How Makerspaces Support Social and Emotional Learning

When our school opened a makerspace, it was with the goal of enhancing and supporting the core curriculum. We purchased materials to align with the topics and themes in various courses and designed programming to address any gaps. Our students were learning how to build circuits, design 3D models, and code their own games. But this wasn’t all they were learning. 

(Trying to determine the “why” of your makerspace? Here are four strategies to help.)

In addition to developing technical skills, our makerspace was a prime location to develop what some refer to as “soft” skills. Skills like time management, emotional regulation, and effective communication were all natural by-products of working in the makerspace. As it turns out, these skills may be just as important — or more so — than the technical skills our students were also acquiring in the space. In fact, 92% of surveyed executives say that skills such as problem-solving and communicating clearly were equally or more important than technical skills.

Keeping in line with this survey, the 2018 Future of Jobs Report details that the skills projected to be the most in-demand for 2022 all involve social and emotional competencies.

Schools are addressing this growing call for increased skills beyond traditional academics and technical knowledge by emphasizing what is known as “social and emotional learning.”

But What Exactly Is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)? 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social and emotional learning as “how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” This organization outlines five competencies for SEL, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Simply put, SEL is an intentional way to support the growth of a students inter- and intra-personal skills.

As more schools have embraced SEL, more research has been gathered on its positive impact. An analysis of more than 200 students of SEL programs found that the efforts improved student behavior and feelings about school, made schools safer, and increased achievement scores. In fact, students who received SEL instruction averaged 11 percentage points higher than those who did not.

With the economy’s need for SEL skills, and the research-based evidence supporting the academic benefits of SEL, it makes sense that more schools are looking to incorporate social and emotional programs.

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Skilling Up in the Makerspace — SEL Style

Fortunately, your makerspace is a great place to develop SEL skills. At the heart of the maker movement is creative independence, collaboration, and resilience — all of which align with the skills and competencies of social and emotional learning. While many of these SEL skills can develop naturally in a makerspace, the following are some strategies maker educators can use to be intentional about supporting their development.

Promote Working in Teams

Knowing how to work as a team is a crucial skill needed to succeed in the workforce, yet many hiring managers cite it as a skill lacking among recent graduates. While there should be opportunities for students to work independently in the makerspace, requiring some tasks to be done collaboratively can help students develop an additional suite of skills. Students will need to take shared responsibilities, assign roles, set deadlines, and hold each other accountable. Teamwork can also strengthen students’ communication and problem-solving skills.

Give Complex Maker Challenges

(I said complex, not impossible.) We live in a society that praises the fastest, longest, smartest — and yes, the highest, grades. With this obsession about succeeding, encountering failure can prompt a slew of emotions that can inhibit growth. Kids need to learn how to fail and how to fail forward. Allowing kids to “fail” allows them to understand that it was really just their “First Attempt In Learning.” Having complex maker challenges can also help develop resiliency by encouraging students to stick with it, even when the task is difficult.

Provide Open Making Time

I remember the first time I gave my middle school students a blank piece of paper and told them to draw whatever they wanted. They looked at me like I had four heads. Immediately they started asking questions like “What should I draw?” and “Do you have an example?” and my favorite: “Is this graded?” With initiative and originality being two highly sought after skills, we can’t always give students a tutorial or an example. Sometimes, they just need to figure it out on their own or come up with their own problems to solve. It’s important to ensure that students have time to explore, tinker, and solve their own problems in the makerspace.

Don’t Answer Their Questions

This may seem harsh, but it’s for their benefit. I have to admit that I was personally really bad at this. However, by answering the question for them, we are robbing them of a learning opportunity. So the next time a student asks, “How do I do this?” or “What happens if I…,” tell them to figure it out.

Sustainable Development GoalsDevelop Empathy with Design Thinking

Design thinking requires students to gain empathy about an issue and use that as a springboard for designs and creations that help solve it. Fortunately there are lots of resources to help your students learn about issues happening in their communities and the world around them. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Sustainable Development Goals: There are lots of websites available that use the Sustainable Development Goals, including Design for Change, TEACH SDGS, World’s Largest Lesson, and Global Schools Program. These 17 goals serve as great starting points for discussions on serious issues occuring around the world.
  • Rock Your World: Designed for middle and high school students, this project-based curriculum takes an inquiry approach to tackling local and global issues.

Although a makerspace is a place that social and emotional skills will naturally develop, we as teachers can also intentionally facilitate their growth. When we see students demonstrating good social and emotional skills, it’s important that we recognize and celebrate it. Similarly, it’s important that as teachers, we are demonstrating and modeling good social and emotional skills for our students.

These are just a few ways to start cultivating social and emotional learning in your makerspace. I’ve curated all resources mentioned in this blog here, as well as a few others that will be helpful.


  1. Davidson, Kate. Companies Put More Time and Money into Teasing out Job Applicants’ Personality Traits. Wall Street Journal, 30 Aug. 2016.
  2. “What Is SEL?” Casel.Org, 2019,
  3.  J. Durlak, R. Weissberg, A. Dymnicki, R. Taylor, and K. Schellinger, “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions,” Child Development 82, no. 1 (2011): 405-432.


Heather Lister

Heather Lister

Founder and CEO at Construct Learning LLC
Heather Lister is an international speaker and author on the topics of makerspaces, school librarianship, and project-based learning. With credentials in school librarianship, mathematics, instructional technology, and school administration, Heather brings a unique and practical perspective to the world of maker education. Heather is the owner of Construct Learning and is currently serving as a senior maker fellow with the Foundry Makerspace in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Heather is the president-elect of the ISTE Librarians Network. Follow her @heathermlister or check out her blog at