Two small boys are standing on stools at a workbench, pretending to talk on outdated handset telephones. They might not yet know how the phones work, but they’re clearly familiar with how to take them apart.
And they do.
A few feet away, three children from low-income families are on iPads beginning a new lesson. Take another step and a handful of youngsters are gathered around a faux-kitchen counter learning to make muffins.
“I think of our makerspace as old world meets the 21st century,” said Mary Esselman, president and CEO of Operation Breakthrough, an early learning center at 31st Street and Troost Avenue. The 46-year-old organization serves more than 450 children daily with a mission to provide a safe educational environment for children in poverty.
Implemented three years ago, the makerspace includes such zones as textiles, studio arts, chef’s corner and construction/toy hacking, she said. It’s part of an effort to expand early childhood development beyond merely teaching toddlers how to pick up a book, Esselman said.
“We’re trying to get the kids to be really excited and messy with things, so that they’re more curious about how they work,” she said. “We’ve entered this phase of saying more than, ‘Hey, we want to make sure all of our kids can read.’”
Upstairs from the makerspace, children as young as 3 are learning basic programming in Operation Breakthrough’s SmartLab.
“We’ve got this blossoming set of kids. If a 3-year-old is coding, they understand all the sequencing — that’s just a habit of mind that’s going to translate to later life,” Esselman said. “Ultimately our goal is to get kids to a place where we’ve given them all this opportunity to solve real problems using the skills they’ve learned.”
Founded in 1971 by two nuns, Sister Corita Bussanmas and Sister Berta Sailer, Operation Breakthrough has adapted through the decades to meet the needs of Kansas City’s low-income community, Esselman said.
Welcoming select children from ages 6 weeks to 13 years, the center now includes such health-related programs as a USDA-approved meal program serving more than 1,000 meals a day, occupational and physical therapy, speech and language therapy, a dental clinic, and an on-site Children’s Mercy clinic.
The need is real, Esselman said, noting 20 percent of the children are classified as homeless. And although 70 percent of the families served by Operation Breakthrough are working, roughly two-thirds of them fall at only 40 percent of the poverty line, she said. A typical family is bringing home only about $1,000 a month, including benefits, Esselman said.
“We could fill this place two or three times over based on the need without even blinking,” she said, noting the tight application process reflects high demand for services. “Homelessness is a priority. Siblings are a priority. And it’s income driven.”
Operation Breakthrough also provides parent programming, a food pantry and clothing closet.
That holistic approach to serving children provided the perfect atmosphere for the center to expand its mission to include a STEM focus, Esselman said.
“The kids are thriving in that kind of environment,” she said. “A lot of their work is just an open-ended prompt, like ‘How do you make a straw fly?’ or ‘How do you make a parachute that stays in the wind tunnel?'”
Back in the SmartLab, children might look like they’re playing with toys, but a deeper process is in motion. They’re following step-by-step schematics on a computer to build a motorized LEGO car. They’re using an iPad to navigate an electronic sphero ball through a maze. They’re getting a taste of graphic design.
“It’s work that isn’t just repetitive,” Esselman said. “They get a chance to create.”
A class of 3-year-olds recently constructed a large city skyline craft project, then powered lights atop the “buildings” with circuitry the children connected, she said. Another young student created a prosthetic hand, powered by a system of syringes, after a series of lessons on hydraulics.
“Not only are these projects engaging, but it could really get a whole generation excited about STEM,” Esselman said.
Learn more about Operation Breakthrough with the video below.