Making things and Making Things Happen

We believe that building, playing, and experimenting are the best ways to learn, but, beyond that, we believe that they are also the best ways to live. If you have an active body and a curious mind than you can go into any situation, look at any object, with the mindset of “what can I do with this? How can I make this better, more fun, more interesting, more like how I think it should be?” We believe that people, children included, are inherently curious, ambitious, and enjoy learning and accomplishment.

We’ve been heavily influenced by the free schooling movement and the writing of, for instance, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, as well as the literature on constructivist pedagogy, most importantly Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms: Kids, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, the introduction to which is available here. In that vein, we make heavy use of some of the tools coming out of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, whose work, making kid-friendly creative computer tools and communities demonstrates that there’s more to educational computer use than iPads and SmartBoards.

We believe that, while it’s easy to over-hype, there is in fact something empowering and democratizing about information technology, computers, science and the scientific method, small-scale manufacturing, as well as about education and the mastery of technical skills — that when people more people know things, and know how to do things, they can both demand, and produce, a better world for everyone.

Because of who we are and when we grew up, a lot of our inspirations come from nerd/tech/punk/DIY culture, though we acknowledge that these kinds of ideas about sharing and collaboration and empowerment grow everywhere — wikipedida, instructables, food not bombs, bikes not bombs, zines, open-source software, critical mass, community gardening, street music, worker’s cooperatives, the arduino, Occupy, creative commons, make magazine, cheap art, free schools/skillshares, the Valve employee handbook, tool libraries, the vaguely pretentiously named “sharing economy” — all of these things present us with new and surprising ways of connecting people, information, and resources together to make new things possible.

Freedom in Community

We believe that the first step in learning how to be and work with others is learning how to be yourself and do what you want to do, and that the first step towards learning how to be yourself and learning who you are is making decisions about how and where you spend your time. Parts and Crafts is an open and open-minded community. This means,first of all, that everyone who wants to be involved in our community should be, and, second, that everyone who is involved is treated fairly and respectfully.

The first means, quite simply, that we’re committed to finding a way for anyone who wants to come to our programs to do so. It means that we work with parents who can’t afford our tuition to find a way to make something work, and it means that we don’t turn anyone away based on their lack of ability to pay. And it means that we need to work hard to make sure that our programs are visible to anyone who might want to know about them, especially people who aren’t part of our immediate community — so that they know what we’re doing and can be a part of it if they choose. And it means making sure that the space doesn’t come off as exclusive, or heterogenous, or “not for people like me” whoever I happen to be.

The second entails a couple of things — it means taking kids and their interests seriously, it means only using the authority that we naturally have with them as providers of a valuable service and interesting, friendly people who do, by and large, happen to know more than they do. It means talking to them before punishing them and trying to help them mediate their own conflicts before imposing our own autocratic resolutions. It means that everyone who is with us every day should have a say in what the community is and how it’s run. It means that in the morning we ask all of the kids and adults if there’s anything that they want to put on the day’s schedule, and that we don’t make anyone be a part of an activity that they don’t want to be a part of.

It also means having a non-hierarchical governance structure for organizational administration. While our summer programs cannot hope to compensate the folks we work with(who, boasting aside, are some of the most creative and talented people we’ve ever met) financially in a way that’s on par with what they could make in the wider market, we can and do offer an environment where people have a say in the policies that effect them and where they can, by and large, choose to work on what they want, how they want to, while spending time with an amazing group of kids and adults. Adults and kids both do their best, most creatve, and most responsible work when they’re given the freedom to create it for themselves.

At the same time, a community is more than a collection of individuals. There is a difference between “freedom” and “license”. Our sessions are small, and about as close-knit as it can be, given a constantly changing set of people. Our resources are modest, we don’t have enough space, tools, or expertise to give every child their own island on which to do whatever they want whenever they want, nor would we want to. We usually have, for instance, a handful of computers. 2 or 3 soldering irons, and a similarly small number of copies of various games, kits, and diversions. Apart from an express hierarchy of types of uses (on computers creative work gets precedence over relaxation), and a vague but oft-repeated directive that tools be used “for what they’re meant for,” children and adults have to negotiate, together, who gets to use what when, whose turn it is and how long a turn should last. Moreover, they have to do this in a way that keeps everything functioning smoothly, a way that creates a minimum of frustration, hurt feelings, and resentment. They have to talk to each other and figure out how to resolve their conflicts. They have to, in a word, share.

Supervision, not Surveillance

All of us at Parts and Crafts had different experiences of childhood, of course, but all of us have fond and important memories of being allowed to explore the world around us, on our own time, at our own pace, and to deal with our own consequences for success or failure. For some of us this was wandering around in the forests that we were lucky enough to grow up nearby, getting lost and found and lost again and making it home, late for dinner, but before sunset, for others it was taking apart and fixing a broken VCR and getting to keep it in our rooms, proudly displayed, even though we didn’t have a TV, learning by ear to play our favorite rock song on the piano (and discovering, to our chagrin, that the piano just isn’t a very rocking instrument), or totally botching an installation of Linux two or three times, losing all of our important data, before finally getting it right and setting up a dial-up internet gate for our friends who weren’t lucky enough to have early adopter parents.

We think, because of increased pressure on schools, parents and children to “achieve”, and because of an increasingly alarmist and litigious culture surrounding childhood and child care, that these opportunities for exploration and self-discovery are becoming harder and harder for children to come by. We find the increasing levels of surveillance and structure in childhood alarming and pernicious, and applaud the efforts of parents and educators to allow children time to explore on their own. While none of us are yet parents, so none of us can know exactly what it’s like to be fully in charge of another human being’s welfare, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, we’re impressed and inspired by efforts akin to those made by the Free Range Kids community.

In lots of cases we know more about a topic or a tool than the kids that we’re working with. When we take kids hiking sometimes they don’t know what poison ivy looks like. When we help kids build things, sometimes they don’t know how hot the tips of the soldering irons or glue guns get. We frequently take apart disposable cameras with kids who have never seen a capacitor and don’t know what one does (or how unpleasant it is to get shocked by one). When little kids get into a fight we can usually get to the heart of the matter more quickly than they can and frequently have a stronger intuitive understanding that hitting each other isn’t really going to make matters any better in the long run, and when we go on field trips we’re usually better at negotiating the subway system and getting effectively from point A to point B than kids who have never done so before.

For all of these reasons, and because of our basic human capacity for empathy, we have a responsibility to pay attention to the kids we’re with, to offer help and advice when we have it, and to step in, interfere, and talk things through when we forsee catastrophic consequences. At the same time, we’re not always right, so we have an obligation to stay out of the way and let kids experience their own successes and failures when we’re not wanted, if (and only if) the consequences of failure are going to be merely unfortunate. We’re not around to prevent kids from making mistakes, and we’re not around to catch them and scold them when they do. We’re around to mediate and manage the consequences of these mistakes and to make sure that everyone stays as happy, healthy, relaxed, and creative as possible. Making these sorts of nuanced supervisory judgments actually requires a lot more attention than traditional surveillance methods, which is partly why we keep a much higher adult::child ratio than most traditional child-care programs.

Void Your Warranties

“I’ve waited all my life to take apart a computer!” I heard this shouted, excitedly and endearingly, by an 8-year old at one of our afterschool programs, but it’s the kind of thing we hear a lot — kids have ambitions and projects and things that they’re yearning to do, things that they’re yearning to look at, open up, break, fix, and understand. Most of us at Parts and Crats grew up significantly more computer literate, at the age of 8 or so, than our parents. This is generational. Probably when we have kids we’ll deal with computer maintenance, we’ll replace and reformat the hard drive and install the operating system and set up the network and install the RAM, but our parents didn’t do this for us, we did. Consequently, the idea that someone would never have done these things is a little bit shocking, but it shouldn’t be. We live in a world full of black boxes and complexity. Almost everything around us seems, at first glance, to be too big to understand.

When we started Parts and Crafts, we basically had no idea what we were doing. We had a bunch of intuitions about what would make a good space for kids based on a combination of books we’d read and our own experiences in schools and summer camps and the like. We didn’t know anything about starting a business, or childcare laws or licenses. We had a hunch that a hackerspace for kids would be a good idea and another hunch that if we started working on it we could probably figure it out. And it was hard, and confusing, and difficult and stressful in lots of ways, many projects failed, many buildings were deemed unsuitable by building inspectors, but we muddled through, and made it work, and made it up as we went along because we knew that we could. We knew that we could learn what we needed to learn and do what we needed to do when it came up, even if we didn’t know what that was going to be when we started. But it absolutely was intimidating! The intricacies of business organization, the legalities of building codes and nonprofity law, these things can seem just as out-of-reach as the intricacies of circuit design.

Computers are complicated, government is abstract, the tax code is torturous, engineering is hard. All of these things are true, to a certain extent, but, well, there’s a lot of valuable and delicious low-hanging fruit. It might take years of training to design a good nuclear reactor (I don’t know — it’s not something I’ve really looked into), but, given a day or two, the right tools, and sufficient documentation, and a willingness to repeatedly fail, anyone who can read can build an mp3 player, write decent blogging software, or start a small business. It’s all too easy to let the specter of dire consequences, of breaking things, or otherwise messing up in some irrevocable way prevent us from exploring our world.

There are warranties in life, sources of useful but limiting security, and, just like you’ll never really know what you can do with something until you take it apart, break it, fix it, and make it better, you’ll never really know what you can do until you try to do something that you’re pretty sure you can’t.