Designing for Constructionism and Learner Autonomy


by Christa Flores -


Every learner deserves a space to go to every day that will expose them to the beauty of the world and the intrepid explorer that they truly are. How can learning spaces cultivate this goal while encouraging constructive autonomy in the youngest of learners? Two spaces that I have had the pleasure of visiting have shed some light on that question. The first stop was San Francisco Brightworks and the second the Beam Center in Brooklyn, NY.

What is constructive autonomy?

The ability to work on passionate projects, with very little adult or mentor guidance, is a sweet spot in all creative pursuits. When working in a state of constructive autonomy we get lost in the flow of joyful work. Time slips away effortlessly. We may even forget to eat or rest. Unfortunately this kind of passionate flow is not cultivated in our current school system. While school schedules are regular, predictable, and easily managed (just the characteristics you would want in an industrial production line) when students seek out autonomy in this system, it can be perceived as a negative or behavioral issue. Thanks to the work being done in makerspaces now found in libraries, schools, urban enrichment programs and museums, constructive autonomy is no longer the exception to the rule. In this blog I will describe three components that allow for constrictive autonomy for young learners when using a makerspace.

Trusting Kids

A kid should lose autonomy only as a last resort, such as when they may inadvertently harm themselves. Lets face it, most of us have read Lord of the Flies, so constructive autonomy, still has an adult in the room to monitor emotional and physical safety. Adults also have a need for autonomy, but not at the expense of safety. Most of us choose to live in a society with law and law enforcement rather than none. Practicing constructionism in the school setting, therefore is a balance of safety and responsibility that adults and children agree upon for the system to work. This builds an essential foundation of trust that must prevail any excitement around any particular tool. I believe Gever Tulley, author or 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do, is definitely onto something when he states that autonomy has to feel like just the right amount of scary to feel genuine.

My visits with Tulley at SF Brightworks taught me a lot about the “language” of trusting kids. Offering true autonomy to a student might sound a little like this, “hey I see that you can handle this, I trust you. You are competent, and even if you make mistakes, I expect you to learn from them.” The act of showing a child how to safely use a cordless power tool involves allowing children to experience the kinetic feedback of holding tools and manipulating materials. Sometimes it just means sitting with learners until the excitement of turning on a noisy or powerful tool dissipates to the point of boredom. Tool training can be followed by the adult turning their back to the new tool user as a sign of trust rather than disinterest. Turning your back shows the learner that they are now the master of their own work and safety. While the adult is still present in case of an emergency, the right and responsibility for bodily safety is ultimately in the hands of the tool user.

Note, triggers on power tools can be hard work for small hands, and if using the trigger distracts young brains from their real work, then the tool may be too difficult or unsafe for their size. High voltage plug in power tools should always be monitored by an adult with younger users.

Access and Inspiration

Designing spaces for constructionism and autonomy begins with allowing all users equal access to tools and materials. This is best accomplished by having clearly labeled areas for tools to be taken from and returned. I have seen lots of great versions of creating access for all learners that include providing building and scientific tools (microscopes, hand lenses, etc.) as well as computers, how to books and inspirational natural artifacts. 

A makerspace should feel like a shared home away from home for learners. Something as simple as cleaning up and replacing tools to their proper home can give a sense of ownership to a makerspace visitor. When visiting the Beam Center in Brooklyn, even brooms were on display as a sign of shared stewardship.

Make clean up easy after a productive and messy day of making with protocols and well labeled tool storage using visual, as well as text signage for non readers.

Hand drawn labels let artists, makers and inventors seek out and discover. 


Tracing the shapes of tools, al a Julia Childs helps everyone return tools where they belong for the next user.


Design Experiences

When visiting the Beam Center in Brooklyn, I was fortunate to visit on a day when their week long summer camp was just beginning a new session. The theme for the week was “Color,” a very fitting topic for learning about scientific principles, art techniques and stewardship for a shared makerspace. Many Beam summer workshops are targeted for a mixed age group of six to thirteen, allowing young mentors to work with younger or less experienced learners lending to a sense of authority and helpfulness. 

Above, "Mr. Tim" begins his introduction on screen printing with an informal disscusion with learners about what happens when you mix color. 


The workshop I witnessed was designed by artist and all around Beam Center superstar Tim Fite. The project of the day was to make a painting machine from a plank of wood, two screws and a rubber band. The rubber band works as a surface to apply paint. When pulled and released with differing force or direction, the vibration smacks and splatters paint onto a piece of paper creating unique prints, worthy of a modern art museum exhibit. The design of the machine was simple enough for any age level to construct and asked summer schoolers to learn a range of tool use and makerspace protocol, setting norms for using the workshop the remainder of the week.

What I loved about this workshop is how summer campers were exposed to the world of making tools for the purpose of making art, a message about being a maker, artist and scientist that is very empowering. Tools employed during this project included measurement tools, cordless drills, screws, and rubber bands. Once made, the paint machines were an open-ended tool for little makers to use over and over at home. Using only four materials, a wood plank, two screws, a rubber band and art paper, you can create the conditions for creativity, focus and individualized learning.

See below for step by step instructions for making the paint machine.

Getting to know your tool, takes patience and practice. This one tool helps learners as young as six practice focus, iteration and self-reflection on process.