The 3- to 5-year-old students in Mini Makers Class are playing in the dirt at the Twine Lab. They dig their hands into plastic tubs on the ground, gleefully making mud pies. Their teachers help them pour water over artificial flowers and plastic bugs nestled into the soil. Then it’s time to play outside, have a snack, read a book and make sock-caterpillars.
It’s all part of the regular scene inside the former elementary school classroom at the Lincoln Center. Founders and teachers Whitney Mason and Renee Bushman started the lab in 2017 as a makerspace just for kids. “We were raising our own kids and were inspired by the idea of teaching children some skills they might not receive in school, like using tools safely, but also how to work in teams, and [how to] assess risk instead of avoiding it,” Bushman says.
The business partners bonded over common teaching and parenting styles when they were teachers at Buena Vista Elementary, a public Montessori school in District 11. But they wanted something different than a classroom and opted for an experiential laboratory setting.
The Twine Lab regularly buzzes with activity. During the school year, the lab holds four-week Mini Maker classes for 3- to 5-year-olds and after-school programs for students ages 5-14. There’s a monthly theme, with projects carrying over week-to-week. Day-camps are the focus during summer.
Themes this fall include things that float and fly and kindness. When I visited in May, the theme was spring and nature, and mini makers were listening to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, planting seeds, and tasting different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Kids stuffed cotton batting into colorful socks to make their own very hungry sock-caterpillars. When I asked about their favorite activity at Twine Lab, a young boy named Bennet announced, “Drawing. But do you know what my favorite animal is? A gorilla!” As a debate on the ranking of tigers, cheetahs and gorillas ensued among the boys, 3-year-old Grace crawled alongside me to say that painting is her favorite.
Older students in after-school sessions enjoy free-build time to create large projects such as a marble run or a wooden stool. “For our after-school classes we try to encourage some good team building,” Bushman says. “We want them to hopefully walk away with a greater understanding of tools and materials—and maybe even strike up a new friendship.”
The older students are encouraged to challenge themselves and try new things, including tools like the power saw and drill press. “There are so many opportunities out there to follow instructions from a kit, but it’s the most fun when you’re given materials and decide to build a vending machine out of cardboard,” Mason says. “Sometimes you’re successful; sometimes you’re not. There’s a lot of learning that goes on when there are no directions. It helps kids become really good problem-solvers.”
Many families are regulars in the Twine Lab creative community. “We keep signing up for multiple months because she’s having so much fun,” says Erin Sawyer, mother of one of the mini makers. “It’s the best of small business and creative kids play, and the ability to give them something different to do. There’s so much value in what this does.”
Who knows what these kids will create when given the chance?