This exhibit was designed with the end goal, or as they called it, a Big Idea, in mind.
The Tinkering Lab is not a place for standardized tests, grades, or requirements beyond being curious and active. I mean, how often do you see a sign like this in a classroom?
Katie Slivovsky, the Exhibit Development Director, explained to me that instead of asking scientists, entrepreneurs, and makers what they thoughts kids needed to learn to be better prepared to become tomorrow's innovators and STEM researchers, they asked scientists how they had spent time as kids. (Reminds me of my When Geeks Grow Up series. It's also why I love when The Maker Tween does stuff like this.)
In addition to basic hand tools, they provide a variety of power tools at the supervised tool bar. This area is cordoned off for safety and will always be staffed and supervised. Depending on the age, maturity level and experience of a guest, the staff person will teach, assist and supervise as needed. At the media preview day, I saw a boy who looked to be about 6 or 7, get comfy with a cordless drill after a brief orientation. He was closely supervised by his mother, but doing a fine job on his own.
While the young boy was drilling and sawing, a group of adolescents was busy with hammers, saws and screwdrivers working on their own build/destroy projects.
I'd let a scene like this play out in my basement makerspace or garage, but I, though exhilarated by the sight, was surprised to see it take place in such a public setting...no liability waivers required.
The museum staff are prepared for a few splinters, banged fingers and small cuts. They know there are inherent risks involved, and they will do their best to prevent them (i.e. see the part above on power tools). A museum exhibit with a bit of risk? I love it!
I think one of the biggest things that keeps schools from getting involved in really cool and exciting maker activities is fear of someone getting hurt. Personally, I think the risk factor helps build responsibility, forces kids to pay attention in the way nagging adults cannot, and frankly adds excitement to the tinkering process.
That said, after taking a good look around and noticing a box of plastic zip ties, I did share a brief, cautionary tale about the time (just a month or so ago) when The Maker Tween put a one-way zip tie around his finger and I almost had to rush him to the ER to get it cut off, (but it made that evening's VEX practice so memorable....).
Among the many things I enjoy about this exhibit is that it engages an older crowd. Tweens often feel they've outgrown Children's Museums, but on my Tinkering Lab tour I saw kids from 3 to thirteen getting busy. I should mentioned that there's a tot space at one end of the lab. This space gives little ones room to explore while their old siblings nail, drill and saw a few yards away.
Once upon a time, an exhibit like this would have seemed silly, but as basement workshops give way to home theaters and luxe mancaves and technology replaces tools, I think Chicago Children's Museum is doing a great service to area youth by exposing to tools and empowering them to create.
Members may also purchase a parking pass for an additional $80 that provides free parking at Navy Pier. That would have been worth it for us back in the day.
Want more tinkering for your kids? Check out Tinkering School Chicago.
Watch Tinkering School founder Gever Tulley's TED talk about kids and risky activity. Read my 2011 review of Tulley's book, 50 Dangerous Things (your should let your child do).
Visit the blog here (link coming soon!) to win a family pass (up to four people) to Chicago Children's Museum.
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