I've worked in a STEAM-centered elementary school library and a traditional middle school campus library, and I often see questions from librarians about which materials to buy to support makerspace initiatives, so this post is my response to that question.
With a flexible elementary schedule, I was able to schedule weekly class visits for library read-alouds and check-out, and reserve either full or half-days for flex maker visits each week. These could be based on teacher sign-ups, where they bring the whole class, or it could involve a few students from multiple classes visiting without their teachers. On a fixed schedule, there would be more time for each class to explore the maker stations, but without time between classes, it's more difficult to change out the stations and materials if very young and older elementary classes are back to back.
My favorite thing in elementary school was student-led maker workshops, where older students led select activities, and a whole class of younger students visited with the classroom teacher, who broke the students into small groups based on interest to visit those maker stations. It was a great experience for a very large school, because it helped students get to know each other, it built confidence and leadership capacity in older students, and it exposed younger students to a variety of different types of activities, so that when they encountered them as library stations, they were better able to use those materials. However, this was complicated to schedule, as it involved pulling the older students and the younger students at times when their classes were available, and emailing reminders to multiple people, and setting up lots of different materials in advance.
In middle school, stations do not have to change drastically, because 6th graders can access the same equipment 8th graders can access (unlike in elementary school, where some supplies need to be changed out for 1st graders vs. 4th graders, for example). So maker stations can be out for library classes (it works really well leading up to a vacation break when students and teachers are exhausted and overwhelmed with demands), or part of a library club activity, reading challenge celebration, or before or after school in the library.
What to Include in Maker Stations
Logistically, I prefer to have too many stations per class, because I would always rather have extra room to spread people out than have too many people at a station, which means some people are waiting to use materials and have time to get off-task. I want everyone to be creating and busy, so having many options spread out across the space is helpful.
It is okay to repeat stations around the room, but if I plan to rotate groups left to right, I make sure I don't have the same materials at stations right next to each other so students get to try different things. Generally, middle school students can be free to visit any station and move from place to place as needed, with three guidelines:
1) All materials at the station stay there, on the table at that station
2) Only 4 people per station at a time
3) If you move to a different station, clean up everything before you move
I also walk whole classes through all of the station options (while they are seated away from the materials) before they choose where to start.
Here are some of my middle school maker stations:
1) KEVA Planks
If you have grant money, I would purchase these before robotics. They are incredibly expensive (the 800 piece kit is $400), but also highly flexible. Students can build elaborate towers, bridges, models, domino mazes, and all kinds of creatively engineered structures. The big kits include lightweight ping-pong balls for marble maze building, and easily keep four students busy at a time. This is a great station to "repeat" somewhere else in the room, and if you can get eight big sets, you can use them for whole-class activities so everyone can build at the same time. One example activity is building in response to a read-aloud; for example, after reading Jeanette Winter's biography of architect Zaha Hadid, The World is Not a Rectangle, students can engineer buildings that are not cubes or rectangular prisms, and share each building's intended purpose when they present their structures. Free play is also great, since students often construct highly creative, interesting things I would not have thought to prompt them to build.
2) Legos (or Lego, if you are outside the U.S.)
You do not need an infinite number of kits to make this successful - just enough for 4 students to have plenty of building material. It helps if you have some wheels and Lego people. You can provide some challenge cards for specific things to build - including things that tie to their curricula, or encourage free builds, or invite students to build along a theme to add to a library display case. You can get donations from families with older students who might not be using their Legos as much anymore, and it's good to remember that some families have never had Legos at home, so that spatial awareness that comes with construction is helpful.
3) Marble Runs
There are many brands and options, but if you don't have enough pieces for four hands to be busy at the same time, you may want to include two different sets at this station. Sets that include tunnels, trampolines, wheels, spirals, and multiple marbles for racing paths are great for experimenting and developing persistence. Pro Tip: establish a specific bag or container where the marbles always rest when they aren't in use for runs/trials, so that they don't get mixed up underneath a bunch of maze components, or lost underneath bookshelves. With younger students, distribute the marble(s) a minute or so after everyone has gotten to their stations, and collect them right before you give whole-group clean-up instructions.
This requires some community trust to be successful, but it can be a big win, and many students don't have practice with this at home, so it becomes an exercise in logic (could this color and shape fit here?) as well as persistence and spatial awareness. Puzzles frequently draw teachers to come in to the library, too. It might be a station that many students ignore completely, but it can be a nice way to sit with students and chat and get to know them better.
500 pieces are better for upper elementary students, while 500 to 1000 pieces can work for middle school students. The key is to get a good puzzle brand where the pieces definitively fit in their spots. I like Springbok brand - some of the piece shapes are unusual, but it is always very clear that a given piece does or does not fit. With some cheaper brands, the pieces only come in a few different shapes, and multiple pieces might fit on 3 sides, but not match color or fit on the fourth side - this leads to some students placing pieces in the wrong spots, frustrating later puzzle workers who are trying to work with wrong solutions before they find the mistake.
Another great tip for successful puzzles is to have a good puzzle board. I got mine from Amazon, and it includes a felt board mat that keeps pieces from sliding, as well as 4 drawers for sorting pieces. It also has a cover that fits over the whole board, in case you need to protect it for a while.
5) Giant Coloring Poster
This also requires some community trust to be successful, since some students may enjoy writing "colorful" messages in permanent marker on the poster, but like a puzzle, it can be a nice thing to gather students together and have some calm creativity. You can provide regular markers or felt tip pens, and hang the poster in the library when it's complete.
6) Button Maker
I bought some cheaper button makers on Amazon, including one with multiple sizes, but both machines jammed so often that it was really just an exercise in un-jamming the machine. My original idea with the button maker was to make them for students who participated in reading challenges and library events (like the brag tag bling idea), but since the machine jammed so much, it made me reluctant to keep up with button making.
Fortunately, my PTA purchased a high-quality button making machine from American Button Machine, along with a graphic punch, and I highly recommend both of these tools as worth the cost. Some of our library club members design buttons which serve as rewards for event participation, and even invitations to reading challenge parties.
We also invite students to design their own circles and then we finish up their designs to create finished buttons as part of our maker stations.
I really love this activity and the buttons look really professional - the student-drawn ones are my favorites, but you can use Canva to create designs, too. Some middle school students are a little less impressed by completed buttons, but I think you can build a culture around collecting and making them (it's still new to my campus).
7) Perler Beads, or Fuse Beads
I wrote an initial post about using Perler beads in the library, and a follow-up post with specific strategies for successful ironing Perler bead projects. This is consistently a popular station, but it does require a fair amount of prep and follow-up work. If you don't have at least 25 consecutive minutes, students are probably not going to have enough time to complete their designs. One way to support 20 - 30 minute time blocks would be to only put out smaller shaped peg boards, leaving the larger open-ended peg boards for maker times with 40 - 50 minutes.
8) Jewelry Making
This is consistently the most popular maker station at my middle school. It requires a fair amount of consumable supplies - I have earring hooks, cord and wire, lobster claws and jump rings, small scissors and pliers, clay beads, seed beads, pearl and alphabet beads, bead spacers, and assorted charms. We also have a small rolling bead vacuum (like the one at the Perler bead station), a Misfit Toys bead container for small unsorted pieces, and small plastic containers for different types of beads that tend to come packaged in plastic bags that rip easily.
9) Rubber Band Bracelets
Although my middle school students associate this activity with their younger years, it's pretty popular and accessible. I only know how to do one type of pattern, but it doesn't matter, because the students learn quickly and teach each other. This activity is popular with boys and girls, and students can create a finished product in 20 minutes, even if they're beginners.
Origami paper can be a little expensive, so that's a drawback for this station. I included design ideas for a couple of different projects, but the most popular one involved strips of origami paper that can be folded into small stars. Students loved this activity, and, much like the rubber band bracelets, they tended to teach each other instead of relying on the written instructions.
12) Crochet and Amigurumi
I'm still new to crochet (I can do counted cross stitch and basic knitting and sewing), so I don't feel super-qualified to support beginning students with this. I'm lucky to have a fabulous parent volunteer who comes in to the library on my craft mornings, and a small group of students work with her pretty regularly to work on projects. They store their ongoing work in separate plastic bags in the containers where we keep the yarn.
This activity is a little too tricky for students to pick up as newbies without some direct support, so I don't have it in stations unless I have an expert who can be at that station and help students. That said, it is really popular and as we build capacity among students who know how to do it, we are more likely to be able to have it out.
You will need different colors of yarn, scissors, and crochet hooks. You can also get some pin markers, stitch counters, and, if you want to make amigurumi, some fabric filler and eyes or other charms and accessories. I also have some pattern books. We discovered that getting students started with a project was time-consuming, so our volunteer created some special starter projects to offer students when they came in, and then they were able to continue with basic stitches without struggling with the start-up process at first. It's also helpful if you have some finished examples or at least some photographs of what it's possible to make. When in doubt, bookmarks are make small, manageable projects.
11) Shrinky Dinks
This was a new station for me this year. I purchased several kits that included some little-kid (but some workable for middle school) designs that just needed to be colored in. The kits also included blank pages, key rings, hole punches, and loops to finish the designs, which can be made into earrings, keychains, and ornaments.
I provide both markers and colored pencils at this station, and it's helpful to pre-cut larger sheets into smaller pieces - otherwise students tend to color directly in the center of a large page, wasting all the space around it when they cut it out. Like with Perler beads, it's a good idea to have students write their names on a sticky note, along with a brief Shrinky Dink design description if you plan to bake the designs for the students, so you can match the creator with the right project later on.
For baking, you can cover a cookie sheet with foil and bake designs at 325 degrees for 1-3 minutes. Some tips: bake designs that are similar sizes together, because large designs need a little more time, and that way you aren't over-baking the small ones that are finished faster. Also, have some semi-heavy flat objects to place on top of curled Shrinky Dinks immediately after removing from the oven (damaged books are the perfect size and weight, although they can become more damaged after use this way). The designs are supposed to thicken and flatten in the oven, but some still have edges that poke up. If you wait 30 or even 20 seconds out of the oven to cover with something heavy and flat, the Shrinky Dinks are usually too cool to be able to flatten without breaking them.
Of course, you could just have students take their own designs home to bake, and maybe provide the baking instructions (or a link to them) for students to take with them after the maker session.
13) Washi Tape Cards and Bookmarks
This is another activity that's great if you have limited time for maker stations. You need some cardstock, different patterns of washi tape, scissors, and thin markers or pens. It's helpful to have some example projects so students can see that strips of tape can form tiered cakes, individual candles, buildings, or be arranged as frames or diagonal patterns.
14) Book Commercials and Podcasting
My students have one-to-one computers, and they have those computers with them all day, so (lucky me with a great PTA again) I was able to get several Tonor microphones with USB cords and tripod stands. These are great for filtering out background noise, priced around $27 each, and reasonably sturdy.
While I do this activity as a whole-class lesson, it can still work as a maker station, since students are invited to create their own book or library promotional videos. Set this station in a corner of the room, away from background activity and sound (bonus if you have green screen capability), and invite students to upload and share their completed projects with you when they finish. A 30 - 90 second time limit is helpful to ensure the project has meaningful content without taking forever to share and process digitally.
If you are creating podcasts and interviews that will be longer than commercials, you can have students record and upload these in segments, and use a program like WeVideo to edit and create the final product.
15) Bonus Ideas:
Spheros, Dash & Dot, Sphero Indi Robots
At my former school, I had a cart full of iPads that students could use, which was really great for using iMovie, GarageBand, and robotics apps. Smaller robots, including Ozobots and Hex Bugs are at risk of disappearing if you aren't supervising very carefully, so they don't work as well at stations, while Lego and Vex Robotics require a little more instruction, so they work better as a small group club with dedicated time to skill-building. Sphero Indi Robots are fantastic for primary grade students - sturdy and fun - but older students and adults also find them interesting to use, and they don't require additional apps or devices to program them. Dash and Dot and Spheros also have fun programming challenges that are pretty quickly accessible to students, but they do require devices to program and operate them. My current school has separate STEM and robotics classes that use some of these tools, but they are still appealing maker stations for library students.
Picasso Tiles are versatile and appealing building kits, but you can really only have a pair of students per kit. Some sets include marble maze components. You may want to obtain your own storage container, as it can be difficult for students to put away all the pieces exactly the way they need to go in order for the branded storage container to close correctly.
This is another activity which can be a whole-class lesson (or club) if you have enough sets, but these work well as a maker station activity. If you are having a 4-person-per-station rule, some of the two-person games will require pairs instead of quartets per station.
Magnetic Poetry and Creative Writing
Provide a few prompts, some paper and writing utensils, and/or magnetic strips and boards, and invite students to write. You can also provide a student writing showcase to display some of their finished work, either online or in the library.
Although a big goal of maker stations for me is to help students connect to each other - I've been a librarian in schools with huge populations, so students don't always know each other very well - some students want nothing more than some free time to read for fun. I'm happy to provide this space to students for that purpose, of course!
There are endless possibilities for maker stations, but I hope this post offers a couple of new ideas or strategies for you to make it work a little more effectively in your library.
I've had the privilege of working with hundreds of students and families in IA, CT, NC, MO, TX, and Canada. I love being a teacher-librarian!