Maker Faire New York: The Next Generation

As I walked through Maker Faire New York, I noticed table after table swarming with pint-sized makers—even more than years past—suggesting that Maker Faire is better than ever for kids. This year’s Maker Faire included the marvelous Zone E, a spacious area where parents could relax as their kids had room to make and play. Of course, kids’ stuff was peppered throughout Maker Faire, inviting them in at every turn.

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The Austin Bike Zoo carousel. Photo: Amy Kraft

Families were welcomed into Zone E by the Austin Bike Zoo, with their stunning butterfly bicycles and their horse/bike hybrid carousel. My kids loved the carousel. The 8-year-old pedaled feverishly while the 3-year-old chilled out in the little kid holding area in the center.

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Once in Zone E, we saw some familiar faces. I know Brian Yanish, creator of ScrapKins, because we’ve got a ScrapKins book in the works for Speakaboos, the story app I’m working on. In the ScrapKins booth, the kids got a lesson in upcycling, making masted boats from milk cartons and straws. Then there was a recycled river to race them down into the ScrapKins lagoon. My 3-year-old could have done that all day. What a great way to build and test a vehicle.

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Boats successfully launched into the ScrapKins lagoon. Photo: Amy Kraft

More upcycling (and familiar faces) came in the Skraptacular booth. Skraptacular is run by a mom in my neighborhood, and thanks to her booth, we now know about plarn. Plarn is like plastic yarn that you make from plastic shopping bags. They used it for weaving through fencing, with some interesting results.

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One of the plarn weavings from Skraptacular. Photo: Amy Kraft

We’re very lucky in New York City to have a bunch of places to take our kids for science play and learning. Storefront Science opened in my neighborhood, and it’s a real treat to have this resource in upper Manhattan. They came to Maker Faire with a creative exercise using batteries, LED lights, and pipe cleaners, letting kids build whatever they wanted. My daughter made a fuzzy creature flashlight.

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Storefront Science booth

Robofun and the Brooklyn Robot Foundry are other science resources we have in the city. My daughter loved a robot-building class she took a few months ago at the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, but Maker Faire is a great reminder to work these maker activities into our weekends more often.

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The best upcycling of stuffed animals I’ve seen. Photo: Amy Kraft

We managed to miss this activity completely, but when I saw these creatures sewn together from various animal parts, I finally knew what to do with those two bags of stuffed animals taking up room in the closet. I proposed to my daughter that she take parts from all of her favorites and combine them into one giant Frankenanimal. She’s all for it!

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Making a survival bracelet. Photo: Amy Kraft

Even though she had one on her wrist from last year, my daughter was excited to make another survival bracelet. Made from one long length of durable cord, these bracelets are easy to make and provide you with a long length of durable cord in an emergency. It’s fun imagining the MacGyver-like scenarios where one would rip open their survival bracelet because a rope was needed. And now we have two of them. Double the survival!

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LittleBits used during the Maker Faire workshop. Photo: Amy Kraft

We spent the most time at the LittleBits booth. I love these intuitive circuit pieces. They’re so well designed that I saw several kids plunk down in a chair and get a circuit going within a couple minutes. My ambivalence about them comes with their price and purchasing options, but more on that in a moment.

The task in the LittleBit workshop we attended was to make a Halloween costume; a nice, concrete task to get the creative juices flowing. My daughter already has a costume. She’s going to be Hermione. I suggested that she make something to go with her costume, and she came up with the idea of making Hermione’s cat, Crookshanks. She made the cat out of cardboard, then wired it up with a sound sensor and vibration motor so that when you said “Crookshanks!” the bell around her neck would ring. Like magic! You can see it working in the video above.

We were super excited about it until we started to walk away from the booth and we were told that she needed to unmake it to give all of the LittleBits back. There was no way for me to buy the parts that she used, unless I wanted to purchase the kits that they had for sale, but even that would have required remaking it. We will probably order the pieces individually online (for about $40), but I can’t help but wish they had structured the workshop more in the spirit of Maker Faire. Either charge a workshop fee, or require a kit purchase to be in a workshop, or be clear with kids that they’re just experimenting. Or let the kids keep the parts and chalk it up as a marketing expense. Just don’t make kids unmake at Maker Faire.

Of course, even I as talk about “the spirit of Maker Faire,” that spirit seems to be changing. It’s amazing to have so much inspiration and activity for kids in one place. I loved taking the kids to watch them try new and challenging things.

But it’s hard not to feel a little cynical as bigger corporate sponsors roll in and more and more of the booths are there so you’ll purchase their products. I understand the need for money to help Maker Faire (and its vendors) succeed, but it’s less of a showcase of weird and wild creations and inventions than it used to be.

If you went to Maker Faire this year, especially with kids, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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