Do you have tinkerers in your family? I'm talking Lego builders, potion makers, robot lovers, and spouses, like mine, who can't throw anything out. If so, mark your calendar now for an upcoming Maker Faire, the wildly creative annual gatherings of the do-it-yourself tribe. At flagship events in New York and California, and smaller ones across the United States and worldwide, passionate hobbyists and entrepreneurs share designs for everything from homemade soap to radio-controlled robots. What's a Maker Faire like? Imagine, if you can, a combination science fair, craft show, electronics repair shop, and Mad Max movie set, then toss in spinning gears, blinking lights, 3-D printers, computerized contraptions, and crowds of gizmo-loving kids and grown-ups. It's chaotic, messy, and inspiring. If that also describes someone who lives in your house, you won't want to miss it.
Maker Faires are the brainchild of Make magazine, a bimonthly publication celebrating all things DIY. My family's first issue arrived two years ago, a gift subscription from my high school friend Paola. To be honest, most of the projects in it are way beyond my son, Quinn, now age 10. Still, when the magazine arrives, the creative gears start turning, and everything else halts. Mount a camera on your RC plane! Build a Geiger counter! Make a bar of soap! We have yet to try these, but Quinn and his dad, Scott, did begin work on a candle-powered toy boat. A neighbor with better follow-through actually finished Make's leaf-blower hovercraft, which resulted in short (extension cord-length) joyrides for the neighborhood kids.
Thrilled by this magazine just for people like them, my guys naturally wanted to attend a clan gathering. Scott, Quinn, and I met Paola and her family at the Queens, New York, event on an autumn Sunday. (With a one-day Family Pass we got five tickets for $14 each; other options were available.) We signed safety waivers (for the hands-on activities) and started our tour in a calm, family-friendly area that featured bicycles customized with immense butterfly wings and a lagoon for sailing milk-carton ships. After watching her kids play with a set of flexible plastic building blocks, Paola bought a bag to take home. Between entrepreneurs and the Maker Shed (Make's pop-up retail shop of kits, electronics, books, toys, and gadgets), there are lots of ways to spend money at the Faire, but luckily, most of the hands-on fun is included in the price of admission.
Ready for more, we decided to divide and conquer. At the Arduino pavilion, Paola's son, Matteo, and his dad, Trevor, checked out inventions that use these open-source programmable electronics kits, while Quinn and Scott stood mesmerized by printers in the 3-D pavilion. Paola and I took her 6-year-old daughter, Amalia, to the craft area, where she made a bracelet on a foot-pedaled loom. Afterward, we rejoined the guys at the Nerdy Derby, where you can bring your toy vehicle or make one on-site. As the car-making line was long, instead we just cheered on the tiny race cars as they careened down (and often fell off) the wooden track.
After lunch--there were a host of food trucks on site--we watched the Life-size Mousetrap, a colorful steel re-creation of the classic board game that here used humans as the mice. At the kids' pavilion, we admired long-range marshmallow shooters and a banana that doubled as an Internet-linked touchpad, all designed and made by kids and teenagers. Lastly, we visited the Farm Hack table, where we pedaled a leaf-shredder and saw an industrial salad spinner made from a washing machine, innovative designs whose plans are offered free to small farmers in need of inexpensive equipment. On the way out, we scooped up samples of granola bars and yogurt cups (despite its self-reliant roots, Maker Faire has embraced corporate sponsorship). Paola and I vowed to get weekend tickets next year, so we could go home before we ran out of energy, then come back for more the next day.
You could say the maker movement is brilliant branding of an old do-it-yourself tradition, and you'd be right. But it's more than just marketing: it offers valuable resources, community, and inspiration for the inventive among us. There's a playful, hobbyist spirit afoot here as well as a seriously contagious excitement about what people, including kids, can create. And that alone is worth the price of admission.
Maker Faire Bay AreaSan Mateo, CaliforniaMay 17-18makerfaire.com
Maker Faire: Kansas CityKansas City, MissouriJune 28-29makerfairekc.com
Maker Faire DetroitJuly 26-27makerfairedetroit.com
World Maker FaireQueens, New YorkSept. 20-21makerfaire.com
PLUS: Go to makerfaire.com for a full listing of the many mini faires around the country and the world.
Your kids are already hooked on Legos, robotics, electronics, crafts, and the like
You have the inclination, if not the skills, to help them pursue design ideas
You want to encourage their creativity and boost their science and technology skills
(At right, our intrepid author and her family attended the Queens, New York, event, which offered hands-on activities galore, including a whimsical acoustic sculpture)
A long-range marshmallow shooter seems like a bad idea
You prefer not to share your home with heaps of salvaged junk
makezine.comTry the "Kids and Family" page of Make magazine's website for easy projects, such as dice poppers and Halloween costumes.
makershed.comMake's online store is stocked with Arduino micro- controller circuit boards, tools, parts, how-to books, and kits, such as a solar grasshopper ($12) and a Geiger counter ($125).
howtoons.comThese inventive cartoons show kids how to make cool stuff, from spring- loaded chopsticks to a CD hovercraft and a trash-bag raincoat.
sylviashow.comSylvia's Super Awesome Maker Show features quick, entertaining videos from young Sylvia, who demonstrates squishy electrical circuits, homemade sidewalk chalk, a cardboard periscope, and more.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.