Missouri Libraries Offer Maker Camp Tailored for Families. Here's What They Recommend.

The organizer of  popular all-ages summer STEAM and maker programs shares expertise on planning, staff training, and activities.

  
An all-ages activity at the Springfield-Greene County (MO) Library.

STEAM and maker programming at the library is all about “letting go of being in charge. Instead of being the teachers, we are co-learners and facilitators.” That’s how Phyllis Davis, youth services manager at the Library Station, a branch of the Springfield-Greene County (MO) Library District, runs her activities. Davis, who holds a BA in education in addition to an MLS degree, has been offering maker-themed events for 10 years. She strongly believes all librarians are well-suited for delivering connected learning experiences that benefit all ages.

Evolving to meet needs

The Library Station’s summer Maker Camp began several years ago as a formal affiliate with Make: magazine’s camps. It has evolved to better reflect and connect with the local maker community. “ Make: magazine’s store had great stuff,” says Davis. “But after you’ve been doing STEM/STEAM for a while, you need something new, plus their supplies and products were often too expensive for most library budgets.”

When the Maker Camp debuted, the programs were highly focused, featuring one activity designed for youth in grades 3–5. Children of other ages came too, typically as part of a whole family excursion to the library. Parents often showed interest in trying out various challenges. All of that drove Davis to consider a new iteration of the program series.

This summer, the camp will feature a variety of projects and activities in a larger space with an open-ended time frame designed for all ages. “We’ll be running the camp in more of a self-directed mode versus delivering formal instruction,” says Davis. “We’ll offer a little bit of information to get everyone started, then [attendees] can explore on their own and come up with original ideas or follow a specific challenge.”

As long as parents determine that a child is old enough to participate safely, they are welcome. Adult caregivers can participate alongside their child, “taking that feeling of accomplishment home” where further learning can occur, she says.

Organizing Maker Camp

This summer, each week of Maker Camp will offer participants a surprise of supplies and projects available, with multiple options. Thematic maker stations will include activities suitable for a variety of ages. Here are a few of Davis’s ideas:

Introduction to Sewing

● Lacing cards for younger attendees

● Basic sewing instruction for older participants

● Projects using conductive thread

● Making lap mats for residents at area memory care facilities

Electrical experimentation

● Squishy and Snap Circuits for younger kids

● Cards to make with conductive tape, batteries, and LED lights in a simple circuit batteries

Coding Corner

BeeBots for preschoolers to try out

● Scratch coding software

Building and Engineering Challenges

Strawbees

● LEGO

● Cardboard

“We really want this to be organic and child-driven,” says Davis. While successfully completing a project or challenge is always rewarding for patrons, “Failure is built into maker culture,” she says. She tries to highlight the upsides. “If something doesn’t work, let’s just try a new way.” A DIY kaleidoscope didn’t turn out quite the same way the plans specified, but participants still had a positive learning experience, she notes.

Managing the makers

“Everyone learns the most when we get the whole family involved,” says Davis. In addition, staff can feel overwhelmed and discouraged “When we act as formal instructors [and] you have 30 kids asking for help.”

Davis offers district-wide training to library staff on working with children of various ages and how to talk to parents. “Our focus is on letting the kids be in charge and communicating this with parents...If a parent is doing it all, I’ll step in to say ‘Hey, let’s see if your child can figure this out,’” she says. “It’s important at the same time to realize that an adult caregiver has likely never had the chance to play or explore with some of the projects at Maker Camp, so sometimes we give them their own set or material to play with.”

Davis doesn’t offer pre-registration for Maker Camp days, instead opting for an open drop-in approach between 2 and 4 p.m.

“If the room hits capacity, we just let folks know that space is limited,” she says. “The Library Station is a great branch that encourages hanging out, so if people have to wait to get into Camp, we’ll have other things for them to look at or do.”

This summer, there will be a Maker Cart at the children’s desk with a few project options or STEM toys to check out.

For library staff interested in expanding STEM/STEAM or maker offerings, Davis recommends the following resources:

Click 2 Science

Curiosity Machine

PBS Kids Design Squad

Informal Science

National Academies Press: Surrounded by Science Learning Science in Informal Environments

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