Hiya – I’ll be heading over to a local school shortly, but before I go, I thought I would answer this question as a blog post.
My readers often ask me how to get started with robotics and how to make robots? Its nice to hear that so many of you know kids that are really into making and coding and want to ensure that this interest is encouraged.
Now, most people, would simply answer with ‘well, just buy them toy x’ or ‘get them this app, it teaches you how to code’ or something along those lines. That type of answer is ok, but what happens when the novelty wears off? How do you actually keep the interest going and really get your kids into robotics?
1: Give them space.
Robotics is messy. It requires tools. It takes a lot of thought. It takes a lot of time.
The first thing you need to consider is ‘Where’? Where will my child be able to make their robot and also keep it, so that they can leave it and come back to it whenever they want to.
You need a designated area, it doesn’t have to be large and it does not have to be expensive.
It does need to be clean and comfortable. Let your child choose the space and get them involved on laying it out and setting it up.
Lets look at an at home example. You’ve got a few choices: Your child’s bedroom, the family room, or the box/spare room.
Some people use the kitchen – I would only recommend this as an absolute last resort. As I said, its messy and the fumes from solder or 3d printing etc. aren’t food friendly.
Once you’ve chosen a room, you need to decide how much of that room you can dedicate to robotics. It might be a corner or the length of one wall.
Next, depending on your budget, you need a desk and storage. The cheapest option is an MDF board and some brackets to attach it to the wall. Get your child involved on designing what it will look like and how large it should be. Here in the UK standard MDF sizes are 600mm by 1200mm, these are a good starting size for a desk. Get some plastic containers – the ‘really useful storage’ boxes are amazing and will stack neatly underneath the desk. That’s it! You’re ready to start making.
You don’t need to do it all in one go either, you can make a plan for a really ambitious space with loads of nice cupboards and custom built slots and bookcases etc. and build it one step at a time. Adding to it occasionally when your budget allows.
Here are a few examples, where you can use existing furntiure, a floating desk and a more purpose built solution:
Whatever you do, be sure to get a decent chair. It is worth spending the extra money as your child’s spine is growing and will need proper support. The work area needs to be inviting, otherwise it won’t be used!
What about in a school?
This might be easier or harder, depending on the size of your school, how much funding you have etc. Perhaps the easiest thing to do is to have one designated cupboard for all things robotics. Then whenever its time to do robotics, everyone knows where the equipment is and where to put it back after. There is a whole lot more I can say about this, but feel it would take up another post. So I will write that one another time.
2: Give them the right kind of encouragement
Its great that your child is really geeky and into coding and minecraft etc. but if you have gone to the trouble of creating a space for him/her and you feel that its not being used enough, please do not worry. Sometimes things get hard and this puts kids off.
When this happens, give them some time and when it feels right, ask them casually: “How’s that project going?” or “did you manage to get the lights on in the end”?
Try to get them to talk through their problem – you can do this regardless of your own expertise – just listen and help them to discuss the issue. If that doesn’t solve it, use online forums, your own network of friends, and good project based books to help you.
Never pressure them or make them feel that they have to use the space. Let it be their own choice so that it remains a hobby for them and not a chore.
3: Inspire them
There is a lot happening in the robotics industry. We’re not far off from self driving aeroplane taxis and many are predicting that there will be a lot of job and business opportunities in Robotics.
Its worth staying up to date with the latest happenings and share them with your children. Show them how the things that they are learning or playing around with are being used in real life.
Tell them that they are just as smart and can be just as successful as these other roboticists – or perhaps even more so!
Help them to be ambitious and to aim high, because even if they don’t get there in the end, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they have something to aim for that is worthwhile.
4. Create a culture of making
Obviously, a lot of praise when your child makes something will help, but in general try to create a ‘maker culture’ in your environment. How?
When you’re out shopping and looking at items have conversations on how an item might have been made, or how it can be improved.
If something electronic at home breaks give it to your child stating ‘I think you might be able to fix this’. This will do wonders for their confidence and self-esteem. If it turns out they can’t fix it, tell them its ok and ask what they might learn from it or use its parts for.
If possible, discuss project ideas together. This will ensure your child always has someone to come and speak to and it will feel like they have a team mate. Robotics has a stereotype of people working on their own in dark rooms. But this shouldn’t be the case, as geeky or nerdy as we might be we all need someone to bounce ideas and problems around with, and even occasionally need some company!
Feeling inspired? Read my post on what to have in your Zobotics lab for some ideas on what components you might need.
You can also get started with making a robot with our free online course ‘Make a robot the easy way’.