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FINE Newsletter, Volume IV, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Family–Afterschool Partnerships for Learning

Voices from the Field

Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s Jane Werner, executive director, and Lisa Brahms, research fellow, discuss the Museum’s innovative MAKESHOP. Launched in 2011, MAKESHOP is a rich and supportive informal learning environment for children and families to engage in “making experiences” using authentic materials, tools, processes, and ideas in the creative process.


MAKESHOP at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is a space for hands-on building and tinkering with old and new technologies, exciting projects, and cutting-edge media. Considered an exhibit within the Museum itself, MAKESHOP is a physical area made up of three flexible workshop spaces where children and their families can share in a variety of exploratory and product-oriented “making experiences” using tangible materials. MAKESHOP involves a partnership of Children's Museum, the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out of School Environments (UPCLOSE), and Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC).

MAKESHOP was established out of the growing trend among children’s museums to focus on the 0–5 age range, which neglected the interests and learning needs of older children. To address this, we specifically designed our program for children between the ages of 8–12 and their families so that they would continue to find engaging learning opportunities at the Museum long past age five.  


MAKESHOP embodies the Museum’s dedication to nurturing and furthering informal learning opportunities and research-based understanding at the intersection of the digital and the physical. MAKESHOP provides Museum visitors open access to digital media resources and physical materials to produce a vibrant place for curiosity, exploration, creativity, and innovation. A dedicated facilitation team composed of skilled makers, artists, and educators with specialties in the areas of digital media, sewing and flexible materials, electronics, woodworking, and informal learning introduce visitors to the diverse materials and processes of making, as they help visitors translate their visions into tangible products.  


MAKESHOP's workshop space.

MAKESHOP has been designed as a raw, workshop-like space that allows children and families flexibility and creativity of movement as they participate in a variety of open-ended experiences using physical and digital materials, tools, and processes. For example, families can build life-sized structures using real screws and bolts with wood, metal, industrial felt, and recycled plastics; they can solder an LED into a bracelet, upcycle a t-shirt into a new wearable garment, weave a rug with plastic bags, and explore basic and complex circuitry.  

Providing children with hands-on learning experiences that they might not get during the school day, MAKESHOP’s skilled teaching artists invite children and their families to explore how objects work, how they are created, and how they can be used and repurposed. In this way, MAKESHOP extends museum-based learning beyond the traditional ways in which children and families interact with museum exhibits, reflecting our wish to move away from the concept of families coming to the museum expecting to be provided with an experience, toward the notion of families and children creating their own experiences together.


MAKESHOP’s approach to family engagement is to provide opportunities for family members to engage in an open-ended creative process alongside their children, which enhances children’s ability to problem-solve, think creatively, and work collaboratively with their family members. When a family comes into MAKESHOP, they’re greeted by a teaching artist who asks, “What do you want to make today?” The teaching artists then guide children and their families through the MAKESHOP space and help them navigate the tools and materials provided for their projects. Children and their families create a variety of products with the materials at hand: electronic circuit boards, knitted garments, and wooden toys, to name but a few.


We believe that offering family members and children opportunities to work side by side on projects encourages them to have conversations about what they are creating together, in contrast to traditional experiences in which adults merely serve in a supervisory role while their children work independently on projects. We discovered that this co-learning process helps re-ignite a love of learning among adult family members, making them more likely to continue fostering similar learning experiences outside of the museum and actively engage with their children in those learning opportunities. Children learn new processes and techniques, while adult family members have expressed delight in re-engaging in creative activities.


A sign to inspire creativity.

MAKESHOP has built both formal and informal partnerships with local educational institutions. With the intention of advancing field-wide use of digital media as an integrated tool for facilitating conversation, exploration, and productive making among young families, the Museum, the ETC, and UPCLOSE continue to work together to develop digital experiences that thoughtfully and intentionally consider the child, the family, and context of use. Each academic semester, a student design team from the ETC works with the UPCLOSE research fellow and representative MAKESHOP staff to develop a singular digital component for the space.

Several local elementary, middle, and high schools also use MAKESHOP as an integrated part of their curriculum, making frequent visits to the Museum, while others have visited MAKESHOP for a focused field trip to initiate, complement, and inspire their classroom curriculum.  

For more information about MAKESHOP, visit

This resource is part of the June 2012 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archive of past issues, please visit

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project