What happens when you give MakerStudio to a bunch of pre-teen boys? Something special.
MakerStudio, by ThinkFun, is a series of building kits. There are three versions: Gears, Propellors, and Winches. Each one works as a standalone product.
If you’re like me, when you read a phrase like building kit or construction toy, you immediately think of Tinker Toys and Erector Sets, or maybe Legos and Lincoln Logs. Younger kids probably think of K’nex.
Put those thoughts aside. MakerStudio stands on its own as something completely new.
The MakerStudio box contains a collection of high-quality plastic, rubber, and wood parts. They have a great hefty feel to them, not too bendy. More interestingly, there’s no obvious way for them to fit together.
With all the other construction toys I mentioned, as soon as you open the box, you have a pretty good indication of what you’re supposed to do. The pieces fit together in some rather obvious ways, and they’re are large foldouts of what you can build. Not with MakerStudio. With this one, opening the box results in responses of “hey, what’s this?” and “what are we supposed to do?”
Of course, I didn’t answer.
Some of the kids in my playtest group reached for the instructions. Others reached for the parts.
“What’s up with this rubber thingie? I can put it on the stick, but then it doesn’t move… Oh! Check it out! I made wheels!”
The “rubber thingie” is what ThinkFun calls a hubcap. It’s a rubber o-ring that fits snugly around the wooden dowels. You can slide it on and off to secure things like wheels, gears, or connectors. I love the rubber thingie, because it means that parts don’t have to be interlocking. The dowels can be put through anything (connector, gear, wheel, whatever), and the rubber thingie secures it.
“Hey,” one of the instruction readers said. “You’re doing it wrong. We’re supposed to use trash.”
“Trash?” I repeated. “I doubt that.”
“Well, it says recyclables, but come on.”
“Okay,” I said. “Go crazy.”
My playtesters were a group of boys, ranging in age from 10 to 12 years old, and me.
Soon, they were poking holes in plastic cups and ripping the tops off of old boxes. Because the construction elements of MakerStudio are simple building elements (gears, dowels, o-rings, wheels, etc.), they combine with just about anything you want to combine them with. Poke a hole in a plastic cup, slide a dowel through, and you’re seconds away from a cup on wheels. Add some string, and suddenly you have a gondola.
One of the builders held up a motorcycle triumphantly. He’d made it purely from the parts in the box, but it wasn’t going to last. The other testers were already reaching to remake it.
After all, he hadn’t used any trash.
MakerStudio includes a set of challenges, instructions for things to build and how to build them. That’s a nice touch, but none of my playtesters used them. Instead, they were all about coming up with their own inventions.
“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk” – Thomas Edison
MakerStudio helps with all the things you’d expect a building toy to help with: organizational skills, spatial reasoning, fine motor skills, and so on. If you do a search online, you’ll find that these kinds of toys also help with math and social skills.
I don’t want to talk about any of that, though. I want to talk about what it means to be an inventor, the mindset it takes to create something new. I believe there’s a progression that all inventors go through:
- Show me what to build. Let me read the instructions and build what you want me to build.
- Give me something to build with. Give me the pieces I need to let me build my own stuff.
- I’m going to go find what I need to build what I want. I’m going to see things that are and be inspired to build things that could be.
It’s the last phase where the magic happens, where inventors become self-guided creators of the world.
MakerStudio helps kids transition into that third phase of being an inventor. It teaches them to be self-guided, to go out and look for what they need to build. It also helps them learn to be inspired, to see something and think “I could use that to build something completely different.”
From my point of view, MakerStudio is an unqualified success. It delivers moments of discovery, excitement, triumph, and silliness, and has a re-playability factor that’s through the roof.
We played the Gears edition of MakerStudio, and I’ll be purchasing the other editions next. I’m planning on keeping them in our living room, a big old bowl of invention, just waiting to happen.