Burning Gnome

Art, Technology, and Culture firmly planted in the Garden of Education

   Dec 21

The Learning Circle: Winter

Today is the Winter Solstice, and the beginning of the winter season! During the darkest time of the year, we find many celebrations of light, symbols of warmth, and gratitude for life. In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, our activities are mostly indoor as the weather becomes cold and unpredictable. Still, there are many ways to incorporate nature into your daily rhythm.


In December, we take a break and focus on the holidays. Chanukah, Christmas, Yule/Solstice, Kwanzaa, Zagmuk (from Ancient Mesopotamia), Saturnalia (Ancient Rome), Soyal (Hopi), Las Posadas (Mexico) are all full of traditions, significance, and cultural meaning. We go to tree lightings and chorus concerts, we bake and make gifts. We make ornaments and wreaths. We play the Blowing Ships game. You can fill the entire month just exploring the traditions of all these festivals, which makes for a very rich month!

December Book recommendations: Lights of Winter by Heather Conrad, The Story of the Snow Children by Sibylle von Olfers, Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, The Nutcracker (Susan Jeffers does a beautiful version), The Night Before Christmas (we love the one illustrated by Christian Birmingham), The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson, Where Did They Hide My Presents: Silly Dilly Christmas Songs by Alan Katz, The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales From Around the World for Winter Solstice by Carolyn Edwards, Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story by Angela Shelf Medearis, The Night of Las Posadas by Tomie Depaola, When Winter Comes by Nancy Van Laan, Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner, Chanukah Lights (pop up) by Michael Rosen and Robert Sabuda.


Making fresh wreaths to decorate the house


In January, we focus on warming activities. One of the best ways to approach this idea is working with wool. Begin with raw wool, if you can, and show the kids how to clean and card the wool. You can get natural dyes (we buy them here) and make a rainbow of options. You don’t need a fancy spinning wheel to spin the wool into thread, so try this simple approach and make some yarn. Finally, work with the wool in a variety of ways: knitting, felting, and weaving. During this month, we also continue baking and making our own body products (like healing salve, chapstick, and elderberry cordial) that will last us the whole year. During this month, we also celebrate the Chinese New Year by making lanterns and attending festivals. Sometimes the Chinese New Year is in February, this year it begins January 31st and is the Year of the Horse. Every year my kids enjoy exploring the Chinese Zodiac!

January book recommendations: Weaving the Rainbow by George Ella Lyon,  The Goat in the Rug by Charles Blood, Knitting Nell by Julie Roth, Extra Yarn by Max Barnett, Green Gables Knits: Patterns for Kindred Spirits (includes patterns!) by Joanna Johnson, The Hat by Jan Brett, Organic Body Care Products by Stephanie Tourles (also check out the recipes online at Wellness Mama), The Dancing Dragon by Marcia Vaughan, Year of the Horse: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin

Dim Sum to celebrate the Chinese New Year!


In February, we celebrate what is left of winter and begin to prepare for Spring. Working with willow (which is now bare and easily harvested) and wood to make toys and structures and working with clay to make bowls, insect nests, bird baths, and sculpture for the garden are all appropriate ways to get ready for warmer weather and are also what I call “heavy work.” These activities incorporate the whole body, which is wonderful for young ones who have been limited by the weather all season. We also spend a few days exploring Valentine’s Day and making traditional Victorian valentines with fancy paper and doilies. The history of Valentine’s Day is interesting, but my own children really get into studying the evolution of the Valentine’s themselves, from when they became popular in the 19th century until now.

February book recommendations: Great Book of Wooden Toys by Norman Marshall, Natural Wooden Toys by Erin Fruechtel-Dearing, The Kids N Clay Book by Kevin Nierman, Valentine’s Day is Here! (Fisher Price Little People), The Ballad of Valentine by Alison Jackson, Saint Valentine by Robert Sabuda, Victorian Keepsake: Select Impressions of Affection Regard from the Romantic Ninteenth Century by Allison Leopold (an adult book- but full of gorgeous examples to draw inspiration from!)

Using scraps from the CA winter woodland floor to make a fairy house.


Happy Winter!

   Sep 07

The Art of Death

This is a story I have been meaning to share:

A year ago we lost a friend. He was the father in a family within our community and his death was sudden and unexpected. Understandably, this opened a conversation in our house that was both difficult and necessary, and in the end yielded beauty and gratitude.

Our family has been somewhat blessed in this area. My children have not experienced the loss of anyone they are close to. The only losses my husband and I have endured recently are those of two of our grandmothers, and while their deaths were sad, both of them were nearly 100 and they had lived long full lives. Their deaths were expected. But to lose a friend, someone we had just gone camping with, was heartbreaking. Of course my older boys had many questions: why did he die? what happens after you die? what will happen to his kids? I tried to answer their questions as clearly and honestly as I could. But the truth is there is a part of this that I can never explain. Why him? Why did his two sweet boys and his loving wife have to lose him?  How are they bearing it? And how on earth could we bear it if something like this happened to us? I don’t know the answer to any of it.

What I did know is that I would support them any way I could. For the memorial, our friend’s son decided he would like to make tshirts with a quote on them from his father and because I am a printmaker, they called me and asked me to help. I can’t begin to describe how honored I was. There was no more meaningful way for me to contribute, for me to say goodbye, than like this.  The shirts would say “Be Awesome,” something our friend said often. It was his advice to the world: you choose how to move through life, so just be awesome. His son chose the design and I went to work.

The morning I began printing the t-shirts was cold and rainy. I set up my screen and ink on the table and organized the shirts. After a test run, I began working on the shirts I knew belonged to his family. I knew that this process would be emotional, but what I didn’t expect was that in all my concern about holding the emotional space for my kids, I hadn’t done my own work around it. And so I cried. I cried as I printed a shirt for his wife, and for his sister, and for his two sons who unfairly lost their dad too early. Then I began on the rest of the shirts for the memorial and as I pulled gain and again over the words “Be Awesome” I began to chant them in my head. Our friends legacy was clear: no matter what we just have to move on and be the best, do the best that we can.

And on the very last shirt, I pulled over those words one last time and in that moment the sun broke through the clouds and with brilliant light warmed the entire table. The words glowed brightly and I was at peace with all those questions I didn’t know the answer to. I didn’t need to know. Experiences like this are what matter. Choosing to “be awesome” while we are here is what matters. I am not a spiritual person but I felt that moment in every fiber of my being.

Even now, as I think of it a year later, I am filled with gratitude. I have no doubt that we have more losses to endure ahead, my hope is to remember the powerful grace of our friend and his family. Death is like art. It is an unfolding of experience and attempt until the soul is laid bare and vulnerable, and when you are finally laying there stripped, you understand. You are at peace. And you put yourself back together. Not in the same way, but in a way that is more worldly. More about love. More than yourself.

   Sep 03

The Learning Circle: Fall

The Autumn is a lovely time of year. The days get crisper, the light lowers, the colors change into hues of yellow, orange and reds. It is the celebration of the harvest and the preparation for winter, moving into the darkest part of the year. It is an excellent and appropriate time to focus on building and preserving with children. The activities, focus, and book recommendations below are meant to be a starting point- inspiration, if you will- for you to celebrate this gorgeous season and it’s rhythms in your own home.

Kneading and Baking the Bread




In September, the focus should be the Harvest. There are several related festivals this time of year (Lammas/Lughnasadh, Sukkot) that have their own unique traditions to draw upon. Take field trips to an orchard or farm, go to the forest and build shelters. Bake bread and make dehydrated apple rings. You can also start shrunken apple heads that you can use in October for decoration.



Book recommendations: The Little Red Hen, The Little Pot That Was Always Full (Norse), The Mysterious Guests: A Sukkot Story (Eric Kimmel), By the Light of the Harvest Moon (Harriet Ziefert), Apples Apples Apples (Nancy E Wallace), Ruby’s Falling Leaves (Max & Ruby)



In October, the theme shifts from the larger world, to the inner world. During this time, as the light starts to fade, explore the connection between the physical and spirit world. This does not have to be religious in any sense. We all contemplate what it means to be human, and our connection with those who have gone before us. Our stories are woven together, therefore, physically creating this symbolism through basket making, loom weaving, and even making spider web frames for the garden add to the richness of this theme. Trickster Tales and Spider Lore not only embody the human condition, but are often amusing and captivating, and easily tie in with weaving or building projects. During October, many people celebrate Halloween, Samhain, and Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead/All Souls Day) which can include carving pumpkins, making treat bags, building altars for loved ones who have passed and decorating sugar skulls. Field Trips can include museums that have a collection of weaving and baskets (African, Asian, Latin American, and Textile Museums are good bets) as well as cultural centers (especially Mexican heritage organizations for Dia De Los Muertos). Also fun are pumpkin patches and corn mazes!

Dia De Los Muertos Mini Altars and Sugar Skulls

Book Recommendations: Ananse Stories (West Africa), There was An Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything (Linda Williams), It’s Pumpkin Time (Zoe Hall), Day of the Dead (Tony Johnston), Songs from the Loom: A Native American Girl Learns to Weave (Monty Roessel), Weaving the Rainbow (George Lyon), an infinite variety of books on Halloween!


Clay Diva Lamp for Diwali

In November, our intentions must shift to preparing for winter and the darkest time of the year. It is a time of gratitude and caring. Early in November is the Indian celebration of Diwali/Divali (Hindu Festival of Lights). It is a gorgeous, colorful way to honor the shortening of our days. Two wonderful Diwali traditions include making small clay Diva lamps and Rangoli Patterns (either on the path in front of your house, or glued to cardstock so they may be moved). This is also a good time to work with beeswax, making candles and sculptures, and caring for the birds by making feeders that will help sustain them throughout the winter. Finally, November circles should not be without a community potluck. We hold one ever year called “The Stone Soup Feast” (based on the book by the same same)to show our gratitude for one another. The kids decorate the table and bring a favorite side dish. In addition, every family brings a vegetable to put into our soup pot. We never know from year to year how exactly it will end up, but every year it is delicious. Traditionally, one sizable (so kids don’t choke) stone is put into the pot, delivering good luck to the one who ends up with it in their bowl. Our circle has modified this idea and (when the kids are not looking) put a stone in each bowl before adding the soup. In this way, they all receive the blessing. Finally, we always  make a Thankful Tree: cut a large tree trunk out of paper for the base and use silhouttes of each child’s hand as leaves. On the leaves, the kids can write the things they are grateful for and attach them to the tree.

Book recommendations: Stone Soup (Jon Muth), In November (Cynthia Rylant), Giving Thanks (Jonathan London), Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message (Chief Jake Swamp), The Story of Divaali (Verma Jatinder). Please not that there are many books on Thanksgiving itself, some secular and some religious. There will be plenty to choose from that fit your family’s values.


Happy Autumn!

   Aug 23

To School or Not to School…

That is the question.

At least, that is the most frequently asked question I get around this time every year. The question usually is phrased something like “I want to homeschool but I don’t know if I have it in me” or “I want to homeschool but my partner isn’t convinced” or “I am torn because we want to homeschool but we were accepted at the charter school that is impossible to get into and I would hate to give up that opportunity.”

I have never been subtle in my criticisms regarding the public school system, but there are plenty of great schools out there, with amazing teachers and parents who are working around the challenge of a test based, developmentally inappropriate, state mandated curriculum. There are also plenty of families who have to work, and homeschooling is not an option. My point is that these kids also thrive and are happy and educated. School is just as valid a choice as homeschooling.

So, my advice to the above questions?

“I want to homeschool but I don’t know if I have it in me”

What is more important is the belief that you have it in you to do whatever is best for your family. Only you know the answer to that. Inevitably, we find new parts of ourselves to help us through any choice we make. If you believe in homeschooling, and that the best way for your child to learn is in the freedom and flexibility of this choice, then you will find a way to do it. One of the most annoying assumptions for me about homeschooling is that we are with each other 24/7. We are not. My kids have classes and playdates and parkdays and frankly time where I tell them I need them to entertain themselves. What we don’t have is limits on our time, a rigid schedule, and the stress of PTA and homework and fitting in extra-curricular classes on top of that. Those are the warts I didn’t want to deal with. EVERYTHING HAS WARTS. Everyone has to choose what warts they are willing to deal with. Homeschooling has warts too. I have to pay attention to the balance in our house, making sure I have time for myself and my partner, which can be a challenge. I have to figure out how to meet their needs and work full time. I have to be an active part of my kids’ social life (not a wart) and sometimes make an effort to attend events I’d rather skip just so they have an opportunity to meet more friends (wart). So, write down you values, the things that are most important to you. And write down your warts, the things you would rather not deal with. Then see where you are. Whatever choice you make, you have it in you. And if you don’t, it can easily be changed.

“I want to homeschool but my partner isn’t convinced”

Well, homeschooling includes a fair amount of trust. Trusting yourself, trusting your kid(s), trusting your partner. Unfortunately, we live in a world that doesn’t support trust. We live in a fairly authoritarian society where we are expected to accept the guidance of experts. But you are the best expert on your family and your children and you must learn to trust, and so must your partner. I am fairly lucky that my partner has always been very supportive. He didn’t blink twice when I announced our children would not be going to school. But not all my friends are that lucky and have had to work through it. My suggestion is to sit down and talk about all the concerns and then research how to overcome them. Is he/she afraid your child won’t make friends? Show them all the support networks, classes, park days, etc available to you in your area. Is he/she worried your kids won’t learn? Figure out together what you feel they should know and make a plan together, including ways you both would feel comfortable assessing their knowledge. For some families, starting in a charter school where there are teachers to help guide your year is really helpful to easing a partner’s fears. In our family, we don’t belong to a charter but our kids document their work and every once in a while give us a presentation on what they have learned in the style of their choice (play, poem, art, game, interpretive dance, whatever). The number one way I have found to convert hesitant partners is to have them attend a major homeschool conference. Seeing the community come together and having the evidence of educated, socially adept kids right in front of you says more than words ever will. But a partner’s concerns should never be ignored and if he/she has serious concerns and reasons why they advocate for a school experience, it is important to consider and address those with compassion and reason. Usually I find that our partners just want to be heard, involved. And they should be.

“I am torn because we want to homeschool but we were accepted at the charter school that is impossible to get into and I would hate to give up that opportunity.”

Well, ok. So out of 350 applications for 20 Kindergarten spots, you got in. Congrats! The way I see it you have two choices: Try it and you can always leave if it doesn’t work out….or not. See the section above about trusting yourself to make the right decision for your family. You got in to the charter because of a luck of the draw, not because a magical education fairy placed you in the perfect place for your kid. Those exclusive schools have warts too. A friend of mine is in one now, and her son has been mercilessly bullied for the past year with very little support from the supposedly progressive staff. But some of them are rad and have a lot to offer. What would the experience offer you and your kids? What are the downsides? What values about childhood and education are supported by this school? Which ones would you have to give up (at school, not home)? My point is, there is no right answer. If you decide to give up your spot, you are not a fool. You just want something different. Plus, I hear it’s not as hard to get back into those schools as the grades progress, if you decide later on to try it. If you decide to try it, look at it as an adventure. One that you have control over, including whether or not to stay.

Education is one of the hardest choices we have to make as parents, because so much of that choice is wrapped up in our own experiences, fears, hopes, and dreams for their future. But we can only do our best, one moment at a time, and the best choice we can make is to trust ourselves and model adaptability for our children. Plus, kids are pretty resilient.

   Apr 13

A Letter on Home Education and Labels

Recently, there was a flurry of emails on a local Unschooling list regarding labels and structure. A friend of mine, who was homeschooled herself, wrote a beautiful response:

Some humbly submitted thoughts on recent debates and why we all deserve a pat on the back…

Back a long time ago, around the beginning of the current homeschooling movement, I was homeschooled all the way through high school. I did a little preschool and a little 2nd grade but that was it. My three younger siblings never went to school. We lived in ex suburban Massachusetts. Back then there were far fewer homeschoolers. There was a large contingent of religious homeschoolers and some secular ones. Among the secular ones, there was a mix of homeschoolers and people who identified or would be identified now as un schoolers. We were secular homeschoolers who used curriculum for a couple hours a day to cover basic subjects and got to follow our interests for vast amounts of the rest of our time. We had lots of friends who went to school and lived in our town and fewer friends who homeschooled but lived outside of town and thus a drive away. We went on field trips with religious homeschool groups and met with secular groups as well. Sitting around the sandbox in our backyard, my mom helped found the state secular homeschool association (which is still around!).

I didn’t think about it much before having kids, but once I had one it never occurred to me that they would go to school. So here I am with a kindergartener and a three year old, homeschooling myself. It’s been an interesting adventure to start seeing things from the moms perspective (all that glorious free time I had as a kid? My mom was working her tail off!).

A few years ago I decided to connect with the homeschool community in the Bay Area. I was amazed. There are so many groups and so many people! So many classes! Charter schools! The Internet! We eventually found this community at the local park days and have been going ever since (I’m the pregnant one with the two blond girls).

One of the interesting things to me is how far the homeschool community around here has shifted toward unschooling. Where are the Christian fundamentalist homeschoolers? (Ok, I suspect they are on the other side of the tunnel.)Where are the people using curriculum? I know some people in <local unschooling group> are less unschooling than using a hybrid approach but they seem to feel the need to whisper this confession. It’s obviously the stated intention of the group to be about unschooling, so there is nothing wrong with the bias in the group, I just find it interesting how things have changed in the wider homeschool community as well.

The truth is, the debate about structure vs no structure, homeschooling versus unschooling and all the other issues recently brought up on this list are the same issues my mom debated with her friends many years ago. I am not sure there is a perfect definition of un or homeschooling, nor a resolution to the questions of structure versus no structure or any of the other issues except in the context of individual and family decisions that evolve yearly/monthly/daily. It may sound strange coming from someone of my background, but while I believe passionately in homeschooling and do not suffer from the pervasive and understandable anxiety about “how it is all going to work out”, I don’t and wouldn’t want to label my style of homeschooling. Nor do I have a big philosophy about how to do things aside from working out what works for me and my kids over time.

From my perspective, all these debates about ways of homeschooling and methods (love/hate waldorf/montesorri/free range/no range/sit at desks/do math upside down in bed) if done respectfully, are wonderful and stimulating.


Please don’t forget that by not sending your kid to school and paying attention to their life and education, you are already doing something truly radical which will benefit them tremendously regardless of the label you put on it or the methods you use or even the amount of time you do it. The best part of homeschooling is that You (plural) Get To Decide what you are up to. So be gentle on your fellows and debate all you want but be sure to also give them major kudos for taking this step at all and for figuring out what is best for them. No matter what we do or who we are, the act of not sending kids to school should bring us together and make us extra supportive of each other. As moms, dads, families and kids, we are all pretty darn awesome!


PS To answer question number 2 (question number 1 is about “socialization”), all four of us chose to go to college and got in easily. I’m an acupuncturist on break to raise kids. One sister is the founder and principal of an alternative high school in New Orleans helping disadvantaged teens, the other is an assistant DA in NYC. My brother is studying advanced Arabic and civilian affairs after rising a few ranks in the army. Upon retiring from home schooling, my mother dusted off her law degree and is the director of a community/courtside mediation center. We all followed our dreams and appreciate our home school background.

   Oct 08

New Hacker Scouts Website!

Good news! We have put together a dedicated site for Hacker Scouts to consolidate all the announcements, items of interest, events, and photos in one place. From now on, all Hacker Scouts related posts will go here!

   Sep 19

Hacker Scouts: Judo Bots

Last Sunday we had another amazing Open lab session of Hacker Scouts. With over 50 kids (plus their parents!) it was a full and active hackerspace event! Our featured project was Hydraulic Judo Bots . Other activities offered were: Learn to Solder, various advanced Soldering Kits, Compressed Air Rockets, and an LED Light-Up Bracelet Kit. We were also honored to have a reporter from NPR and from the San Jose Mercury News in attendance, both very interested and excited about what we are doing as a Maker community!

There were a couple observations Chris and I made at this Open lab that were very interesting to us:

At this Open Lab, we noticed there were a lot more girls. This is exciting in two ways: the first is that being a Maker is just as empowering for the girls as it is for the boys. It’s about being human and realizing not only skill, but potential, in oneself. Second, we think it’s extremely valuable for boys and girls to be working side-by-side, eliminating gender stereotypes and developing a healthy respect for each other’s abilities.

Also, we were asked many times about how we choose the activities being offered and how we manage to balance the needs of the kids. Our menu is no happy accident. Chris and I review the possibilities every time and try to balance between beginning and advanced skill building, multiple intelligences (or the different ways kids learn), and how each activity is meeting the developmental needs of this age group. We believe that, while the kids never see or notice this part of Hacker Scouts, it is crucial to building a program that gives them challenges, success, and real work. We believe it is condescending and disrespectful to give them any less. Our goal is to help them identify their interests and strengths within themselves and the confidence and mentoring to push themselves towards their own goals.

Finally, we realize how crowded AMT can get with that many people, and it can be overwhelming for some. While it’s true that AMT as plans to move to a larger space in the near future, we are making what we have work for now. But there are a few benefits to having such a crowd that should not be overlooked. Having that many kids created a sense of excitement in belonging to a community that many kids (and parents!) expressed to me throughout the day. It is very cool for a kid to meet so many others who are into Making  too. There is also idea sharing that happens with a good size crowd. For example, down in the Judo Bot room, many kids shared improvements and modifications they made to make their Judo Bot either stronger or more effective in battle. One kid would make a hammer on the front, and another would take that idea but add forks on either side to grab with, and so on. We were so impressed with the kids’ ingenuity and enthusiasm.  Not to mention their agility in battling their Judo Bots! And finally, we had 10 mentors on hand, plus many parents assisting, in the various activity areas. This was a great number to have on hand. It assured that every kid would have a chance to ask questions and get assistance, but it also allowed parents to contribute in a meaningful way. But the best benefit of having so many kids and just enough mentors is this: when the kids have to wait a few minutes for a mentor’s time, they often find the mental space to solve the problem themselves. There is nothing more empowering. And what I observed is that when they could not figure out their problem on their own, often another kid would step in and try to help. Working together, they were almost always able to work through the issue. That kind of learning, peer to peer and hands-on, is exactly how kids in this age group learn best. And it’s why, when some parents have asked us if the crowd was no big, we emphatically say “No!” because these interactions would not happen as frequently under smaller conditions!

We are grateful and honored that Hacker Scouts is resonating with so many families and hope see everyone on the first Sunday in October for our featured project: Spy Gadgets!






   Sep 13

A Maker Education

The other day I was interviewed by NPR about Hacker Scouts and I was asked an interesting question. The reporter asked me my opinion on the DIY program sites that are cropping up for kids like DIY.org and Maker Camp and a few more that are specifically utilizing an online presence to connect with kids and Maker culture. This is a more complicated question than it seems! On one hand, how can using technology to power this movement, when technology plays such a large role in it be a negative thing? My response might surprise you. Because it can.

There is no doubt that the more resources we have available to us, the better off this movement is. The ability to go online, get new ideas, see tutorials on how to gain new skills or goals, not have to leave the house in order to do those things. The online presense of the Maker community is enormous and powerful and essential. But it is not without it’s failings, and one of it’s biggest is that it doesn’t actually meet the learning needs of most kids. We can see why by looking at a snapshot of development in this age group.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget referred to the cognitive development occurring between ages 7-11 as the “concrete operations stage”. Children in this stage can not think both abstractly and logically, instead they are limited to thinking concretely. Their knowledge is tangible, definitive, and exact based on real, concrete experiences rather than abstractions. Unlike younger children, they have moved past magical thinking into a thinking process that relies on classification, serial ordering, cause and effect, stable identity, and conservation. This is one of the reasons math and science becomes so attractive in this age period. They are also developing memory strategies for retention of knowledge and skills. Developmental psychologist and theorist Erik Erikson names the stage between the ages of 6 and 12 “Industry vs Inferiority.” In other words, children are recognizing and actively seeking out the ability to gain new knowledge and skills and assessing their personal method and competence, often comparing themselves to peers. This is an essential time for self esteem, the building of relationships, and providing opportunities for success as well as failure. According to Erikson, it is critical children successfully master this stage before moving on the the stage of “Identity vs Role Confusion,” in which adolescents grapple with  devotion and fidelity, purpose and potential. Children in this age range need quite a bit of praise and reinforcement around competence and self-image, mentors to help them recognize and develop their own unique talents and abilities, and guidance with relationships, problem solving, and communication.  So then, in order to truly meet the developmental needs of this age group, we need to recognize the limitations of the internet and come back to what the maker movement is all about: community.

The first problem is that online programs depend on a capacity for abstract thinking and follow through that most children in their target age group (6-14) typically don’t have. Learning, or the forming of synapses in the brain are formed through repeated experiences, and like younger children they are still learning mostly through movement and tasks their body must perform physically. These pathways become more complex when subjected to multiple sensory input, language, and relationships. But the problem is that these pathways are a “use it or lose it” system, so if a function is not repeated to ensure retention, that pathway disappears. The higher cognitive functions that make children such eager and easy learners starts to decline into the slower adaptive adult levels of synapsis by the teenage years and so it becomes essential to create an optimal learning environment during those crucial school age years. Selecting skills from a webpage fills an interest need, but not much beyond as there is no support around follow through. And since there is no process for ensuring retention, it is hard for an organization or the student to measure skill building or progress in this manner.

Another issue is the real and perceived nature of structure. Online programs have no other choice but to have a structure that tend not to meet the needs of most students. The skills and projects are chosen and categorized and tend to all be very similar from website to website.  Most kids in this age group have very specific ideas about what they want to learn and why, and what they really need is someone with experience to back them up. So what you end up with are many kids who are bored and/or uninterested in what is offered for very long, or they feel internal pressure to complete the specified badges. The issue is that if the structure induces this kind of emotional response, the brain automatically goes into “fight or flight” and is unable to process or retain the information. This happens in school quite a bit under high pressure conditions such as test-taking or a student being called upon unwillingly. Kids actually lose their peripheral vision, increase their hearbeat and breathing rates, and lose memory strategy. You could argue that this should not be symptomatic of an online resource as it is meant to cater to the interests of the student when and where they are available. They could take breaks and come back. But my point is that they all have a managed system, in which someone else had laid out the rules, the value of the skills, and the end results. Many kids could easily find this stressful and limiting.

Finally, and probably most importantly, online programs eliminate the beauty of mentorship. There is a reason that most professions throughout history were/are still taught by apprenticeship. Even my husband says he owes his technical abilities to what he learned on the job, as do I. Besides the overwhelming evidence that this age group needs guidance through the exploration of their own competence and identity development, there is a subtle transfer of information that happens from mentor to student. The body language, verbal communication, storytelling/history, and observation between student and expert is irreplaceable. Mentors serve as a role model and a source of safety in both attempt and failure. Without a doubt, it is easy to look up an answer or a tutorial on Google or You Tube, but for the student, these experiences do not mean competency, retention, or the give them the benefit of community. And community is what the Maker culture relies on, was built on. The next generation of Makers deserves that sensitivity and investment.

I am in no way saying that these online programs do not have a place. They do. They are cool and fun and great resources. Starting points, if you like. But in order to create something that helps our children develop skills in the areas they are truly interested in, abilities that would allow them to dream big and create big, we need to listen to science as much as we worship it. Programs need to be built in communities, schools,  and hacker spaces where kids can have the tangible, concrete experiences they need for life long learning.

   Sep 03

Hacker Scouts: Biospheres

Yesterday marked the inaugural Open Lab for our new adventure: Hacker Scouts. We had an amazing turnout with about 40 enthusiastic kids and their supportive parents! Our featured project was Biospheres (also see here), which half the kids decided to work on, with the other half choosing activities from our menu, including a Learn to Solder Kit, Drawdio! Kit, a Plushy Sewing Project, Using the Laser Cutter to produce original designs, Laser Cut Dino Puzzles, and Kinetic Mobile Art.  There was also a fantastic Hex Bug village built. We had many mentors on hand from AMT and several parents who joined our team to assist the kids in building their skills. The format we designed worked well, with the featured project and kit instruction providing enough structure, but leaving the choice of what to work on, which skills to build, and the possibilities of their imagination firmly in the hands of the kids. There was a beautiful community spirit present, which is the point of this whole program. Making as a part of our everyday life and relationships rather than compartmentalizing it into simply a hobby.

Feedback highlights from yesterday’s open lab:

“Thank you for a fun afternoon. We are totally enjoying the biosphere. We are all so grateful for what you and Chris have put together.”

“I am inspired by your efforts.”

“Awesome day today, thanks again for putting it together.”

“This is exactly what we needed!”

“I don’t know how you managed to keep 20 kids captivated about Biospheres, but you did! Amazing workshop!”

“We can’t wait to come back in two weeks!”

“We get to take this home?!!!”

To see photos from this weeks Open Lab, go to Ace Monster Toy’s photo stream.

   Aug 28

Hacker Scouts!

Back in March I wrote about the idea of a Hacker Scouts program addressing the needs of a progressive maker community and how my husband and I shared an attraction to joining or developing a structured program of helping our children develop skills in the areas they are truly interested in, abilities that would allow them to dream big and create big. Well, we have been working hard all summer to design a Hacker Scouts program at Ace Monster Toys, a hackerspace in Oakland, CA that would fulfill our aspirations. Our program is based on how children learn through various developmental and educational theories as well as a desire we see in the Maker culture for community and family inclusiveness.

The idea is this: Twice a month we will hold open labs where we will have experts/mentors available to help kids with any project they bring in. There will also be a featured project that a whole workshop is built around that specifically targets skill building. In addition, there will be a menu of kits/activities that are available for kids that focus on a variety of interests, skills, and ways of learning. The structure has a method- it creates consistency and the opportunity for mentoring and improvement, the provided activities and featured workshops are designed to teach to multiple learning styles, and the program is inclusive and adaptable. Kids can earn badges or not for their skill building, and they can come every week or once in a while. Here is the info:

Ace Monster Toys presents

Hacker Scouts

Got a Maker kind of kid?

Traditional kind of scouting not a good fit?

Want to Build community with other maker families?

Hacker Scouts is a new program designed to acquire new skills, reinforce knowledge, provide mentoring, and build community.

Join us for Open Lab and bring your own project, or work on one provided by AMT! Earn badges and skill build through specific mentor-led workshops! Workshops planned include:soldering, sewing, circuits, programming, engineering and building, leds, dumpster diving and found art, printmaking, and more!

We know age is just a number, but AMT will be targeting projects in the 8-14 year old range.

This is not a drop-off program. Parents must stay and are welcome to participate. This is a free program, though some workshops require a materials fee, and donations to the space are always welcome. RSVP’s are helpful, though not required.

Hacker Scouts Open Lab

1st and 3rd Sundays of the month


@ Ace Monster Toys

6050 Lowell Street, Suite 214 in Oakland, California

For more information and questions:




This program was designed and will be facilitated by Chris Cook, who has several decades of tech and building experience, and Samantha Matalone Cook, who has an MA in Education as well as two decades of experience in educational programming, outreach, and the arts. A dedicated Maker family, they homeschool their three kids in Oakland, CA. They will be joined by a variety of experts and mentors from the community to ensure a well rounded and high level of attention and skill building.

September 2nd, 2012:

Open lab: Bring your own projects and get help from building, techy and sewing experts!

Featured Project: Biospheres ($8)

Make your own self-sustaining biosphere and learn how this amazing ecosystem works!

Other Available Projects (materials fee):

Learn to Solder Kit ($16): Soldering skills rusty or non-existent? This deluxe version of the Solder Practice kit comes with 30W soldering iron and wire cutters. Builds a flashing European-style-siren. Lead-free solder included.

Drawdio! Kit ($14): Drawdio is an electronic pencil that lets you make music while you draw! It’s great project for beginners: An easy soldering kit with instant gratification. Essentially, its a very simple musical synthesizer that uses the conductive properties of pencil graphite to create different sounds. The result is a fun toy that lets you draw musical instruments on any piece of paper.

Laser Cut Dino Model Kit (Free): With pre-designed CAD plans, use the laser cutter to make the pieces of a model that you can assemble and paint yourself!

Sewing 101:Plushy Kit ($3.50): Use a provided pattern or make your own to create a one-of-a-kind plush monster, blockhead, amoeba, etc on the sewing machine. Excellent way to build sewing skills!

Kinetic Mobile Sculpture Kit (Free): Mobiles are a kind of kinetic sculpture that are based on the principle of equilibrium to produce works of art that showcase the beauty and harmony between design and movement. Many artists, most famously Alexander Calder, have explored the challenge and excitement of kinetic art- create your own mobile out of wire and a variety of objects!

Materials Fee Note: We are providing the Hacker Scouts program free of cost. All materials fees are based on cost for us, and are due at the time of selection. Thanks!

Upcoming: September 16th, 2012:

Featured project: Hydraulic Robot Arm