Interview with Matt Jervis of MacGyverClass!

Matt Jervis runs MacGyverClass!, a Berkeley, CA after school program that teaches creative problem solving to kids in K-5th grades. Their mission is to get kids to think creatively and see challenges as an opportunity, not a threat. Special thanks to Matt for being my first interviewee! Interviews with more exciting thinkers on creativity are in the hopper, and I hope you’ll come back for more.

::Two TinkerLab followers will have the chance to win a Challenge Box at the end of this interview.::

I love the name, MacGyverClass! Can you tell me about your program?

Yes! First of all… Thank you so much for seeing value in what we are attempting to do!! Let me begin by addressing the name… MacGyverClass! Now all of us parents know who MacGyver was… which made explaining the crux of the class a bit easier, but the connection to the TV show ends there. The funny thing is, we have brought the word MacGyver to whole new generation! Without them knowing anything about the 80’s TV show, they walk out of my class knowing “MacGyver” as a verb! The MC! program is essentially built to encourage kids to indulge their natural creative abilities through a specialized hands-on activity. And we do that by offering our students an open forum to explore their own ideas through fun random challenges and random materials! The random aspect is very important to the class… We like to say that, “You don’t get to pick your challenges…your challenges pick you!”  and from there we begin!

What led you to start MacGyverClass!?

I’m an artist and a veteran punk rock musician… in other words I’m a creative guy with a penchant for performing…that coupled with a family of artists and teachers… MacGyverClass! evolved very naturally… The first MC! class came to be when my son, Jasper was in Kindergarten and I wanted to get more involved with his class… as a new parent and an artist I decided to offer his teacher an “art” class for one afternoon…  I based it on the crazy creative projects my Dad used to task my brother and I with growing up… making forts and other crazy stuff with just what we had around. As a painter, my Dad was fond of quoting Picasso, and often said  “When Picasso ran out of red paint he would use what he had…blue.” I took much of that to sentiment to heart …and it was from there the idea for MacGyverClass! popped.  I love MacGyverClass! because it’s simple and it can be done at home and it’s lessons are portable.

What age group do you work with?

As for the classes…I like the k-5th grade group… and I require them all to be in one class. This really helps to break down age barriers and form a real community in the class and beyond. As for my afterschool groups, I’ve seen this approach help to create bonds in the halls and on the playground! It’s magical to see a 1st grader and a 4th grader working together…then a kindergartner comes over with a cool idea…boom! That’s when MacGyverClass! really shines!! Separating the kids by grade just doesn’t work well for this program!

What does a typical class look like?

A typical class begins when school ends.  We gather together and we pick our challenge out of a hat.  The kids love being able to pick the challenge… Once the challenge has been picked, with a drum roll of course, I introduce the day’s materials. Every class is different and the materials are chosen with no regard to what the challenge could be.

For those of us interested in replicating a MC!-style class at home or school, could you share a couple of the questions that might get pulled from the hat?

Hmm. This is where MacGyverClass! really gets fun.

Challenges are off the wall but we take them very seriously! 😉 In fact we try and link all sorts of vocabulary words to each challenge and keep a conversation going the whole time. That really gets the wheels crankin’… My latest favorite challenges are:

  • With today’s materials make a house for your foot! or…
  • With today’s materials make shoes for time travel!

“With today’s materials create your very own action figure!”

This sounds like a lot of fun! What kind of materials do you use?

I approach each class like a head chef of a restaurant. Like a chef that goes daily to the Farmers Market and picks the latest offerings…I go to various places on my route and find wacky new materials and bring them fresh to each class.  They may range from rolls of aluminum foil… to wine caps or sponges. My favorite materials are the simplest…like egg cartons and VHS tape! The most popular material by far is the duct tape…but we use it in every class and because of that, the kids have developed a pretty savvy appreciation for the “good” stuff.

Why do you think it’s important to get kids to “think creatively and see challenges as opportunities?”

First of all…why not?  I mean, that’s the crux of life right? … to be prepared? I want our kids to be ready and able to deal with the ebbs and flows of life… Change and challenge… If we can start to show kids that to innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity – not a threat….  Getting acquainted with your creative side is to equip yourself with a real survival skill. Simply I see MacGyverClass! as a metaphor for life; We don’t choose our challenges, our challenges choose us! I hope our kids walk away feeling a little less anxiety when approaching a new challenge and see it more as an opportunity to be creative then a potential for failure. I hope they begin to see an egg carton as compressed paper fibers and not as an egg carton. By that I mean, see the material thru the form. I also hope they have fun ultimately… I feel kids learn best sometimes when they don’t know they’re learning… 😉

Can you tell me more about those intriguing Random Challenges boxes?

The boxes are great for anyone! k- adult… They tap into something we all do and gives enough structure without being too structured. Get a dozen and have them at a party… keep a couple in the trunk for long car rides…take them on the plane! Work as a team or just let your mind wander! It’s like a spa for your creative side.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today, Matt!



Giveaway is CLOSED. Matt is giving away two sets of his Random Challenges boxes to two lucky readers. To enter, leave a comment by Monday, June 6 at 8 pm PST, and mention your favorite upcycled found material. Winners will be notified by email or Facebook.

Extra Entries:

  • Like TinkerLab on Facebook and leave a comment on the TinkerLab Facebook wall.
  • Share this giveaway in your Facebook status and leave the link to your profile.
  • Blog about this post with a direct link pointing to this giveaway. Leave me a link so I can check it out!

If you’d like to connect with MacGyverClass!, you can find them on Facebook:

String Cup Telephone

I met up with the Los Angeles-based Trash for Teaching at the Maker Faire last weekend. Trash for Teaching is an organization that collects factory overruns and byproducts and redistributes them to teachers, schools, and museums for open-ended art making and tinkering. This is great for teachers with small materials budgets, inspiring for children to think creatively about how to repurpose materials, and wonderful for the environment. If you’re a Bay Area teacher, we’re lucky to have the incredible RAFT (Resource Area for Teaching) right here in San Jose.

I was given a few bags of materials to play with, and N and I enjoyed looking through the rolls, styrofoam, colorful papers, foil, cups, and sticks for inspiration.

Wouldn’t you agree that this is right up my alley?

Each bag was thematic, and one of the themes included materials that could be turned into string cup telephones. Do you remember tin can telephones? This is a a funny take on that idea.

Since Trash for Teaching is all about upcycling cast-off materials into something new, the big question today is “what was the original purpose of the cups you see in the picture below?” Bonus points and a big virtual trophy to you if you have the correct answer! (Keep in mind that these materials came straight from the factory floor and were never used otherwise!).

Make a string cup telephone set. It’s ridiculously simple, and worked great.

  1. Drill small holes in the bottom of each cup.
  2. Find a piece of string about three feet long.
  3. Thread the ends of the string through each of the cups. Tie off with big knots.
  4. Ring, Ring! Find a partner, pull the string taught, and you’re reading for some telephone play.

How would the telephone work if the string were 8 feet long?

20 feet long?

Does the sound change with different kinds of string or cups?

What could TinkerLab be?

I’m moving things around today and promise you a spiffy, new site in no time:) Why, you ask? As pretty as my previous design was, I received questions every week about searching for specific activities or for projects by age group. And wouldn’t you know…the site didn’t have a search function! I felt trapped in 2001, and struggled with the whole form vs. function riddle. Ultimately function won, thank goodness. While I think this will be a good thing in the long run, for now I’m sorting out the nuances of my new site design.

Sooooo, if there’s anything that you lurve about TinkerLab, or anything that you hope I might change or add, I invite you to share your ideas with me. Is anything missing? Can I add anything to make your experience here more fun? I love to hear from you, and I want this site to be wicked awesome.

Oh, and do you see that empty space over there on the right, just below the subscribe button? If you can think of anything that would be useful or nice to look at, I’m trying to figure out what kinds of goodies to put over there.

Playing Big

This week I’m sharing kid-friendly inspiration from the Bay Area Maker Faire.

Have you ever noticed that things can be much more fun and compelling when they’re really, really big? Think about awe-inspiring cruise ships vs. cute little kayaks or imaginative play possibilities in a refrigerator box. Today I have four show-stopping examples of play on a large scale, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you could replicate these at home or school.

Big Idea #1: Make your own Marble Machine

Open Make, a collaboration between the Exploratorium, MAKE Magazine, and Pixar Animation Studios, assembled this popular marble run installation. With a peg board as a base, participants could move various ramps, tubes, and funnels around to create the marble run of their dreams.

Grown-ups and kids were wholly engaged by this project. If you click on over to the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio site, you can download a Marble Machines PDF that will give you some ideas on getting your own marble run going. For more inspiration, we made these two marble runs from toilet paper rolls and cardboard boxes on TinkerLab.

Big idea # 2: Hundreds and Hundreds of Blocks!

If you plant a pile of hundreds of blocks in the middle of a sea of families, this is what you might expect to see! These structures were created by CitiBlocs, and I think they’re super cool. They’re narrow wooden blocks that seem to be great for building UP, designed for kids ages 3 and older. These structures remind me of the game, Jenga.

Big Idea #3: Baseball Bat Xylophone

Gorgeous, and simply genius!

Big Idea #4: Super size Lite-Brite

Did you remember the Lite Brite? This glowing, oversize Lite-Brite was an attention grabber, and people couldn’t keep their hands off of it.

Wouldn’t it be cool to have one of these permanently installed in the kitchen to entertain kids during dinner prep? Okay, maybe that’s just my dream! When I spotted a vintage Lite-Brite at a second-hand store last year I snapped it up for my kids to enjoy.

This photo isn’t from Maker Faire, but from a wonderful nature and wildlife center near our house, CuriOdyssey, where we’ve played with this even larger scale Lite-Brite made of colored-water filled bottles placed in what looks like a huge wine rack. I think it’s brilliant!

Photo: Frog Mom

What large-scale games are you excited about?

Ideas for Building Forts

Kids love to hide in cubbies, caves, dens, and forts, and today I’m sharing 6 Fort Building Ideas to get your little builders inspired.

3 Fort Building Ideas

In case you’re just checking in, I’m sharing some of my favorite kid-related ideas from the Bay Area Maker Faire, and today I’d like to share two creative ideas for building forts. These aren’t your quick and simple throw-a-sheet-over-the-dining-table sort of forts. These actually take some time. But the pay-off may be worth it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

1. Milk Jug Igloo

I met up with second grade teacher Katy Arrillaga, who was busy assembling a milk jug igloo. Or, I should say, “reassembling,” because she deconstructed the igloo that stood in her classroom, somehow managed to cart 400 milk jugs to the Maker Faire, and proceeded to reattach the bottles together. Katy explained that this was a popular reading area in her classroom and the jugs were mostly donated by her students.

This is how it looked about an hour later, moving along more quickly with all of those hot-glue-gun helpers.

This picture was taken the next day. I’m not sure how long it took to complete, but the result is stunning and children flocked to this. There’s something magical about seeing so many familiar jugs on such a scale.

Image: Daniel Shiao

2. Woven Willow Huts

The Palo Alto Art Center set up two weaving tee-pees, inspired by environmental sculptor Patrick Doughtery’s incredible willow-dogwood-pin huts. Here’s the inspiration:

This picture was taken about a month ago when we visited the Dougherty sculpture. The scale is striking. My daughter loved it, and spent about an hour playing in and out of this hobbit-like hidey hole.

3. Branch and Yarn Tee-pee

Referencing the Dougherty sculpture, kids and grown-ups weaved long strips of fabric, yarn, and ribbon through the slats of the teepee.

Not only were there children engaged on the outside, but they were also weaving from the inside. To give you a sense of the time involved, these teepees had been up for about three hours at this point. So again, these forts take some time.

Have you or your kids built a fort?

What materials did you use? Feel free to add a link or a photo in the comments.

Related Inspiration

The Role of Cubbies in Outdoor Spaces from Let the Children Play

Milk Jug Igloo

A quick image search on “Milk Jug Igloo” turns out all of these igloos!

TeePee Forts

TeePee Art and Weaving Ribbons from The Artful Parent

Gorgeous photos of the Patrick Dougherty sculpture by Mamen Saura

Maker Faire + DIY Design

We went to the Maker Faire this weekend, a DIY design/technology/creativity festival that attracts everyone from crafty sewing upcyclers to techie hackers to wide-eyed families looking for a creative outing. It was such an inspiring event, full of tons of TinkerLab-style making, that I thought I’d dedicate the week to Maker Faire talent. I gathered tons of good projects for you, and I hope you’ll enjoy the eye-candy that I have in store for you!

Shortly after walking through the main gate, we were greeted by a giant generator-powered electric giraffe. Its maker, Lindz, scaled a small kit robot up to this grand scale that reaches 17′ when its neck extends…and it was a show-stopper for sure. If you’ve ever been to Burning Man, you may recognize her, and you can read more about her here.

Here’s a peek into what makes her work. I have no clue, but I did loved seeing all of the colorful wires and appreciate the hours of welding involved in making this animal go.

Right around the corner from the electric giraffe was a pop-up tinkering studio that was designed to show how simple and inexpensive it can be to set up your own tinkering space. I love how they set up all their pliers on a folded piece of cardboard.

Inside this studio was a 5-minute LED Throwie project sponsored by Make Magazine. This would be a really fun project for kids older than five, but my 3-year old got into the spirit of it…especially the throwing part! LED Throwies were invented by the Graffiti Research Lab as an inexpensive and non-destructive way to add color to any ferromagnetic surface (street signs, for example).

The materials are simple and can be found at Radio Shack or similar stores.

You’ll need

  • a 10 mm diffused LED
  • a rare earth magnet
  • a lithium battery
  • tape (masking or packing will work)

LED lights have a long and a short side. Attach the long side to the (+) positive side of the battery. Squeeze hard to make sure the light works. If it’s a go, take a 7″ long piece of tape and tape the LED around the battery one time. Then continue wrapping the tape around the magnet until you run out of tape. Here’s a really clear tutorial,with costs (about $1 per Throwie), from Instructables.

Your throwie is now ready to be tossed at something magnetic, maybe your fridge? The Throwie should last about two weeks. And when the battery expires, don’t forget to dispose of it properly.

What else could you do with LED lights or throwies?

Blending Chalk Pastels

We started with a box of chalk pastels and construction paper. I happened upon this amazing box for $5 at an art studio sale. They’re wonderful, but really, any chalk pastels will do. I’m not  inclined to recommend construction paper because it’s not at all archival, but its toothy nature makes it a good substrate for chalk pastels (as long as you’re not planning to keep these forever).

After mentioning to N that I like the look of bright pastels against a dark paper, she asked for a piece of black paper. It’s a striking contrast, no?

I explained that one of the unique properties of chalk pastels is that they can be blended, and that we could try blending ours with a tissue. N remembered a bowl of cotton balls that we used to make  our Glittery Cotton Ball Collage, and wanted to use those instead. Good idea!

She found this process exciting, and was in a big hurry to put chalk on the paper for the express purpose of wiping it away.

This was followed by a series of mini blended chalk drawings. We went through a lot of cotton balls, and now I think she has a pretty good understanding of how chalk pastels work!

Do your kids like to use chalk pastels? When I was teaching, there were always a few kids who didn’t like to use these because they didn’t like the dust or the texture. Something to keep in mind if your child doesn’t take to it. And while it’s not quite the same, oil pastels are a nice alternative medium…they can also be blended, only with a little more effort.

This post is shared with It’s Playtime

Fridge Box Imaginative Play

We got a new fridge (!!), and while I’m thrilled with the new appliance, I have to admit that I was almost as excited about the box that it came in. I had to convince the delivery team to save it for me, and was surprised that they seemed shocked by my request. Have they not delivered glorious ginormous boxes to the homes of preschoolers before?

But what would we do with it? I put the question out to my Facebook page because I was interested in gathering a wide range of possibilities for N to choose from, and the responses ranged from hilarious (Carissa said, “it would MY ‘quiet place’ for the day and then the kids could have it tomorrow.”) to the fiscal (Bron said I might be able to sell it on ebay for $50!!). Lauren at 365 Great Children’s Books suggested “a castle…a cafe…a library…a puppet theater.” I ran these along with all the other ideas past my daughter who immediately said she wanted to make a cafe. But once she saw the box, she decided that it would be a FOOD TRUCK!

I pushed her play kitchen around to the back door (sadly, it was too tall to fit inside), cut a service window on one side, and added a couple quick tires to differentiate it from a fast-food place.

N added a cash drawer and a calculator, and was ready to take orders.

I asked her about the menu and she told me that I would be eating ravioli (actually a lovely assortment of rocks). I couldn’t quite nail down the theme of her truck because the next day she was making lemon crepes. It made me laugh when she packed my food up in a to-go bag!

As the day went on more things were added: hand soap (because her customers should have clean hands before eating) and the beginning of a menu (the red paper attached with purple tape).

We also added a window to the front of the truck, a chair for driving, a lighting system, and some employees.

Activities like this are great for imagination-building and open-ended play. We’ve only had this up for 2 days, but it’s already given us HOURS of fun. For more cardboard box ideas, go on over to our Cardboard Box Challenge, which shares the cardboard creations of nearly 25 creative education/parent bloggers.

Book Links

Your turn: What have you done with a LARGE box? Or what would you do with one?

If you have a fridge box link or a fridge box photo to share, feel free to do so in the comments.

This post is linked to It’s Playtime!