Hello one and all, it might be Bank Holiday Monday in the UK as I write this but there’s no rest for the wicked here at MakeFest Manor. It’s time for the next instalment of the Meet The Makers series. We’re discovering more about the people behind some of our favourite projects and how they got started. Up this time it’s Helen Stephens and Chris Huffee from Little Sandbox UK.
So let’s get to it and learn more about Little Sandbox….
DAN: I’m here with Chris Huffee and Helen Stephens at the home of Little Sandbox UK, so I’m gonna start with you Chris, what is Little Sandbox and what do you guys do?
CHRIS: In short Little Sandbox is a tech club, an after school club for kids. We really set up because we were conscious there were loads of sporting and dance clubs but nothing for the geeks, for the kids who are interested in technology. So it’s a place where kids can come and play, while learning about coding or electronics and just have some fun with it really.
DAN: Excellent, and how often do you do that?
CHRIS: At the moment we have 3 club nights a week. 6 to 8 year olds on a Monday then we go right through to older teens. So Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday we have club nights and we’ve just opened one up on a Saturdays in Norris Green as well. We also do some after school clubs for local schools.
DAN: So Helen, you originally started Little Sandbox and I’m curious where the name came from?
HELEN: I actually founded Sandbox Digital back in 2010. Then I met Chris in 2014. We had a mutual client and we had to do a bit of work together. During that process we got talking about putting on activities for kids to get them more interested in technology. That evolved into the idea of providing a tech club for kids who are already into it and didn’t really fit with other clubs. So it was named Little Sandbox because it came out of Sandbox Digital. It’s grown so much over time that it’s really become the sole thing that we do now.
DAN: That’s great and I really love the name, I think it’s really attractive for kids and well… anyone I suppose. I read that you used to work in the music industry before this so what did you do there?
HELEN: Oh nothing that exciting to be honest. I did a degree in Music Industry management and then I lived in London for about 6 years. Working for the PRS, EMI Music Publishing and then Sanctuary Records, which was kind of administration stuff really.
DAN: That sounds good, so it’s a bit of change of career then and it’s going well. Does it feel good to be doing something that makes a difference?
HELEN: Yeah, I moved back to Liverpool in 2005 with a lot of debt after living in London for 6 years and didn’t have a job to go to or any kind of plan really. I just moved home and did a few different jobs, I worked as a taxi driver, worked as a play worker – hence the kids element – and then I ended up working for one of the voluntary organisations and found myself doing websites, designing flyers and all that sort of stuff. I got to a point where I was about to be made redundant because of a change in government and decided to just go for it and set up a social enterprise, working with the voluntary sector doing websites, social media and that sort of stuff.
DAN: Did you always have an interest in technology, how did you get into that?
HELEN: Through websites really, even when I was working in London I started an acoustic night and we just put together a really basic website, one of those really horrible Tripod ones [LAUGHS]..
DAN: Oh I remember those yeah.
HELEN: So I had a go at that and then part of my job role at the label was designing the sale sheets that went out to shops and stuff, so I got a bit more into the design side of things. So it was kind of all those things coming together in the end but I wouldn’t say I really got into tech as such until I met Chris and started doing more Makery stuff. So it’s kind of Chris’ fault really.
DAN: Ok, well that might be a good point to ask you then Chris. How did you become involved in all this?
CHRIS: Like Helen said we were working together on a website and we just thought to ourselves, there isn’t provision for kids to do this kind of stuff. 2 or 3 years previous I’d met Adrian McEwen, like a lot of makers in the city, and starting going to Maker Nights which really got me into all this. I came to Liverpool in 1994 to do a Physics degree and I’ve got a tech background. I worked for CERN on the LHC project (Large Hadron Collider), I’d done research into shampoos while working for UniLever, doing image analysis. So I had the tech background but I’d moved into more community work and meeting Adrian I was introduced to all these weird people called Makers. We went to the first Liverpool MakeFest and it all just went from there.
DAN: Nice, I was gonna ask how you became involved with MakeFest, so you were at the first one?
CHRIS: Yeah I just assumed MakeFest had always happened, I didn’t realise how quickly it had all come together. I saw all these makers gathered together and it really did blow my mind, you thinking there’s some amazing people, some real talent here. A real community, a real strong sense of everyone working together and supporting each other with this shared interest.
DAN: So you’re gonna be at Liverpool MakeFest this year of course, what kind of stuff are you going to be doing?
CHRIS: Well one of the things I’m working on for MakeFest is based on Robot Wars. All our kids are into Robot Wars right now, why wouldn’t they be? It something they always want to do but I’m really reluctant to spend a month building a robot with a kid and then it’s gonna last 5 minutes before it’s smashed to bits. [LAUGHS]
DAN: [LAUGHS] Oh yeah that’s not good.
CHRIS: So we’ve reached a compromise and the working title is Medieval Robot Wars. The idea is you’ve got a robot with a battering ram on it, using some conductive Velcro we’re attaching little castle walls to the side of the robot. So then knocking down the walls will break the conductive Velcro and the robot will die. So we’re hoping, that’s still a work in progress, I’ve got about 2 months left to finish that.
DAN: No pressure then but I will make sure everybody’s there asking where the robots are [LAUGHS]. That’s a really good idea because as you say you don’t want people’s robots getting destroyed, kids crying in the corner, it’s not a good look. So are you doing anything else there?
HELEN: Yeah we had Young MakeFest a few weeks ago, so as part of that our kids made a video game. That was about dragons collecting eggs I think it was. We made a big laser cut controller and Claire who’s been working with us recently is making a textile one, so we’ll have the 2 different controllers. We’re hoping to either take the big TV and put it on that or maybe even project it on the wall so we’ll have a big video game going on behind us. Everyone can come and have a go.
DAN: Oh that’s really good, so it could be a competition for the highest score maybe? It’ll be like Made Invaders.
CHRIS: No matter how often I try Made Invaders I’m still rubbish at it.
DAN: So do you know whereabouts you’ll be in the Library on the day yet?
HELEN: We’re gonna be on the stage in the Discovery room.
DAN: Again, no pressure then but we’re gonna have lights, cameras and so on! [LAUGHS]
DAN: So it’s Saturday June 30th at Liverpool Central Library and the discovery centre is the big dome shaped room on your right as you come in the main entrance. If people listen to this and think “my kids would like that” or want to get involved, how can they join Little Sandbox?
HELEN: Just head to our website and all the information is on there.
DAN: That was nice and easy.
CHRIS: We encourage people to come for a taster session first and see if they like it, make sure they feel comfortable and so on.
DAN: Great, so littlesandbox.co.uk is the place to find out more about that and we’ll see you both at Liverpool MakeFest on June 30th. Thanks very much for joining us.
HELEN: No worries, thank you.
CHRIS: See ya.
So there we go, a big THANK YOU to Helen and Chris for giving me some of their time and telling us more about Little Sandbox. They’re doing some brilliant work and if you think your kids would like it you can head along to see them. Why not come to Liverpool MakeFest and try the Medieval Robot Wars or the big video game??
You might have to push me out of the way first though!
Don’t forget you can listen to a longer version of this interview where we discussed funding and other issues that can affect all projects. The podcast is 25mins and if you subscribe we can even deliver it you hassle free in future.
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I’ll be back next week with another guest. Until then, enjoy your week and keep spreading the word about MakeFest!