What does a successful maker space in a children’s museum looks like? Interview with Dr. Michael Hanchett Hanson

“Maker Spaces” are currently in vogue: they are now a fairly standard component of children’s museums, and many art museums have drop-in spaces for children and families to create art during their visit. Schools and libraries are interested in maker spaces as well.

As with any other exhibit, a maker space is not inherently successful. Its construction and facilitation must be carefully aligned with clear goals. A number of museum professionals are now looking closely at maker spaces, notably the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh: see, for example, this book chapter by Lisa Brahms from CM Pittsburgh with Kevin Crowley of the University of Pittsburgh.

I interviewed Michael Hanchett Hanson about maker spaces because of his expertise in fostering creativity in educational spaces. Dr. Hanchett Hanson is a psychologist who studies creativity from systems perspectives – how new ideas are integrated into people’s points of view and into social groups. In particular, he has done a great deal of research and writing about educational systems, and he directs the Masters Concentration in Creativity and Development at Teachers College, Columbia University.

What are your thoughts on maker spaces?

Education always presents a tension between acculturation through teaching about the world and learner-directed activities to learn through exploration and discovery. Acculturation is the way you learn to be social, the way you learn about how your society conceives and uses art, literature, science, technology. You don’t learn about computer science or physics by making them up yourself – many people have been working in these fields for a long time. But giving the individual learner space to explore on his or her own is also important. What excites a student? What are students’ questions? What perspective is the student taking? What new ideas are emerging?

To these ends educators use a mix of didactic teaching, student-directed activities, and scaffolding (helping students with activities that they could not do without some assistance). Maker spaces obviously focus on student-directed learning and scaffolding, although there are often some short didactic lessons as well. Maker spaces are difficult to facilitate because scaffolding is very important to the context, but also subtle and improvised. It is harder to plan than in other educational contexts.

Facilitators need to be in touch with the children’s perspectives from minute-to-minute – what they want to do, and why they want to do it. Then the facilitator has to be nuanced at helping the children take what they are doing and thinking to the next level of learning. It’s hard. The skill as well as luck of the facilitator have a lot to do with what happens.

In school-based maker spaces we see a lot of social-emotional learning. When students are working in these kinds of groups they tend to take up a variety of roles, and they have to resolve conflict. There can be a lot of role fluidity – the leader in one session may be the researcher in another and the assistant in another – or people can get stuck in roles. This can turn out well or badly according to the project, the facilitator, and the students involved. (See an interesting discussion of this in Edward Clapp’s Participatory Creativity: Introducing Access and Equity to the Creative Classroom, 2017.)

If maker spaces are well-facilitated and well thought out, participants can learn a lot. You can set up a space to inspire learning about mechanics and math and geometry and physics. Students can learn about art, construction, electronics and basic programming. Even robotics. But you can also end up with an environment that looks different than a traditional educational situation but has the same – or worse – outcome: a few of the students learn a lot, and the others don’t learn very much.

In a museum maker space you only have the participants for a short time, maybe a few hours. Museums have a few distinct opportunities that we do not see in school-based programs. First, the kinds of materials appropriate to museums can be different than those often used in schools. Also, museums may facilitate not just children’s learning, but parents’s learning as well. Children’s museums can teach parents indirectly how to scaffold and participate in play with their children by modeling those kinds of adult-child interactions. Not all parents are good at that. As a psychologist I have become aware that it is hard even for me to get into children’s worlds.

What does good training for maker space facilitators look like?

There are some useful typologies to think about. Typologies help people categorize ways of behavior so that they can start thinking about them. For example, White (2012) presented four levels of participation that adults can take with children in museum play spaces: onlooker, stage manager, co-player and play leader. These are not so different than what we would see in a single-session maker space.

If I were developing a training program, I would do a lot of videotaping and have facilitators watch videos of their own work with the children. Ask, where is the child’s interest? What does the child seem to want to do? Facilitators need to listen to what the child says AND what they do, because some children are not so verbal. After all, even adult artists can have difficulty talking about their work.

The goal here is to help facilitators be more attuned and flexible, not more self-conscious or script-based. I was recently reading over transcripts from facilitators working with children and building blocks, and noticing that it’s hard to get away from a script as a facilitator. And children are really attuned to that.

I would also have the facilitators themselves making – a lot. Their head space needs to be very in tune with the children’s experiences.

In the short time that children visit a museum maker space, how do you understand and balance the tension between teaching skills and fostering creativity?

That’s the big challenge, right? First, what do you do? Then, how do you know when you have succeeded? In other words, how do you evaluate?

I’m known for telling teachers to think in paragraphs, rather than sentences, when it comes to creativity. “Creativty” can mean different things in different contexts. Don’t just say that you want for the children to become more creative. Instead, define what specific skills, behaviors, insights and relationships you can facilitate in the space and think about how those relate to the participants’ development of new points of view, that is, their creativity. In this way, the construct of creativity provides a larger frame for you to consider. For example, confidence in exploration of materials might not be considered a learning outcome outside of the frame of creativity. Within the frame of creativity there may some kind of instruction on how to use materials but with less emphasis on using materials a particular way and more attention to recognizing unexpected uses of the materials than there would be without considering creative development.

So we’re back to the central importance of evaluation – my point about thinking in paragraphs. What are the immediate behaviors we are looking for and how do those then relate to bigger ideas like creativity or confidence? When I work with organizations on this kind of curriculum issue, I do not start top-down, dictating a big picture in the abstract. Instead, start where you are, if possible, using videotapes. What do we see happening here? What are the patterns? What didn’t work, what do we mean by “not working,” and why do we think it didn’t? Study what happens in the space, how different children are interacting, how they interact with the facilitator and parents in the space. This will lead to clear pictures of what we want to see more often and what we want to see less, which we can then relate to bigger outcome goals. The process that leads to this emergent vision can also lead to a series of hypotheses that you can test in the space. What if we did this… What if the children worked in smaller groups? What if they had more choices of activities? What if they had less?

Getting back to the question of training, including facilitators in this research process is also great training. It makes the facilitators stakeholders in the process while giving them perspective on what they are doing. And, at first, you don’t have to watch every minute of every session. Just a little time with videotapes can lead to hypotheses and facilitator motivation. (Once you are confident of your goals and processes and want to verify your efficacy, you can apply more rigorous research methods.)

Let’s assume for a moment the goal of a children’s museum maker space is to empower the child. How do you achieve that? Are there materials or processes that work best?

You can work with any materials, but be sure the produce something meaningful to the child’s world. Artifacts are powerful conveyers of ability. Making things is a key way that we humans show each other what we can do. If you want children to feel enabled to change their world, you need to help them do something that they recognize from that world – I made a box! I made a robot!

Then – and I hate to be one-note here – you’re back to using your evaluation-curriculum design process with the videotapes to think about what children are coming to your space and what empowerment looks like for them in the work they do there. For example, in some contexts, children from marginalized groups may be less likely to want to jump in and do things. Then there are personality issues. Some children are more timid and some more bold. There has been research from a few theoretical positions about exploratory behaviors in children. Some of that research has suggested that when you put two children who are timid explorers together, you get more exploratory behavior than when you pair a confident child with a more timid one. Also, in some situations, the timid children profit more from adult scaffolding than the bolder ones (Henderson, 1984, 1984a).

It seems to me that museums will probably want to get the children who are most reticent to start making and unmaking and doing – we want to get those children to take that leap and get that confidence. That’s where you can accomplish a lot, even when you just have children for two hours. The ones who just jump in and do it are going to learn something anyway. Even with maker spaces, then, the biggest issue museums face is the question of who you get into the room.


Clapp, E. P. (2017). Participatory creativity: Introducing access and equity to the creative classroom. New York: Routledge.

Henderson, B. B, (1984). Parents and exploration: The effect of context on individual differences in exploratory behavior. Child Development, 55(4), 1237-1245.

Henderson, B. B. (1984a). Social support and exploration. Child Development, 55(4), 1246-1251.

White, R. E. (2012). The power of play: A research summary on play and learning. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Children’s Museum. http://www.childrensmuseums.org/images/MCMResearchSummary.pdf


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