KDL’s STEAM Work Lab offers hands-on activities to foster children’s curiosity

While the school backpacks might remain empty for months on end, the summer is an ideal time for children to visit the Kent District Library (KDL) to experience a unique, hands-on STEAM program called the KDL Lab Experience.

Tailored to elementary school-aged children, Courtnei Moyses, Kent District Library branch outreach and programming specialist at Kentwood and Gaines Branches, says there are eight new KDL Lab Experience programs for the summer. 

“They’re all themed around something," she says of the themes, which include pop culture references like Pokemon, super heroes, pirates, magical creatures, and even journeys through time. “

"They’re for elementary-aged children; we market it as 6-11 years old. We’re not going to turn anyone away, but parents need to know that some of the activities have small pieces and are a little too complicated for our friends under six.”

STEAM programs use science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics for access points to facilitate learning. Moyses says the hands-on activities provide something for everyone. Some of the popular ‘fan favorites’ include Superhero Training Camp, with Hulk Smash villains, superhero code, costumes and vehicles. 

“There are some that are game-based, and things you do in the Library, like a challenge,” she says. “Our journey through time tub has a Greek architecture challenge using the same type of technique that Greek architectures used with the posts to create a tower that will hold a really heavy book. From what I’ve heard, the kids have been impressed that it actually worked out because they’re just little paper cups and baking trays so it’s really simple, but fun.”

Each activity tub features a different theme, with some including magical menageries where students build a fairy house and even a pirate's lab where they get to create a pirate name and construct a boat that remains afloat. “Some tub programs are more popular than others. Some hit that niche of what’s really popular and some are more for a specific crowd. We try to have programs for everyone in all interests,” Moyses says. 

These simple, but fun, activities also encourage participants to explore their curiosity and follow their inquisitive thoughts of ‘what if.’

“The mission is to give kids that freedom to explore,” Moyses says. “There’s no right or wrong answer. There is one way you can do something, but they’re always welcome to do it their way with the materials at-hand. It gives them a space to be creative and try something new, and to have fun at the Library. We love it when people come and have fun and learn the Library is about more than just books. The books are always going to be there and we love reading. But the Library has so much more for them to experience.”

KDL has included STEAM activities and STEAM-centered events in its programming for seven years, says Moyses. “It started as a project with some of our Library staff and it kind of evolved into part of our ongoing ‘bread and butter’ programs. STEAM has become a really big push in the schools, so what becomes a big push in the schools, becomes a big push in the Library as well.”

Finding relevant, entertaining, accessible programming for the community and underserved populations is part of Moyses’ job duties. It’s an especially important task for this particular age group, she says. 

“It’s also a great way for us to keep children engaged in coming to the Library. We have our storytime, which is our tried-and-true program for kids under six, and then we have teen zones for 13+, but we didn’t have a lot of programming unique to those kids in the middle,” she says. “If they don’t continue to come to the Library while they’re in elementary school, they kind of forget about us. These STEAM programs are a great way to keep these kids coming to the Library so that they become lifelong library users and utilize us as a resource. It also gives them an opportunity to explore something that they’re interested in that isn’t for a school assignment, something that they want to do and something new for them to try.”

The activities themselves are station-based and offered at various times at all Library branch locations, as a drop-in event. Participants can wander around different stations at their own pace or complete them all in order. 

Moyses says the feedback from this Lab programming has been positive — something she’s happy to finally see, since some of the activities were initially created pre-pandemic. 

“Over spring break, we had a tub called Brain Games,” Moyses says. “It had a Rube Goldberg activity, so we had a lot of pieces and parts, and we let kids explore.The whole point of a Rube Goldberg machine is that, at the end, you want to ring the bell, so you set up dominoes, race tracks and things like that. The kids that attended just explored that for at least 45 minutes," she says.
"A lot of parents like it because it’s something they can bring their kids to; there’s not really a screen involved.”

Without the pressure of getting an answer ‘right or wrong,’ students are able to explore in more of a casual setting, like that of a museum or playground, versus a rigid classroom and without the pressure of a grading system. “We sometimes have technology they can get hands-on experience with and give them super simple coding experiences, or trial and error,” Moyses says. “We have some things like circuits to learn what a closed circuit is and kids are just getting to experience learning in a safe place where they’re not being graded, they’re not being judged or anything like that," she says. "They can just do what they want to do and explore what’s interesting to them. It’s not like school when there’s one person instructing everyone. It’s more self-guided, but there is a Library staff person in the room that can help answer questions or help guide.”

STEAM programming is just one way the Library is encouraging patrons to check out all the different activities and ways of learning they offer, besides traditional books on shelves. Moyses says the Library underwent a big rebranding with its summer reading program, which became Summer Wonder in 2020. “It’s still very heavily reading-based, but it also allows people to explore wonder,” she says. “To do this challenge, instead of just reading, you can listen to a story, you can write a story, you can do a STEAM experiment. In our Kaleidoscope, our quarterly magazine, this issue has our summer wonder booklet in it. It has STEAM activities in it that were created by the Summer Wonder KDL work group, in partnership with other local STEAM entities.”

If you are interested in getting involved with the Work Lab, typically, the drop-in times are 1-1.5 hour time slots and are offered system-wide, with various times at each KDL branch. You can search all KDL programming using parameters, like your favorite nearby branch location, or search STEAM programming here

Photos courtesy of Autumn Johnson, Bird + Bird Studio

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access, and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library. 

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
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