Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are do-it-yourselfers by nature.
Organizations like these were founded on ideals like self-sufficiency and wilderness survival. And although these may be considered timeless values, some families find the 100-year-old scouting institutions to be a little out-of-touch. They require uniforms. Their websites are clunky. And they have a lot of rules.
But there’s a new, kid-driven, coed version of scouting for the digital age. It’s called DIY.org. Their motto is: Get skills. Be awesome. And they have badges. (They call them patches, but they look a lot like those things my mom sewed onto my Girl Scout sash when I was a kid.)
“One of my patches that I’m proud of is Duct Tape Ninja — making things out of duct tape,” says 10-year-0ld Lucy Bowman. She likes crafting and she has lots of patches: fort builder, shelter builder, prankster, weaver, painter, darkness engineer (which is Halloween-based), to name just a few.
To earn a patch, a kid has to complete three challenges, then upload a picture or video of whatever they made. The DIY.org staff reviews it and doles out the patches.
The site is completely free for parents and kids to use. There are no ads, but there is a market on DIY.org that sells some do-it-yourself kits, backpacks and the physical patches. They’re $5 each. The virtual patches, which are displayed on the users’ portfolio pages, are free. Like many of the kids on the site, Lucy doesn’t use her real name. Instead of a profile picture, she has an avatar.
“My avatar, since it’s sort of anonymous, I’m a raccoon named Skitter Evil,” says Lucy.
DIY.org went live in spring 2012 and has about 200,000 users, according to Zach Klein, CEO.
Klein is one of three founders who started DIY.org in San Francisco. He’s 31 and he just so happens to be an Eagle Scout himself. One of his other claims to fame is cofounding and designing the video-sharing website Vimeo. He doesn’t have kids, but in creating DIY.org, he drew inspiration from his own childhood experience.
“When I was 11, I was really into making web pages,” says Klein. “My parents had just signed up for AOL, and AOL offered this really cool, free tool where you could make a web page easily. I was living in my own internal world just making web pages. There was no one in my life who understood the value of what I was doing and there’s no way they could have anticipated that what I was doing then would someday become a really important skill.”
According to Klein, many of the ideas for the skills on DIY.org come from kids who use the site.
“We’re not really good predictors of what skills will be valuable when these kids are adults,” says Klein, “and so we have to treat the things that they’re passionate about with the same level of importance and prestige as skills that have been traditionally valuable.”
One thing all of the kids on the site are learning is how to be social online. Kids can follow each other’s portfolios and comment on each other’s projects.
“This is the first time that they’ve had a virtual identity of any kind, the first time that they could act without the consequences of being seen,” explains Klein. “And so just for the sake of our community being successful, we have to teach kids to be good digital citizens so that their contributions to the community are productive.”
There are tools built in to DIY.org to help parents monitor the way their children are using the site, and kids can’t sign up without parental approval. Even though the site is free, parents have to enter credit-card information to verify their identity. It’s a step up from checking a box that says “I give parental permission,” but of course it’s not completely airtight. Like traditional scouting, parental involvement is a key component.
After the kids create a digital record of their creative project, it lives online where they can share it with their virtual friends. And in some cases, kids share what they’re working on with each other in person. For example, the PDX DIY club meets every month. At a recent meeting, about a dozen kids work in pairs or with their parents on the projects they brought or just whatever seems interesting to them.
Seven-year-old Amelia Johnson sits on her mom’s lap while she works with some brightly colored duct tape.
“This is a wallet, mom! We just made a wallet!” says Amelia.
Clubs were not part of the plan for DIY.org from the beginning, but they’ve fully embraced the idea. There are 75 clubs listed on the website. A dozen of those are outside the U.S. And Klein says there are more out there that are not registered yet.
“It’s one thing to build something and get people to visit your website, but it’s another thing to actually cause people to meet in the real world and to cause people to spend their Saturdays together doing something creative,” says Klein. “It’s a profound feeling and I think it probably started with families who maybe had dabbled with scouting — Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts — but wanted to change. They saw DIY and they saw that we had patches and they saw that the skills that we were promoting were maybe more contemporary than those organizations. And they just started meeting and working together.”
Unlike the more established scouting organizations, DIY.org encourages users to make up their own rules.
“Human beings have a superpower and it’s called play,” Klein explains. “And I guess our theory is we want to give kids the tools and the power and the responsibility to go further with their play and to make them feel special and important for doing it.”