Makerspaces: New Spaces for Children’s Digital Media Production
Written by Becky Parry
When I took up my role at the University of Sheffield I was delighted to be offered the chance to undertake a MakEY secondment to Canada. MakEY is a research project I was highly interested in engaging with before I joined the department, especially having acted as a discussant for a MakEY symposium at the UK Literacy conference in 2018. I am not an early years researcher but I have always drawn on early years pedagogy when thinking about children’s creative practices, especially in thinking about the relationship between play and digital media production. This symposium really highlighted for me some key terms associated with making that I wanted to explore further. Ideas such as ‘hacking’ and ‘tinkering’ seem to me to suggest many possibilities for developing more playful approaches that might enrich learning when we support children in learning to make films, animations, videogames and comics.
In my professional work in children’s film festivals I have observed approaches which mirror industry practices of production, which can sometimes seem rather limited in the way in which there seems to be a ‘right’ way to do things. Children are often allocated individual roles such as director or editor, rather than working on all the different stages and processes. There’s often a focus on a final polished film, rather than on process and sometimes too much of the film is shaped by adult / filmmaker sensibilities. The MakEY activities I have been part of have helped me to think about cameras, phones and tablets as well as images, moving images, sound, music and editing software as materials which children need opportunities to ‘take the back off’ or ‘get the feel of.’
The more I have engaged with the MakEY programme, the more interested I have become interested in the potential for more exploratory, child-led and playful approaches to enable children to engage much more meaningfully with digital tools alongside a whole range of other materials. Through my involvement in an international project with partners in Australia and Denmark, focused on space, I observed children’s embodied engagement with materials. The children created clay models of rockets which they uploaded to VR and used Tilt Brush to create their own galaxies. The children used all their bodies in this process with arms swishing around to create a trail of stars in VR and small fingers involved in tiny, detailed manipulation of clay in their model making. Often story was important to the making, the people in the rocket had to make new homes for themselves in space. The story worlds the children imagined as they played and made, clearly supported their inventiveness.
In a makerspace at Brock University in St Catherine’s in Ontario, I observed a full day makerspace run by Professor Jennifer Rowsell, where the children followed their own interests and made boats, slime, plant watering devices and the weapons from Fortnite. Having the chance to work with one group of children over a whole day, it gave me a chance to observe the ebb and flow of the children’s immersion in making, the rhythms were marked by fluctuating sounds. Sometimes loud, messy exhilarated talk looked like engagement but sometimes absolute quiet ensued as the children became immersed in trying out something tricky.
In St John’s in Newfoundland, working with Professor Anne Burke from Memorial University, I was particularly affected by a visit to the The Art Hives, where creative processes are used therapeutically with groups of children, young people and families. Here I was especially struck by the shift away from valuing creative work with praise, towards finding ways to just be curious and interested in creative choices. This has had a powerful impact on my thinking and on my return to the UK I have had a chance to try out this approach at home in Sheffield.
I have been part of public engagement makerspace activities with young children in schools and museums and galleries, led by Professor Jackie Marsh. It was a challenge, but I have been trying to resist saying that ‘everything is awesome,’ to quote the Lego movies, and to move to asking questions about the children’s decisions and intentions. This may seem obvious to others, but I had not realised how much my affirmation of children’s work was about the final product and not about the process or the learning and I think that’s a salutary lesson in relation to developing a more inclusive approach to digital media production. I am looking forward to reflecting on this in relation to the next makerspaces we are running at The Children’s Media Conference Playground. Here we plan to make many digital media making resources available, including green screen film and stop motion animation.
The extraordinarily rich discursive culture of the MakEY community of practitioners and academics has enabled me to share my thinking about ways of drawing on the ethos or pedagogy of maker spaces has impacted on my development as an early career researcher. I have been able to discuss a possible new programme of work which might take this work forward and examine what we can learn from makerspaces, as they have been developed for young children, in the context of film and media production.