with it, you could let them do something. Just be open.”
Here, 10 creative kids share their passion projects, plus their advice for other kids (and their parents) interested in getting their hands dirty.
Name: Enzo Ruberto
City: Albany, Calif.
Why create: I just kind of love doing it. When I make something, I play with it for a little, and I like playing with it, but I like building it more. And then a lot of times I just try to think of something else to make with it. I’m always asking people what they think I should make, because I don’t know what to make all the time.
On your workbench: A coin dispenser. The hardest part of that was figuring out how to only dispense one coin at a time, and not two.
Earliest project: It was a flashlight made out of a tin can. I had a new flashlight, but I made a one with a tin can, and I had to learn how to wire the light bulb to the battery to the switch. I really like making circuits.
How your parents helped: My dad would bring home old computers that he’d see on the street for free, and he’d let us take them apart and look at the parts, and I just got into making circuits that way. Also, whenever I was at a hardware store or something, and I saw something that I liked, he’d say, “Oh, okay. We can get that.”
Coolest thing you’ve made: Once I made a car that runs on a hydrogen fuel cell and it turns water and electricity into oxygen and hydrogen, then back into water and electricity.
Real-life dream gig: Some sort of engineer…an electrical engineer. Just someone who can build or fix things.
Advice, kid to kid: If you’re dirty, you had fun.
Name: Katie Bravmann
City: Oakland, Calif.
On your workbench: A circuit board. You can connect things to make them light up, make them spin, or there are little buttons you can press. And I like to draw things with code. I started learning Python from my dad, and using it to draw. There are these cool spiral things that I make.
Best thing about coding: It’s cool how you can run the program on here, on the computer, then it will show up there after you’ve done the circuit.
Hardest part of coding: If there are errors, you don’t really know how to fix them—it will just show what line it’s on, that’s it. So you have to figure out what you did wrong. Like did I miss a semicolon or something?
How your parents helped: I really like drawing, because my mom’s an artist. But my dad gets me into the technology things. He got me the Arduino circuit board for my birthday. I didn’t really ask for it, but he knew that I liked math and stuff, and he thought I might like programming. It’s fun.
Pay it forward: I encourage my brother and sister by helping them learn Scratch. My little brother Yossi was in a Scratch-programming class that I taught for little kids as a donation to our synagogue. I made games with them. They were really little, like kindergartners. Some of them made small maze games. It wasn’t that hard, but it was kind of hard for me because it was a big class—I split it into two classes to give some kids more attention.
Advice, parent to parent: Says Ken Bravmann, “Spend time with your kids working on projects that excite both you and your child, because that will do more than anything to get your child excited. Reassure them that this is cool and fun, regardless of whether they see others like them (girls, for example) doing it.”
Says Melony Bravmann, “For girls in particular, they don’t need special, expensive, girl-marketed technologies, tools, or supplies to get interested. We made sure all of our kids have regular, inexpensive stuff around them to create and explore—they really just want to make things with you.”
Name: Alonzo King
City: Berkeley, Calif.
Specialty: Squibbing. It’s looking for stuff on the on the side of the road that’s useful. We do it every time we get a chance.
Why create: This is the time I have. I play Minecraft all the time. I guess it keeps my energetic self going. And I usually do model aircraft stuff. I made a little snap-together B-17.
Earliest project: When I was pretty young, I started destroying stuff. Every time anybody gave me something, I would just destroy it in an instant. Everybody would get mad, but my mom would always say, “He’s a maker, he will do that.”
Mom’s take: The way he looked at things, even from the time he was really little, made me know he was going to be an engineer. He was just always trying to figure stuff out. I would let him tear apart radios, cassette players—any electronic equipment we had around the house, I would let him tear it apart. We make and create things all the time, and he’s genuinely part of that process. We encouraged the skills of being able to hold a screwdriver, or being able to create a concept or plan that is really useful in the world.
Dream project: An aircraft-slash-boat-slash-car that would transform by the touch of a button.
Real-life dream gig: Pilot. Easy question.
Name: Scott Hickmann
City: San Francisco, Calif.
Earliest projects: Maybe two and a half years ago: First, I got my Mindstorm NXTs, and I started building stuff and programming LEGO machines. And then I started programming games with Scratch instead of programming LEGOs.
Best thing about coding: I code robots with Robotc, games with C# and Java script, and web pages with html. I like to create new worlds. And I was always fascinated by new technology.
Creative Inspiration: I get inspiration from existing games like Minecraft. I go to Maker Faire and watch YouTube videos and tutorials on Unity 3D’s website. There’s also a teacher at school who teaches code. He makes the programs a little bit harder each time, and teaches us new scripts each time.
Real-life dream gig: I want to be an electrical engineer or a programmer. I’m not sure yet.
How your parents helped: They helped me to learn to program the script. I also have friends who are programming with me.
Dad’s take: Says Sam Hickmann, “Scott likes gears, mechanisms, machines, LEGOs—he loves to build. On the other hand, he likes what’s magic—secret codes, puzzles, and board games. When I bought him NXTs and gave to him my old computer, everything clicked. All the stuff he liked seem to be united in this one package. That’s how he started to code. To give life to the machine he was building using LEGOs.”
Names: June Murray (left) with sister Eve Murray.
Ages: 8 and 6
City: Berkeley, Calif.
Specialty: I like to sew. I like to create paper dolls—that’s what I’m doing right now. And I like to paste and glue and stuff like that.
On your workbench: A cipher. It’s basically a decoder and a coder. So you make a word by like turning it, then you can decode the message by writing down the letters that are above or below it and making those letters spell a word.
Best part of the project: Being able to make codes for Eve and my parents to decode, and decoding messages that Eve makes.
How your parents helped: Mommy and daddy like to give me projects. Mommy gave me this huge sewing project that took a long time. And my grandma gives me sewing projects that I like to work on, and lots of books.
Advice, kid to parent: Give them patterns, give them books on crafts and origami and sewing and materials. Give them crafts that they can do for a long time for their birthday or for Christmas.
Name: Miles Hacker
City: El Cerrito, Calif.
On your workbench: This is my paper city, Llamaville. One day I was bored and thinking about vacations, and that got me thinking about hotels. I saw some cardboard, tape, and scissors. I liked the way it came out, so I decided to make more types of buildings.
How your parents helped: It seems like whenever I’m bored or something, the first thing my dad says to me is, “Go make something.” When they liked what I was doing, they supplied more cardstock, and they gave me lots of compliments whenever I finished a building.
Creative Inspiration: There’s a making social network called DIY that I’m on. It’s kind of like a good way to get your kids into it because it’s a social network, but it also encourages kids to make stuff, because you earn virtual badges for doing maker projects.
Mom’s take: Says Amy Hacker, “From the time he was a toddler. He would spend hours setting up little animals all in a row in the house, and they would snake around the tables and the chair legs. Once he took a whole roll of tape and surprised us by making a whole spider web in the living room. We thought it was hilarious and interesting. We figured, he’s got this idea—let’s see what it looks like.”
Says Amy Hacker, “Every kid is different. Miles was never keen on camps and organized things like that. And he always had a really avid imagination. It just worked for us to let him stay home and have his down time to figure out by himself what he wants to do. But I think a way you can encourage that is by not over-scheduling. When he was very young, I gave him zones where he could do whatever he wanted—like drawers in the kitchen that were his, and he could take everything out.”
Name: Lucy Anderson
City: Berkeley, Calif.
Coolest project: A robot named ROBY. Made from an old wheelchair and some other stuff—a stereo speaker for the head, LED lights for nose and mouth, tape deck for motors, part of a tricycle wheel for the neck, plywood.
What ROBY does: Robots don’t have chromosomes. So no gender, but we usually refer to her as a she. We can ride her around the garage, use her to charge our iPod and play music. We can re-wire her “brain” to change her eye color and turn on other lights on her face and body.
Family affair: Dad bought a second hand motorized wheelchair on Craigslist, and we all decided to build a robot. My sister Julia (age 5) named her ROBY—she also named HUJIM2, the other robot, after randomly placing sticker letters on it.
Hardest part of making ROBY: Learning to drive and steer the robot after Dad turned up the top speed on the wheelchair.
How your parents helped: Both Dad and Mom help me find the things, and Dad helps me build onto them, and turn them into things. For ROBY, Dad helped set up a robot brain with a circuit breadboard and helped with the battery power. My dad is a science nerd and loves this stuff. He is silly and makes playing with robots fun.
Advice, kid to kid: Use your imagination.
Name: Simon Scheuer
City: San Rafael, Calif.
On your workbench: His name is Phil Phlegem. He is a cardboard person that I made out of cardboard boxes and a hot glue gun.
Creative inspiration: I like making big figures, and we had cardboard.
Favorite Project: My favorite thing I made was a painting—but it was really, really, really, really big. It was humongous. It was for my dad’s close friends. They were getting married, and they wanted to have me make an octopus marrying a monkey. The octopus is in the water, and the monkey’s hanging down from the branch. I really, really liked it. It was a really cool one.
Why create? I don’t know. Well, my dad really likes the more mechanically stuff, and my mom makes paintings and stuff, and it was just a really nice environment for me to make in. We have an art room, and we save a lot of recycling and extra stuff, like buttons, cloth, old machine parts.
How your parents helped: Well, they’re really just completely open to me doing random things. Like, they let me dig the giant hole in our back yard. I wanted to build an underground bunker, but the rock got really hard. I really wish I had one of those giant scooping machines. They don’t stop me, and they save stuff they think I might like to build with.
Advice, kid to parent: Be open. Don’t let them do something really dangerous, but if maybe they just see something cool that somebody is giving away, and they want to do something with it, you could let them do something. Just be open.
Names: Tallulah (left) and Annabelle (right) Armstrong-Temple
Age: 8. Tallulah: I’m older by 2 minutes.
City: Oakland, Calif.
Specialties: Tallulah: Recycled art, clay, laser cuttings, sawing, painting, stories, sketches and growing plants. We are going to make a Harry Potter wand for our cousin. Annabelle: I really like to do sketching and writing to make stories to make one big book. I love doing clay and doing things with my hands. I like thinking of things in my brain and making them happen. I love to plant. Right now we are growing green beans and pumpkins and lemon cucumbers and lettuce.
Best part of making: Tallulah: All of it. I like to have things in my mind that come out into the world. Annabelle: And I love doing experiments.
On your workbench: Tallulah: A dog made out of a tea box, a lemonade carton and duct tape and paper. A horse that I made at Kids ‘N’ Clay class. A lamp and a lantern that I made at Curiosity Hacked.
Creative inspiration: Annabelle: A lot of boredism, but also it just seems to flow out.
How your parents helped: Tallulah: Daddy goes to Curiosity Hacked with us. Mommy and Daddy drive us to classes, and Mommy does a camp called Dance out Loud that we go to and do projects at. Annabelle: Lots of ways, but especially with bringing us to classes that sometimes we think we won’t like, but then actually we really really like them.
Advice, kid to parent: Probably never give up.
Mom’s Take: Says Nanci Armstrong-Temple, “Too many kids don’t get to be bored, and therefore too many kids don’t get to that state of ‘boredism’ that promotes creativity. Annabelle made up that word. It’s a state that I try to help them cultivate.”
Name: Donald Denton Bishop Aingworth the fourth. And I am the editor in chief and publisher of The Lunar Deadline.
Wow. Just call me Denton
Age: 10 years, 11 months, and 1 day
So, almost 11: Yes, on July 15th. Haven’t you already calculated that?
City: San Francisco, Calif.
On your workbench: I make Scratch programs and I’ve started programming in Python. I also programmed and wrote a newspaper called The Lunar Deadline. That began with a book called The Candy Smash, where in the book a fourth grader, who aced every test, made a newspaper. I thought that if a fourth grader could write a newspaper, a fifth grader could.
Hardest part of programming: The hardest part of programming and writing a newspaper was thinking—which was also the easiest part. I had to know what to do when and I had to change the project a lot to make it work well.
Earliest projects: My father told me about Scratch. He heard about it from this kid at school’s father. I did the original Scratch, Scratch 1.4. I like how many combinations you can do and what it does. What each combination does.
Real-life dream gig: I’m not really sure—I’d really like to be someone who does a lot of technology. A technist.
How your parents helped: They took me to Greece, L.A., and everywhere pictured in the projects I made—except the non-existent Skylands. They also helped me format the newspaper and proofread it.
Advice, kid to parent: I’d suggest that they don’t rush them. They’ll figure it out on their own.