COTA: Scouting the Web for kids' badge-based DIY projects

Jim Cota
January 3, 2013
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Jim Cota

Worried that the computer keeps your kids from engaging with the real world? Consider directing them to the new website DIY.org, built around the idea that the virtual world can inspire kids to get their hands dirty with actual physical projects.

In the parlance of DIY, Skills are unique sets of knowledge and know-how that Makers (that’s your kids) learn in order to become “self-reliant and creatively powerful.” To earn a Skill, children complete a set of Challenges to get the hang of it. Once they complete a Challenge, they add photos and video to their Portfolio to show what they did. 

It’s a little like being a Boy or Girl Scout, except here you get to pick the things you want to learn, complete the challenges, and show the badges on your dashboard instead of your shirt. A future premium service may include real stitched badges, but for now the site is completely free.

Run out of a former laundromat in the residential Mission Dolores neighborhood of San Francisco, the project’s team includes Vimeo co-founder Zach Klein and digital animator Isaiah Saxon of Encyclopedia Pictura. Says Klein of his team: “Everyone is able to be creative. And our confidence to be creative flourishes when we’re surrounded by people who positively support it.”

Targeting kids ages 7 and up, the site intends to grab their interest with projects in nearly any hands-on activity you can think of: woodworking, robotics, sewing, bike mechanics, biology, chemistry, etc. More than half the kids entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t been invented yet. DIY aims to foster and boost the creative thinking and problem-solving abilities they’ll need to thrive in that environment.

This convergence of both online and offline worlds for young people always posts some security challenges. Currently, kids sign up using a “handle” that isn’t their real name. After parents approve, they are given access to keep track of (and support) their kids’ efforts. Not flawless, but certainly good enough to help you keep tabs on what your kids are doing online.

Generally speaking, the website is beautifully designed and easy to use. An iOS app helps the kids keep track of their own projects and makes uploading photos easier, without the need to port everything to a computer first.

If nothing else, the site is a virtual cornucopia for crafty kids looking for new ideas. Some projects are created by DIY staffers, some by the kids themselves. Most use video as the primary teaching tool, which should work just fine, if my own kids are any indication.

As anyone who has tried to fix a leaky pipe without calling a plumber knows, there has been an explosion of learning taking place since online video took off. Seeing something done expands our concept of limitations and reworks our notion of what’s possible. Yet while video-sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo are great delivery platforms, according to Klein, they (and other existing social platforms) don’t quite satisfy the need.

“At DIY, it’s clear that creativity is what we celebrate,” Klein said, “so our kids know that to make is to be a good citizen of our community.”

A lofty goal—but it doesn’t end there: “Our ambition is for DIY to be the first app and online community in every kid’s life.” To reach it, the real trick might just be attaining a “cool” status high enough that kids will be interested in achieving something outside their video game consoles.

A parent’s challenge: how to get a kid to sample it without the recommendation coming from an (uncool) parent.•


Cota is president and co-founder of Rare Bird Inc., a marketing communications firm specializing in Internet application development. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.


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