The start of a new school year causes an interesting social ebb and flow at Maker Jawn. Some of our Makers return to us without ever having left – their shorts and t-shirts replaced by blue uniform pants and button-ups, eagerly tying each others’ smocks so as not to spill paint on their new clothes, excited to finish the project they started the week before. Some come back to us tanner and taller after two short months of absence, sharing stories about Puerto Rico or their aunt’s house, camp and summer school. In our space, these Makers return to us with a sense of ownership. They know where everything is, they tease the library’s security guard, they hassle the children’s librarian to play games, they know who to turn to for homework help.
Some faces are conspicuously absent. Kids move, age out, join extracurriculars. We miss their presence, and notice how different all our regular personalities are without the addition of these individuals.
Interestingly, it is the influx of new kids in our space that makes the most perceptible change. This stream of new Makers brings with it preexisting relationships from school, the neighborhood, or large family groups. It changes our ratios, be it gender, age, or school affiliation. All this is to say, the behavior and general atmosphere of our spaces evolves when an influx of new Makers arrives at the start of the school year.
There’s a huge challenge in addressing these new personalities and group behaviors. So much of being a Maker Mentor is about getting to know the Makers that populate your space; about understanding the social dynamics and interests of these kids and utilizing tools and curriculum to foster a productive, inclusive, creative environment. With ten new faces in the space, ten new personal histories and ten new interest areas, it can be difficult to give every Maker the attention they need in order to acclimate them to the space we hope to provide. Complicating this is the attention that we must give our regulars, to ensure their productivity as much as their continued autonomy and ownership of the space.
In true DIY spirit and mostly by accident, one of the ways we were able to do this as Kensington Library was through the creation of a giant fort. Fort building is a popular recurring activity at Maker Jawn, and we recently found our Makers experimenting with architecture by reappropriating large swaths of fabric. In the first few days of the newest iteration of fort building, the structures were small, cramped and fragile. A list conspicuously appeared on our white board bearing the title VIP’s under which a list of names was written, clearly establishing who was (and was not) allowed inside the fort. The group curating the VIP List was mixed, but skewed mostly towards new Makers. A smaller group of younger, more regular Makers were upset by the exclusivity and began to build their own separate fort. Fighting broke out, the structures collapsed, and the day ended with Mentors asking everyone to clean up early as a way to curb bad behavior.
Towards the end of the week, one of the Makers on the VIP list showed up at the library early. They were a program regular the year before, and had witnessed and contributed to the group dynamic the previous school year. Their punctuality ensured that they could begin the fort building process one-on-one with the Mentors, and while pulling out materials we got to talking about the chaotic vibe the fort and the VIP’s had been causing that week. They expressed that they didn’t like that people were fighting, that the fort felt exclusive, and that it was difficult to get any real work done on building something stable and usable because people were in such conflict. Together, we wrote a list of rules for the fort that addressed inclusivity and described a method of enforcement for the rules. For example, No fighting. We can tell that people are fighting if voices are raised. Another, everyone can come into and work on the fort is enforced by establishing partitions inside the structure, so that factions of Makers who don’t get along have their own space. We also eliminated the VIP list, and added some silly rules like keep your shoes on!
The beautiful thing about the rules was that they were written by a Maker and they were largely self-enforcing. We posted it, collected materials, and began troubleshooting how to build with our limited materials. As more Makers filtered into the space one by one, they wandered over and started contributing. We had every Maker involved read the rules first, and if they broke the rules we re-explained them, as a group. Makers either chose to comply with the rules or opted to leave the fort and focus on a different activity elsewhere. In the end, we worked together to build a giant multi-room fort that took up half of our space! A variety of play took place inside, and culminated with our LEAP ASL, Josh, reading a story inside the fort. At the end of the day, everyone volunteered to help clean.
This experience provides a great template for acclimating and integrating new Makers. In this iteration of fort building, its roots grew from a foundation of exclusivity, which contributed to an atmosphere of negativity and chaos in our small room – a place we all had equal stake in preserving and sharing. The exclusivity, though it provided a short sense of control for some of our Makers, changed the energy in a way we could all feel as a collective. This change motivated a small subset of Makers, some new and some old, some younger and some older, to not only communicate their ideas about safe space ethics, but also to work collaboratively to build something intricate and stable that addressed the needs of everyone wanting to engage with the project. A fort, specifically, is an excellent project to integrate new Makers for these reasons. It encourages free play and experimentation, communication and ownership, and establishes rules in a way that feels positive instead of arbitrary. Forts are also temporary, and can be made out of all kinds of on-hand materials, which enables revisitation and development of critical thinking and problem solving skills.
I like to think this activity has changed our group dynamic at Kensington Library, that it has proven that we can share and work together towards a common goal. The common goal being, as always, playing and having fun.