Have you thought about creating a makerspace to foster STEM learning in your homeschool? With the increasing emphasis placed on STEM education, many educators in both school and home settings are using makerspaces to enrich learning. Whether you’re just hearing about makerspaces for the first time or you’re seriously deliberating over whether to construct one for your homeschool, I’ll be answering questions you may have about using makerspaces in a homeschool setting.

This is Part One of a Two Part series. In this article, Maggie shares a few ideas for STEM-focused experiences in your makerspace. In Part Two of this series, she shares some ideas for using your makerspace to explore history and language arts.

What is a makerspace?

The simple definition of a makerspace is a space dedicated to making. It usually consists of loose parts, some system of organization for storing the loose parts, and a work area for tinkering with the loose parts. The loose parts of a makerspace might be craft-type supplies (sometimes called a fabrication laboratory or “fab lab”), technology components for creating stop motion animation or electronics, or some combination of all of the above. Whatever components you choose, the big idea behind makerspaces is letting kids tinker, problem solve, experiment, and hone their STEM skills. The job of an educator in a makerspace isn’t to provide step-by-step directions, but to provide a challenge that kids tackle independently, with hints and guidance provided if needed.

Makerspace projects are the perfect complement to any of the topics in the REAL Science Odyssey series. Kids can demonstrate their understanding of everything from a plant cell to the layers of the Earth to the stages in the life of a star by being challenged to create a model. Kids can also show off what they’ve learned by producing a creation that capitalizes on physics. Understanding buoyancy might be enhanced by a challenge to build a boat that can float under the weight of 20 pennies. Understanding simple machines could be enhanced by being challenged to build something that uses a class 2 lever.

While makerspaces are certainly a byproduct of the STEM education movement, their use isn’t limited strictly to science, technology, engineering, and math. Makerspaces have great applications across all fields of study, including language arts, visual arts, and history. In Part Two of this series, I share how to use makerspaces in your homeschool’s history study.

Why should I consider creating a makerspace for our homeschool?

We homeschoolers often talk about the importance of providing “hands-on” experiences for our kids. Well, makerspaces provide the ultimate hands-on learning experience. Makerspaces give kids opportunities to experiment with ideas, encourage deeper thinking about a topic, and let kids show what they know beyond the limitations of adult ideas or expectations. Almost inevitably, when my kids complete a makerspace project, I’m left thinking, “Huh, I didn’t think about it from that angle.”

One of the things I love most about turning my kids loose in a makerspace is that I get to see them achieve “flow,” the term for a mental state of intense focus and engagement. Flow is that magical thing that’s happening when you’re enjoying your work so much that you lose track of time and feel yourself totally immersed in the experience of what you’re doing. I want to help my kids chase down that flow experience as much as I can in their learning career.

You’ve also probably heard about the importance of multi-sensory learning. Research shows that engaging as many senses as possible in the learning process results in better learning outcomes. Working in a makerspace creates rich memories of sight, sound, and touch experiences that will last for the long term.

Who can benefit from a makerspace?

Kids of all ages, abilities, and interests can thrive in a makerspace. Certainly, all kids will enjoy and grow from tinkering in a makerspace. If you have a reluctant learner in your homeschool, I’d especially like to encourage you to give a makerspace a try. The very practical, hands-on, exploratory nature of makerspace learning meets every learner right where he or she is and lets the child explore just the right level of challenge that he or she chooses.

Where can a makerspace fit into my home?

A makerspace can be stored on a few shelves on a bookshelf or on a small cart. It can also take up an entire room. The amount of space you choose to dedicate to your makerspace is entirely up to you.

It’s also worth talking about one very practical aspect of homeschool makerspaces here – the mess. Given the very many odds and ends that comprise a makerspace, it’s easy for a makerspace area to get out of control quickly. Please don’t let this deter you from the idea, though. Creating routines will make the mess manageable.

At my house, our makerspace is located in the basement. I don’t spend much time in the basement on a daily basis, so having the makerspace out of sight is both a good and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because the kids can create whenever they have free time without getting in the way of whatever work I’m doing in the kitchen or interfering with any one-on-one work I might be doing with another child in our other school area. It’s a bad thing because, being out of sight, it would be easy to forget about the growing mess the kids are making without direct supervision.

Routine keeps it clean

I won’t tell you that our makerspace is always in pristine or even guest-worthy condition, but it does stay manageable with the help of a few routines. When I need to call the kids to come upstairs, I remind them to clean up whatever they’ve been working on first, and I try to mentally allot a few minutes to that cleanup rather than waiting until we have to be out the door immediately. We also include a makerspace check as part of our pre-bedtime cleanup routine. Finally, when it’s allowance payday, nobody gets paid until bedrooms and the makerspace are tidy.

When should we use our makerspace?

Once you’ve launched your makerspace, you probably won’t have to seek out many opportunities because your kids will gravitate to it. You may find, though, that for each major unit you study, it’s nice to think up at least one makerspace challenge.

My kids love using our makerspace for their own projects, but they also expressed a desire to share the exciting experience with their friends. Thus, we created a bi-weekly “maker club” with some of our homeschool friends and that experience has added other enriching components of collaboration and cooperation to our makerspace experience.

How much does it cost to build a makerspace?

A makerspace can cost as little or as much as you care to spend. You probably already have many of the materials you’ll need, things like a hot glue gun, paint, pipe cleaners, scissors, scrapbook paper, googly eyes, and masking tape. Other valuable items are as close as your recycling bin: clean cereal boxes, wine corks, paper towel and toilet paper tubes, and wood scraps. Older kids might enjoy tools like a camera and greenscreen, electronic components, or a 3D printer. If those things fit into your budget, that’s great, but if not, a “fab lab” of loose parts is still fun for kids of all ages.

Whatever your children’s ages or abilities and whatever you’re studying this year, a makerspace has the potential to add enormous value to your homeschool.

In a former life, Maggie Martin was a high school English teacher, and now she’s a homeschooling mama to eight-year-old twins. She loves sharing her insights about helping kids become excellent readers and writers, what’s working in her homeschool, and the joys and challenges of a homeschooling lifestyle at her blog, thelanguageartscoach.com.