Make a Makerspace

What is a Makerspace?

While there is no formal definition of a makerspace, they are typically designed as catalysts for hands-on building and tinkering with old and new technologies, exciting projects and cutting-edge media. Making is characterized by interest driven engagement in creative production at the crossroads and fringes of disciplines such as science, technology, engineering, art and math. Students can play around with ideas, create things together and experiment with tools, materials and techniques while they investigate how things work, discover how things are used, and learn new processes and skills. Makerspaces give students the opportunity to deeply engage and innovate in science, engineering and tinkering as they discover creative ways to design, build and invent.

  • MAKESHOP is often asked to guide educators and organizations in the design of new maker spaces and programs. In particular, educators often want to know how to approach the task of designing for particular audiences, and what  tools and materials emerging makerspaces should invest in.

    Here, you will find our recommendations for the design and development of making experiences for learning. The information is broken down by aspects of design that we consider to be important considerations for designing making experiences for learning. These include age of your audience, the duration of time spent in your space or program, the learner arrangements in your space or program, and additional considerations about staffing, space, and safety. Since the conversation about making as a designed learning experience is growing, we consider these recommendations to continually evolve as we learn about new programs, approaches and products.

    Principles of Practice

    The staff of MAKESHOP has been engaged in the process of identifying, refining and articulating the “Principles of Practice” which guide design, development and facilitation of making as a learning process within our space and through our programming. Through this work, we have been able to develop shared understanding and a “language of learning” for our work as designers and facilitators of making. These Principles of Practice are at the heart of our recommendations for the design, development and facilitation of making experiences.

    Learning Practice Principle of Design Description What it Might Look Like
    Inquire Making experiences encourage exploration and inquiry through access to a variety of real materials, tools and processes. “What is this?”

    “What does this do?”

    Tinker Making experiences are process-oriented, and provide opportunities for extended purposeful play, testing, risk-taking and evaluating properties of materials, tools and processes. “Let’s see what happens when I try this?”

    “What if I do this?”

    Seek & Share Resources Making experiences encourage learners to value, seek out, contribute to, and share expertise with and among the community. “Hey, look at this!”

    “How did you do that?”

    Hack & Repurpose Making experiences inspire learners to identify and use familiar tools, materials, processes and ideas in new ways. Imaginative play or make-believe

    Using the material’s properties in a new way

    Express Intention Making experiences are learner-driven, choice-based and empower leaners’ development and refinement of interest, identity and personal learning pathways. “First, I’m going to connect these two together.”

    “I’m going to make this go really fast!”

    Develop Fluency Making experiences develop comfort and competence with diverse tools, materials and processes by providing an approachable, accessible and supportive learning context. Adding additional elements

    Using specific vocabulary

    Being able to repeat processes

    Simplify to Complexify Making experiences enable learners to demonstrate, expand, deepen, and challenge their understanding of materials, tools and processes, by providing opportunities to connect and combine component elements to make new meaning. Making a connection between one process and a dissimilar one

    Adding additional elements that support and enrich a project

    Our Approach

    Guided Inquiry: Our facilitation team is comprised of self-identified makers with varied areas of specialty, all of whom work closely and collaboratively. Through formal and informal conversation, we work to identify key actions, language and learning associated with different activities, and to find areas of similarity between disciplines. With these in mind, we aim to create fully-scaffolded experiences which a visitor may enter at any ability level and discover a knowledge and support structure necessary to develop deeper understanding and develop more advanced skills.

    Facilitators engage with visitors through a guided inquiry approach, using conversation and open-ended questioning to learn about visitors, their interests and backgrounds. Visitors are prompted in casual ways that ask them to reflect, asses their own progress, and make decisions that will affect outcomes. Their responses, in turn, help the MAKESHOP Team refine activities and approaches in order to provide engaging, challenging and exciting experiences for each individual.

    Entry Points: As a permanent exhibit of Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, MAKESHOP serves children and families of diverse ages, compositions, and experience in making. We intentionally design to encourage learning experience in MAKESHOP that are varied, flexible and open-ended, which includes opportunities for engagement with real materials, tools, processes and ideas. We have learned that visitors approach making experiences in MAKESHOP through these three general points of entry. Makers engage, mess around with and integrate each of these aspects through their participation.

    • Materials and Tools: Exploration and use of the real materials and tools of making.
    • Processes: Engagement in the techniques, process-components and building blocks of making used in MAKESHOP
    • Ideas: Inspiration for a specific project or product to create in MAKESHOP

    The MAKESHOP Team is always happy to assist designers and educators in the development of their space and programs for making. Please contact us at makeshop@pittsburghkids.org for more guidance, including consultation and site visits.

  • Age

    Age is an important factor to consider when designing or facilitating any making experience. Thinking critically about the age of your audience will help you design and determine activities, tools, materials and processes that are developmentally appropriate.

    • Early Childhood

      Very young children are still learning about the world. Rather than focusing on outcome or product-based making, we believe it is valuable to expose children to a variety of materials and processes and allow them to explore and experiment. Handling many textures (wood, fabric, plastic, etc) can help expand an understanding of materials properties and grow vocabulary. Reading about, discussing and trying tools and processes can give context that helps them make connections to other elements of their lives.

      The best types of tools, materials and processes for young children are those that do not necessarily require a “right way” to use safely or effectively. Consider avoiding overly-complex or dangerous materials, such as hot soldering irons that are difficult to hold, or 3D printers with exposed, delicate, moving parts. When working with young children, use the same precision of language that you would with an adult, such as calling tools and materials by their proper names.

      child appropriate Keep an eye out for this icon, which indicates tools, materials and processes that are appropriate for young children.

    • Elementary School

      Early elementary-aged children are building skills related to working in teams, taking turns, being patient, listening carefully and following multi-step directions, while older children should already be able to do these things without prompting.

      Children of this age are able to follow along with repetitive processes to improve their fluency and dexterity. With prompting or encouragement, some children will be able to extrapolate and apply these learned skills to projects of their own design, and design a plan to accomplish the required tasks. Depending on the child(ren), certain hot, sharp or dangerous items may not be advisable without close supervision..

      While most children will have some level of reading comprehension, written signage may not be the primary means of transmitting critical information. Adding in elements of spoken/discussion-based, pictorial and/or role-playing communication of key learning moments, discoveries, and makerspace rules may be more effective.

      Elementary-aged children can be expected to properly care for, clean up after and maintain the space, with some amount of guidance or assistance. Older children may also be able to act as mentors, monitors or helpers for younger or less-experienced kids.

    • Middle and High School

      While skill-building, process practice and exposure to new materials are still important even to older audiences, some middle- and high-school aged children may have an existing understanding of introductory-level skills. Educators may wish to consider offering a way for learners to demonstrate existing knowledge in order to advance to more complex processes or mentor beginner-level students’ development.

      Older children should be able to think critically about the steps needed to achieve a self-determined goal and, with input, identify possible processes, tools and materials that may be required. We believe that mature individuals with proper training should be able to safely and effectively use all tools and materials available.

      With more dangerous tools and materials, think critically about if, how, and in what ways young people in the space will be allowed access to items that require specialized training.

      In self-directed environments, a sense of “ownership” of the space, tools, etc, is important to keep the makerspace functional. Involving teens in the discussion of rules, regulations and expectations may help impart a larger sense of responsibility for the space’s well-being. Leadership, steward or mentor roles can also play a part in instilling good habits and best practices across a youth peer culture.

    • Mixed Age/Any Age

      Spaces that cater to multiple ages, like the MAKESHOP, have a few special concerns and opportunities for learning to keep in mind. Tools and materials should be stored in a thoughtful way that allows older or more advanced learners’ access but restricts use by younger, or less-experienced children, to prevent injury to or damage. This can be through simple physical methods such as the height at which items are placed, through complexity of access by use of things like combination locks, or via “request-only” availability of items as monitored by a facilitator in the space.

      Scale and scaffolding is also important to multiple-age spaces. Important questions to ask: What adjustments can be made so that all activities are accessible to all users? What are the core concepts, ideas, processes or skills needed to engage in an activity? How can those skills be deconstructed to make them engaging for all audiences, even those who are not yet advanced enough to master technically complex activities?

      Additional considerations include: the height of tables and seats, the size of objects and the ease with which they can be held, the location of different activities in relationship to one another and the entry points of the space, whether some areas will need to be limited in access.

      Making provides wonderful opportunities for people of many ages to work together, or co-learn. In MAKESHOP, we often see family members engaged collaboratively the making process.

      multiple ages / familiesKeep an eye out for this icon, which indicates that a material, tool or process is particularly recommended for use in multi-age or family spaces.

      Related Links:

      The New Coviewing: Designing for Learning through Joint Media Engagement

    • Educators

      When working with adult or educator audiences, be considerate of multiple learning styles: while making is very hands-on, many educators are used to receiving training or professional development in more lecture-like settings and may require prompting and support to explore and try new things (just as their young learners do).

      We have found that they best method of professional development in making for educators, is direct experience with the materials, tools and process of making. Educators should be encouraged to explore many different tools, materials and processes and communicate their findings to one another. Consider ways to encourage discussion or documentation in the space itself, such as Post-It walls, cameras to record findings, etc. Co-learning is a great way to develop skills, practice facilitation techniques and discuss possible pathways to integrate processes into the classroom.

  • Time

    The length of time in which your audience is able or willing to engage in the space or experience will greatly influence what they are able to do and achieve. Designing activities within known parameters or anticipating expected ranges of engagement will help you create a space or experience that feels useful and supportive instead of rushed or lagging.

    • Under 30 Minutes

      For spaces that are scheduled for short visits, such as lunchtime recess groups or early childhood activity centers, activities should includes relatively little set-up or clean-up. Consider simple, well-defined activities that require relatively little instruction and do not have definitive stopping points. Single-material exploration-focused activities are a good choice for short sessions. Processes with many steps may not be a good fit, and activities that rely on extended timelines to see results may feel frustrating for learners, unless spread out over the course of many sessions..

      Patience and process are excellent learning goals, and so multi-sessions projects should be encouraged; contexts that offer opportunities for multiple experiences over time or repeat visits (such as classrooms) should consider setting aside a dedicated space where projects can be safely stored between sessions.

      short time length Keep an eye out for this icon, which indicates that a tool, material or process is more easily adapted for use during short-duration engagement.

    • 30-60 Minutes

      More time per session increases your ability to offer processes or activities that involve multiple-step preparation or more extensive clean-up, and allows more time for exploration, and discussion. Possible arrangements can include rotating between several short-engagement stations, or focusing deeply on one set of processes or materials.

      Medium-length sessions are also appropriate for working incrementally on projects. As with short sessions, consider providing storage options for frequent visitors to or users of the space.

      medium time length Keep an eye out for this icon, which indicates that a tool, material or process requires a slightly longer period of engagement, but can yield satisfying results in a limited time span.

    • Over 60 Minutes

      Long sessions give a great deal of flexibility to the design of the experience. Depending on the age and maturity of the audience, they can engage in several shorter activities or spend time and effort focusing deeply on a single process.

      Teaching complex processes, practicing skills multiple times or attempting variants on single process are all appropriate for longer timespans. Workshop-style classes or lessons which hope to go in-depth into background, history, design, or intensive skill-building are best suited to these lengths of engagement. Given more time, learners can be guided through more reflective practice about their experience.

      Consider methods by which to schedule or suggest breaks or changes in focus, especially for younger children or physically intensive processes.

    • Uncertain or Variable

      Consider a variety of different-length engagement activities that provide opportunities for self-directed exploration. Think about the flow through the space, and how your audience chooses to engage upon entry: will they need to be eased into your space with some quick, easy options? Do they want to be challenged by complex processes immediately? Are you hoping that all visitors to the space will approach in the same way, or is it okay if some choose to explore for short periods while others engage deeply or for a long time?

  • Learning Arrangements

    When designing making experiences, it’s useful to consider the ways in which learners will interact and engage on another in their making experiences. Are the learners in your space or program very similar in their life experiences or very different? Do they know one another or are they strangers? The ways in which they interact with each other can dramatically influence the ways in which they interact with your space as a learning environment. This is also informed by the age, duration and frequency of their visits.

    • Individuals

      In spaces where people may-or-may-not know one another, establishing that individuals feel welcome and ensuring a system for the safety of people, tools and other things is important, since there may not be an inherent sense of trust among the visitors to the space. Some important questions to ask yourself: Do you have a way to greet or talk to every visitor who comes in to make sure that everybody is on equal ground when it comes to the expectations of the space? What expectations do you have about where these people are coming from and what shared history they may have? Are your assumptions correct? Is it clear who can be approached for help, or how to report unsafe or unsavory behavior? Is it easy to do these things? How frequently are these individuals in the space? Can you leverage frequency to create community? Are all visitors equally welcomed or are there barriers to participation? If you are a space that frequently welcomes groups or classes, how does the experience change for an individual? Are there still activities that can be participated in without additional help or hands?

    • Families

      Composed of diverse ages and genders, families bring to their collaborative learning experience practiced methods of cooperation and communication, systems of shared beliefs and values, and recognized motivations and agendas for participation. Through making experiences, families may relate and reinforce past experiences, family history, and develop shared understanding and interest (e.g. Ellenbogen, Luke & Dierking, 2004). A family’s agenda, or goals, can be multiple, shared or conflicting, and motivate families to purposefully chart individual and collective pathways of experience. In this way, it is important to recognize that family learning through designed experiences, such as making, is a negotiation of parent and child interest, knowledge, and choice (e.g. Crowley & Jacobs, 2002).

      In family units, all family members are learners.. Each person, from the eldest to the youngest, brings desires and knowledge, which can be leveraged and should always be respected and celebrated. When facilitating a family group, be sure to include every family member in the conversation.

      Not all adults may be comfortable with the tools, materials or processes that you may be using, and may be hesitant ask questions or admit their lack of knowledge. In these cases, explaining the basics to the younger family members can also be done in a way that informs all family members without causing embarrassment. Try to identify tasks and behaviors that even novice adults can model for children; with guidance they can be positioned as both facilitators and co-learners of their children.

      Questions about the family’s previous experience in engaging with the tools, materials and processes can help provide insight into both the family dynamic as well as their existing knowledge. “Have you ever done this before?” may prompt different answers from the adults and from the children, and they may even surprise one another.

      multiple ages / familiesKeep an eye out for this icon, which indicates that a material, tool or process is recommended for use in multi-age or family spaces.

      Related Links

      The New Coviewing: Designing for Learning through Joint Media Engagement


      Crowley, K., & Jacobs, M. (2002). Islands of expertise and the development of family scientific literacy. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning conversations in museums (pp. 333–356). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

      Ellenbogen, K. M., Luke, J. J., & Dierking, L. D. (2004). Family learning research in museums: An emerging disciplinary matrix? Science Education, 88(51), 48-58.

    • Groups or Classes

      One of the benefits of a group or class is that they likely already have a level of familiarity with one another. While this is not always the case, activities that are appropriate for collaboration — processes that require multiple assistants, are large in scale or that require many pieces — may prove ideal.

      Spaces that typically welcome individuals or families may have trouble adjusting to the scale and collective actions of groups. If activities and processes offered are not collaborative, are there enough tools and space for everybody in the group to work at once? If not, what will the others do while they wait their turn? Is there a way to make the process of turn-taking productive or effective?

      Other considerations include: How do you communicate the intention of the space and activities to a large number of people at one time? Are there certain rules, limitations or expectations that define the correct or safe use of tools and materials? How will these be enforced? What happens if one individual or sub-group needs extra support or assistance?

      no groups

      Keep an eye out for this icon, which indicates that a tool, material or process is NOT recommended for use with groups.

  • Additional Considerations

    Makerspaces come in all shapes and sizes, each one distinctly suited to the needs of its goals. When considering, planning, designing or maintaining your space, these are a few of the elements we suggest you keep in mind.

    • Staffing

      The amount of time and resources you are able to dedicate to your facilitators will greatly influence what kinds of making experience you are able to offer, and the depth of knowledge you can expect to make available to visitors. We are proponents of a well-trained staff that is given time and resources to expand knowledge and explore individual interests, as well as discuss and share best practices. We do realize, however, that this is not always a possibility for every space. The key to a functional space is thoughtfulness and consideration (and a well-informed champion or leader always helps!)

      What is your staffing structure like? Is your space or program facilitated by a dedicated staff, with minimal turnover who have enough exposure to learn on the job and be well-trained on all the tools and processes available? Is your space run by part-time or changing staff with some specialized knowledge? Or maybe volunteers, untrained or ever-changing individuals, supervise your space or program? Whatever your model, it is important to consider the following:

      • Training: Orientation, education and professional development is essential for ensuring that facilitators know how to safely manage the environment, but also to establish shared understanding about the goals and objectives of the space or program. How is your staff trained? Take the time to design an orientation, education or professional development plan that you honestly feel you are able to implement with the people who work in your space, whether they are there every day, once a week, or only to set-up and tear-down.
      • Sharing and Reflection: Providing or establishing routines for sharing and reflecting on experience are important to maintaining a cohesive and collaborative learning environment. How do you support staff to share and reflect on their practice as facilitators of making?
      • Fit and Capacity: Does your staffing model align to the objectives of your program? Be critical in prioritizing your desired outcomes and balancing them against your means. What do you want to achieve? What do you need to get there? Is that realistic? If not, what can be modified about your aims or about your current situation?
    • Space Use and Storage Concerns

      Who is responsible for keeping your tools in working order? Are they skilled enough to do so? Who cleans your space? Are they familiar with the special needs or restrictions of the items that may be around?

      There are makerspaces that fill entire buildings, with a place for everything and room to spare. There are makerspaces that are a couple of boxes and a folding table that change location every few hours. And, of course, a wide range in between.

      What is your space used for? Do you need to share it? If so, with whom? What are their needs? What, if anything, can you share or leave out? What needs to be put away after every use, and where does it get put? Is that location secured?

      Do you need electricity? Do you have outlets, extension cords, and gaffer tape to secure wires that may become tripping hazards? Do you need to clean up after yourself? Do you have cleaning materials, drop cloths, or a good relationship with the janitorial staff? Will you need access to water for activities, or for washing hands?

      How is your space arranged, monitored, facilitated? Are there are any limitations on the number, age, size or ability of users? How do you indicate and enforce those requirements or restrictions? Are others allowed to observe? If so, from where?

      Some items in the materials list will be tagged with the following icon to help you better understand spatial requirements:

      storage needed

      Significant storage space required

    • Safety

      Safety is, understandably, a major concern for all makerspaces, particularly those working with children.

      The best way to ensure safety is to hire and train knowledgeable facilitators or monitors of the space who are able to give input on, make adjustments to and oversee safe use of the space. As a general rule, anybody using an object that may be a safety hazard should be able to articulate why it is dangerous — this goes for adults as well as young people.

      For example: A child using a saw should be able to understand that a saw’s job is to cut, and it cuts with the sharp teeth on the bottom. This particular saw is designed to cut wood. Therefore, the teeth should only touch the wood — not other people, not the table legs, not the other tools. Rules should be clear and understandable, and access to the tools should depend on appropriate adherence.

      Young children will, of course, still require reminders of the rules and supervision of the tools. Because their motor skills are not fully developed, power tools which move very fast or items that get very hot and can burn on contact are not recommended. The more mature and physically capable the child, the more responsibility they can be allowed, at the discretion of a knowledgeable mentor.

      A safe makerspace culture is one in which nobody is above the rules, but none of the rules are arbitrary. Adults and facilitators in the space should always model best practices, such as wearing protective goggles, using clamps or holding scissors appropriately. In spaces with repeat visitorship, such as classroom or school makerspaces, involving the users of the space in the rule making process will give them a reason to monitor one another and adhere to their self-designed regulations.

      The materials list currently has three warning icons related to safety:

      temp warning Warning: Hot

      sharp warning Warning: Sharp

      eye safety warning Warning: Requires Eye Protection

  • About the Materials Lists

    The following page contains a curated list of tools and materials in the categories of general materials, digital media, simple electronics, fiber, and wood. Before planning to purchase items for your makerspace, we highly recommend you look at the information contained on this page about the age of your audience, the duration of time spent in your space or program, the learner arrangements in your space or program, and additional considerations about staffing and space, and safety.

    This key can help guide you in your decision about designing, developing and maintaining making spaces and experiences for learning.



    storage needed Significant storage space required

    weekly visits Aappropriate for repeat visitors, such as afterschool programs, workshops or camps

    budget savor Good option for tight budgets

    high cost Requires a significant monetary investment

    short time length Can be used in a very limited time frame

    medium time length Can be used in an intermediate time frame

    child appropriate Appropriate for young children

    multiple ages / families Recommended for family or multi-age audiences and spaces

    no groups Not a good option for large groups or field trip visits

    temp warning Warning: Hot

    sharp warning Warning: Sharp

    eye safety warning Warning: Requires Eye Protection


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Please let us know if this information is helpful, and suggest improvements we can make. Email makeshop@pittsburghkids.org with any feedback.

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