How We Do It

But really, what does it look like?

How Parts and Crafts works: We give kids bottle rockets, craft materials, and ways to make video games. We ask kids to keep to a minimum of basic rules, but for the most part we let them do what they want to. We invite anyone to come, and work on a collective model.

All of this sounds great: but, well, why do we do things this way? Why have we have evolved our program to run the way it does — what are the connections between each of these powerful but seemingly disparate pieces? We’ll go into here, sharing the full story of our program, and looking into how it really works.

According to how you frame it, we were either inspired to work in education by our own schooling, or by John Holt (and the wider “free school” movement.)  John Holt’s work was the first writing on education theory that we encountered that reflected my own experiences and dissatisfactions with school — that for us, as kids, it felt boring, dehumanizing, and made us unhappy even though we were successful at it.  In a discourse around education based around standards and testing data, there’s just not much room for talking about boredom and excitement.  So, while we always loved learning, and always loved sharing what we know, “education” as a field seemed essentially orthogonal to our interests.

The founders of Parts and Crafts also grew up playing with computers.  Computer programming was one of our first creative hobbies.  We didn’t learn to write software in school, we learned it from books and friends and internet forums and irc channels.  But it was one of the most difficult and interesting thing we spent time doing as kids, and remains not only a hobby and occasional source of revenue, but one of the primary tools we use while reasoning about the world.

This personal story felt powerful, and connected to some deeper relationship between technical skills, information technology, learning communities, and freedom.

“giving kids the inspiration to find what they love and the room to take off with it”

This quote was the initial pitch that we developed when describing our work. It was refined through hundreds of conversations with prospective parents. Let’s unpack what it means here…

Free schooling’s fundamental principle is that children will be drawn to what is most engaging for them, and that this is also the best opportunity for them at the moment. By supporting them in finding these opportunities and exploring them, children will not only learn what they’re most interested in, but will begin to learn about themselves, about their interests and their enthusiasms and the things they are curious about and the ways that they think and learn.

This skill of finding deep enthusiasms, knowing where to look for wonder in the world, and knowing how to chase it down when you find it is actually pretty complicated and hard to master, though.  How can you learn what you don’t know you want to learn?

After working in an afterschool program, showing kids how to take printers apart and put simple circuits together, we knew we were on to something. The kids were electrified, parents came to tell us how happy they were.  It felt like we’d unlocked some kind of magical place of learning and enthusiasm just by giving kids broken electronics and screwdrivers.  This was the beginning of our work — to take the inspiring materials and methods of hands-on learning and combine them with the free schooling attitude.

We came to realize that while giving children freedom is powerful, it’s most effective, and most inclusive, when it’s supported by helping children find their passions.  This is where the bottle rockets come in, the masks, the hovercrafts, the dolls, the stuffed animals with light-up eyes. The pizza with home-made bread and home-made cheese. The eight-foot cardboard rocketship made for a local arts festival. In short, the inspiration.

The opportunities that we put together are designed to show children what’s out there to do, what activities and pursuits they could fall in love with. Few children would ever ask after electronics as an activity — but when we put the LEDs and battery packs and motors out on the table with the other craft materials, these electronics components, traditionally the domain of “circuits” or “technology” or “engineering”, would find their way into everything — toy cars, tiny houses, popsicle and pipecleaner and hot glue sculptures — and frequently without almost any explicit instruction from us.

A few kids knew, or were taught, or asked how to make some simple circuits, and then they taught each other.  It became a part of the culture, a kind of obvious common knowledge.  And they got excited — excited about circuits, perhaps, or maybe just about “making things,” and some kids, anyway, fell in love with the feeling you get after you’ve made something awesome.

And once they fell in love, once they had something they wanted to do, then our job was to let that exploration go: support the process where we could and let the learning happen as long it wanted to, be it minutes or weeks. Let them take off with it!

beyond take-off: making the process a sustainable and inclusive one.

We felt in 2007 that our process was working extremely well — with 25 – 30 kids coming every week and the environment feeling magical in its learning possibilities. The question was then how to extend what we had found to all who were interested? How to make our exciting resource work for everyone interested?

We’ve always run on a sliding scale model, and have felt that it’s crucial to offer this opportunity to all families who are interested. We have always happily taken all families who want to come, regardless if they can’t pay anything or they can afford the full price. It’s something we still work on: the latest evolution is our financial aid worksheet, exposing our financial process to help parents find comfortable and affordable ways to come to camp that still work on our end.

We’ve done a great deal of thinking about gender dynamics: how can we create a space that boys and girls feel equally welcome at? Especially when conditioning — whatver it’s source — predisposes boys to try some of our activities and girls others, and then social rules keep them that way. Part of our practice has been to develop a set of strategies — for example switching traditional roles: having men lead cooking and women lead electronics. These kinds of strategies are a part of a bigger question: how can we help children find out their own interests, despite the conditioning that may cloud their curiosity?

There are huge questions around inclusivity that demand continual reflection and refinement.  Our original cultural touchstones — the free schooling movement and the creative tech community, are primarily white, middle-class communities: relatively privileged groups who have the resources to readily take risks and experiment and fail knowing that they have a safety-net of some kind.

When we define what we do as “radical” or “alternative” or “experimental” we run the risk of making our work sound strange and risky because we want to feel cool and edgy.  Which is a big mistake, because our core values — of warmth and thoughtfulness and curiosity and competence are absolutely cross-cultural ones.  If we focus too much on what makes us different from traditional schooling we can easily alienate people who value and support it and lose track of what makes us the same: a desire to help kids be happy and healthy and successful and a passion for sharing what we love about the universe with people who haven’t seen it yet.

a space with happy kids should be a space with happy grown-ups.

And then there’s the question, just being explored: how to make such a lively environment for children one that doesn’t completely exhaust its’ adult’s creativity?  It’s easy for child-centered education to ignore the needs of the grown-ups.  How can we let kids feel like they have control over their learning community without taking that control away from the amazing people who work to keep Parts and Crafts running.  How do we make it a productive environment for adults, as well as kids?

We are now exploring ways to have staff members take time off the week to reflect on their process, bringing in outside builders and makers to run projects on a regular basis, finding ways to pay our staff a more reasonable fraction of what they’re worth, and perhaps most importantly, running in a group collective process that lets all staff have control over their environment: to regard camp as their creative space, too.

We’d wanted to make an amazing place for children, but found that that wasn’t enough. Parts and Crafts starts there and aims to be an amazing place for adults, too. In either case, this means creating a space that’s about resources, not requirements, which is both inclusive and sustainable. It means building a space that’s about community rather than child-care — where it’s assumed that kids and adults have something to learn from each other, and that both learn best by doing.

That’s how we see rockets fitting with sliding scales, and collective decision making with kids’ being free to play as much as they want, how calling ourselves a “hackerspace for kids”, running a school-alternative, a summer camp, teaching computer programming and carpentry, drop-in community open-shop hours, hosting crypto-parties and tool-libraries and designing electronics kits all fit under the same roof and the same name.

We think it works pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement.  It’s very likely that, by the time you read this, we’ll be doing something differently, thinking about something differently, or using a different phrase to describe our work.  We’re always looking for ways to be more awesome, and we hope you’ll join us and help us out!