Columns, Commentary, Imagine That

Building from the imagination

Laura Mann

I remember when the playhouse went up in our backyard. It looked monstrous to me; in reality, the wooden structure, constructed atop a platform with a sandbox in the space beneath it and a swing set alongside, barely topped ten feet. Dad and Grandpa built it out of sturdy beams and two-by-fours. Store-bought playhouses of a similar size were expensive; my brothers and I were lucky to have a dad and grandpa who could build us one of our own.

Fast forward a few decades, and we are in the midst of a recession. Parents must often forego expensive toys, like backyard playhouses, in favor of paying mortgages and credit card bills. Wouldn’t it be great if we were all able to build such stuff ourselves? Being able to make the things we want takes weight off our wallets, and is way better than buying something made in a factory overseas.

Enter the Maker Movement, which is a loosely-knit group of folks with one thing in common: They like making stuff themselves, and they want to share their know-how with the world.

Tinkering is like a workout for a young person’s creativity.

In past years, Makers would have been called tinkerers, crafters, or hobbyists — the guy you knew with a bunch of tools, who liked to work on cars, or the grandmother who was a whiz on the sewing machine. These days, crafters and hobbyists have tons of resources available via the Internet. The sharing of ideas and innovation between individuals is one of the main differences between modern Makers and the hobbyists of the past.

Another difference is that today’s Makers are able to sell their creations on sites like Etsy. In uncertain economic times, the individual’s ability to monetize hobbies and talents is important.

Reversing the trends of the Industrial Age

Wired’s Chris Anderson claims that the Maker Movement marks the beginning of a new industrial revolution. In the last industrial revolution, everything expanded to large scale — manufacturing or “making” moved into huge factories. The Maker Movement is doing the reverse — bringing manufacturing out of factories and back into homes and communities where it started.

Now that the design ideas are available to all via the Internet, the next step is democratizing the technology necessary to actually craft the products. Community organizations with access to large workspaces and expensive machines have accelerated this step. TechSpace, which began in San Francisco and now has locations around the country, functions much like your local gym, but with band saws instead of elliptical machines. Members pay a monthly fee to use the workspace and machinery; they can also take classes on how to use the machines or make projects.

Making stuff is a fantastic way for both parents and kids to exercise the brain’s creative potential. Tinkering is like a workout for a young person’s creativity: In order to successfully complete a project, children have to adjust their thinking within the limits provided by the project’s goal, and must solve problems in order to attain the desired outcome.

TechSpace, which began in San Francisco and now has locations around the country, functions much like your local gym, but with band saws instead of elliptical machines.

Finding out what kind of tinkering might pique your child’s interest is easy. Does your teen show an interest in clothing? Perhaps they’d like to try sewing or tee-shirt screen printing as a hobby. Pixar exec Tony DeRose helped his video gaming trigger-happy sons build a potato gun that functioned much like a Gatling gun. Parental supervision may be necessary, and not just for safety but to help keep the creativity flowing.

The best way to become part of the Maker Movement is to simply search the Internet. What do you and your kids want to make? A great place to begin for kids and adults in the Twin Cities is a site called Leonardo’s Basement, www.leonardosbasement.org.

Be prepared to try and fail; perseverance and working around problems are exercises for your “imagination muscle.” With a little elbow grease and a lot of creative muscle, not only can you imagine it, you can build it, too.

Imagine That!

Laura Mann recently graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. Her father Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura. The father and daughter collaborate on “Imagine That!”

© Michael Mann, 2012, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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