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In Praise of Informal Educators
They bring hands-on learning and making to children during summer as well as throughout the school year
As summer winds down, I’d like to recognize the work of many informal educators, who create learning opportunities for youth outside of school throughout the year, but especially during the summer months. Librarians and informal educators at science centers and community centers are among the biggest champions of hands-on learning for children, and they have sustained experiential learning even during periods when it has not been a priority in school. All of them have been introducing making stuff to children in a playful way that focuses on the student’s interests and ideas.
In my 2016 book, “Free to Make”, I talked about the value of informal learning. I quoted Curt Gabrielson, author of Tinkering: Kids Learn By Making Stuff, who said that sometimes parents question what students learn in informal settings.
(He) sees tinkering as authentic and personal learning. He’s asked the “what did they learn” question quite a lot by parents and school administrators. “Heck yes, they are learning something,” writes Gabrielson in his book. “And it may be the most valuable thing they’ve learned all week.” He confides “that I have no proof” that tinkering is learning, except that in his experience “most kids have learned oodles and oodles of stuff, including talking and walking, texting and skateboarding, with just this hit-and-miss, trial-and-success, seat of the pants approach.” He has seen for himself that “tinkering may raise all sorts of questions in their minds that inspire them to learn more about what they’re tinkering with, and it may start them on a path to a satisfying career, not to mention good fun on their own time.”
Leaders in informal learning often call themselves practitioners, not teachers. It reflects a different view of the adult’s role not as a subject-matter expert but someone guiding children through a learning practice. Practitioners such as Gabrielson have trusted their own varied experiences and the successful experiences of children to refine programs that work for any child, regardless of age, gender or socio-economic background.
Gabrielson helped create the Environmental Science Workshop in Watsonville, California (where they grow artichokes) and he was on a Plan C panel on informal education during Covid that I organized. When local schools closed, Gabrielson and his colleagues put together kits and delivered them to homes for children. Many others did similar work, including the MakerEd team in Oakland.
Nina Barbuto of Assemble in Pittsburgh organized virtual summer camps in the summer of 2020 and packed up kits in bags for pick-up. I just published an episode of Make:cast on “Making Creative Space with Assemble’s Nina Barbuto.” Nina founded Assemble as an Arts and Technology Center for youth and adults in Pittsburgh’s Art District in 2011 and she is its director. In my conversation with Nina, I asked her about how difficult it was to create a new space from scratch.
Not working with an existing institution, Nina had to rent space, organize it, and find others to volunteer. It was a lot to assemble. In doing all that hard work, though, she created not just space but a community that cared and contributed to its success.
Nina: It is so hard. I would say do things while you're young, you have all that energy. At the time I was working like four different part-time jobs. And I was just like, okay, let's do this. I would go from one job to another job and then I would go to Assemble and then I'd be at Assemble. And just kept doing that. Then I would take on teaching jobs for Assemble and all that pay would just go to pay her rent. Then we started to branch out and brought on some more teachers and so we were paying those teachers and if there's anything left over that went to go pay rent.
But they did it in a volunteer capacity until for the first four years of its existence.
Dale: You willed it into being, as they say.
Nina: Yes, but also too with the sustenance of community. If it wasn't like, hey, people want this, like my reaction to the feedback that I was getting --people love this.
I like to talk about it as it's getting that gravity like gravity is so hard to overcome, but once you're in it, you just have to push a little further and you get a little bit faster. You're like, how do we keep this moving and have it have its own force?
So, kudos to informal educators everywhere who spark creativity and joy in children. They deserve our appreciation for the hard work that they do in their communities.
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