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Mr. Roboto

How To Start Making Stuff With Your Kids, From A 3D Printing Pioneer

To call Bre Pettis a “renaissance man” is sort of like calling Obama “the 44th President” — it fails to convey the significance of the man’s accomplishments. Before Pettis was a 3D printing pioneer as the founder of MakerBot, he was a maker community celebrity with various online and TV shows devoted to everything from stitching puppets to fabricating medical devices. And before that he was a public school teacher. So, basically, there is no better source of information when it comes to the question of “How do I do something productive with my kids?”

Still, as much as Pettis would like to sell you one, you probably don’t have a 3D printer. You probably don’t have a lot of the things you might think are necessary to engage kids in the things Pettis makes look so easy. Tools and space, time with which to use either, and bandwidth to learn new skills are all in short supply for a lot of parents. But the absence of those things doesn’t need to be a barrier to entry. In many cases you don’t need them; in others, the acquisition of them is the whole point. We asked Pettis for a few tips on how to get started.

1. Join The Cult Of Done
In 2009, Pettis and his partner drafted a manifesto that turns the idea of “done” on its head and celebrates the act of “doing” as the only thing that really matters. Sample statements:

  • Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you’re doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing and do it.
  • People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.

The point is that, if you want to teach your kid to make something and you don’t have the skills or tools to do it yourself, so what? Figuring it out with them is the whole point.

2. Encourage Destruction
Pettis credits his parents with developing the curiosity at the root of his success by indulging his childhood obsession with taking things apart. For him, it was broken stereo equipment, which they found at thrift shops and let him pull to pieces. Whether or not he could rebuild the stuff didn’t matter: “There’s a lot of learning in making things worse,” he says.

As his daughter is only 3-and-a-half-years old, Pettis is still waiting for her to move from a tricycle to a bike, at which point they’ll disembowel the old trike together. “As an adult, model this idea of enjoying understanding how things work,” he says. Your kid never has to know that you had no idea how things work until they forced you to learn.

3. Redefine What You Mean By Tools
Obviously, if you want to make things out of wood, you’re going to need hammers and nails. But if the closest you come to a work bench is a keyboard, don’t torture yourself by cluelessly walking the aisles of Home Depot. Buy a $45 Raspberry Pi and you can bypass carpentry and go straight to computing.

“You can buy kits that have a Raspberry Pi, a keyboard, a mouse and a USB hub. [The Pi] has an HDMI port, so you then all you need is a power source. Hook it up to your TV and you’ve just built a computer at home. It’s the equivalent of cutting edge technology in 1999, but you could do a lot of things with a computer in 1999,” he points out.

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4. Know Your Resources
Pettis has a long list of companies providing cool making opportunities for parents, as well as individuals producing simple, easy-to-follow tutorials online. A few of his favorites:

  • Thingiverse — A seemingly endless online archive of 3D printing instructions for the MakerBot where you can make everything from custom Legos to forks. Pettis is biased, but he has a point when he says that getting a 3D printer makes you “become the dad who manifests the thing your kid wants. It’s like a super power.”
  • Adafruit.com — Founded by an MIT engineer, Adafruit.com originally focused on teaching electronic engineering for all ages. It’s grown into a huge community with an accompanying shop that carries pretty much everything you need to help your kid build their own robot.
  • Super Awesome Sylvia — A 13-year-old whiz kid who hosts video tutorials on everything from making your own backpack to model rockets to silly putty. She’s like a prepubescent girl channeling Bill Nye and she can answer most of your kid’s questions that you can’t.
  • Magazines — That’s right — actual printed pages. Pettis is still a fan of the classics like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, as well as Make Magazine, which is the Maker community bible. “You don’t have to be the guy who makes everything,” he says. “You can subscribe to these and, when there are cool things, show them to your kid the same way you’d show them the latest Rube Goldberg contraption video on the internet. You can be a fan of the culture and still have an impact on your kids.”

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5. Leave The Cult of Amazon
“One of the things we do as dads is, we want our kids to have everything they want,” says Pettis. “And one of the mistakes we make it that we just go to Amazon and order it. The cool thing about being a creative father is that my daughter feels like, if something should exist, we can manifest it. We don’t necessarily have to buy it.” Of course, Pettis is talking about pretty much everything when he says “it.” You can maybe start with finger puppets.

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