My Maker Faire pilgrimage, 2010

Whenever I tell someone about Maker Faire, I always manage to convey my excitement, but never quite explain what it is. Some people remark that it sounds like Burning Man, or like some strange hobbyist meet-up, or some kind of geeky county faire. Most of the time they just don’t quite get it, don’t see the appeal. So I’m here to set the record straight! While it’s true that it has essence of each of these things, it really is an experience unto itself. And, I would argue, a broader, more family-friendly event than any of these things.

So then, what is Maker Faire? It is a huge gathering of people who do make things, with other people who want to make things. I’m talking about everything from handmade iPod cozies to remote-controlled cookie-decorators, from after-school science enrichment programs to some lunatic who builds a homemade roller coaster in their back yard. And who are these people who want to make things? Your kids. Seriously. If they haven’t told you yet, it’s just their best kept secret.

And before you say that it sounds like a "boy" thing, or a "nerd" thing, or just not your kids thing, I direct your attention to the two ten or eleven year old girls I saw excitedly asking one of the folks at a booth what would be a good "first kit" they could build. After some deliberation, they pooled their cash and picked out a small 3-in-1 electronics kit that made little robots that spun around making silly noises.

The last two years I’ve taken our older son (just turned 5) to the faire and we were like kids again. Oh.. well, I guess he already is a kid… but maybe he became a little bit adult that day, because what 5 year old do you know that can spend 6 hours on his feet and never once complain of being too tired? There was simply too much to see. He and I were solidly occupied from 10 to 4, including a few breaks for food of course.

The thing about this faire is it’s not about seeing, it’s about doing, and that’s what keeps you busy. We spent a good half hour in the lego pit building X-wing fighters, and then another 45 minutes building a masking-tape rocket that we launched hundreds of feet into the air with a compressed-air launcher. (Our rocket quite literally exploded on the third launch, much to the delight of my son, nothing that a little more masking tape couldn’t fix) I rode a stationary bike that blended carrots into carrot juice, and my son attacked another child with a remote-controlled six-legged spider-like robot. He also made animated sculptures, with some clay, a turntable, and a strobe light inside a darkened bamboo yurt!

The faire is at the San Mateo Fairgrounds and is spread out over a number of parking lots and indoor pavilions. This year the biggest building had the lights out. It was entirely lit by patrolling robot sharks, a 30′ "fish bug" sculpture, and 3 tesla coils that were demonstrated each hour with an amazing man-vs-lightning show. The other large building was packed solid with legos and craft lessons and invented toys.

I know where I’ll be next May! I’m already trying to figure out if we can make anything to bring and share. Any ideas?

Alecf is the father of two curious boys, age 3 and 5, and husband to RookieMom Heather. They frequently argue about who is the bigger geek. It’s definitely him.

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