Curiosity Hacked, Oakland, California

Leaving Portland, the conference bubble and new friends felt tough so on arrival to San Fransisco we continued to seek out inspiration. We visited a space called Curiosity Hacked in Oakland. Sam the founder and director gave her AERO presentation via Skype due to sickness but we were so inspired we decided to pay her a visit. Essentially Curiosity Hacked is a homeschool group providing a space for the development of STEAM skills: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. There are term-long programs for 4-7 year olds and 8’s-and-up, and then there are after school programs, weekend open drop-in programs and school holiday programs. These programs are designed to balance between structure and autonomy, uniquely addressing the developmental, intellectual, and social needs of the age groups.


We visited on a Thursday, midway through a week-long summer break program. The space consists of two adjacent shop fronts that connect via a small parking lot out the back. The two spaces were running seperate thematic experiences for the twenty or so children of mixed ages from around 6 to 13. One was designed for the younger children around the exploration and Hacking of water, the other for the older kids, was a Harry Potter inspired ‘Hackwarts’ experience. Both groups began the week by brainstorming ideas around their particular themes, and thus began the exploration and making.

This list of child created possibilities goes up on the white board and then collectively they navigate the weeks making and tinkering. Each possibility is conceived as a desired outcome and it’s the facilitators job to then explode that end-product into its components: the history, design, materials, construction, the various skills that creating it might require etc. An experienced facilitator would do all that, according to the self-direction of the child, allowing plenty of time for free play, managing different age groups and abilities, enabling the child to do as much of the thinking and doing as possible.


To my surprise, we ended up in the Hackwarts room, surprised only because I know well my children’s soggy fascination with water. We passed the mini home-made aquarium ‘condo’s’ and a few children playing outside with their syringe-powered water weapons and continued into the older kids area, who were working on various Harry Potter projects while practicing their HP trivia. Basil got wind of a Book of Horrors project: some kids were wiring up book-like cardboard boxes with batteries, motion sensors and mechanisms to make them appear to come alive. Basil made his to look like a cat and we were all very excited to see this thing come to life.


Next was a visit from the guy from the Varbarium. All the kids gathered together as Dean shuffled 6 or 7 heavy-duty, maxi-sized plastic storage boxes into the small sitting area. He then proceeded to pull out, one after another, dangerous looking spiders, amphibians and reptiles, inviting the brave to have them placed on their heads. Information rich and a great selection of living things, we were feeling lucky!

Dean and his ‘pup’

Bex and I were really impressed with Curiosity Hacked, and for me the impression has grown as I have reflected on it since. Truly self-directed spaces for children are rare and even though we’ve spent the last six months seeking them out, this felt like the first one that I really resonated with. The STEAM approach, seeing the process in which children choose a ‘thing’ and then have it broken up into different learning areas, providing contextual and practical learning opportunities was enthralling. This was an example for me of how play led to learning, adaptable to a child as they developed maturity and complexity. Sam was very passionate and communicated the model really well…



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