3D Printing as a Storytelling Tool

One of the most powerful outcomes of Maker Education is empowering children as designers. Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, is a classic literary exploration of child as designer and maker. Harold is literally able to make anything he can imagine. In making these creations, Harold creates his own story much like the heroes in Australian Aboriginal mythology. A critical lesson for designers, is that Harold’s decisions have consequences and that his creations often have lives of their own. Library makerspaces and makerspaces in schools should have a copy for their book collection. I have a particular affinity for the imagery in Harold and the Purple Crayon because his drawings looks so much like filament coming out of a 3D printer.


LEO the Maker Prince, by Carla Diana, is another book that encourages children to take on the role of designer and maker. LEO, a robotic 3D printer, empowers accountant Carla to become the artist she always wished to be. The book explores creativity, design, problem-solving and 3D printing . The characters in LEO the Maker Prince can be downloaded and 3D printed at home. It is these characters that started my adventures in 3D printing as a storytelling tool. I took these characters and began to extend the story on Instagram and Twitter. Carla Diana freely gave the world the tools to remix and retell the story.

Recently, I have been using Ultimaker’s weekly 3D printing contests as a prompt for the exploration of 3D printing as a storytelling tool.

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"The introduction of the first 3D printer into the Integrated Product Design studio made a tremendous difference to our program. It used to take students days or even weeks to complete a single prototype. With access to a 3D printer, students were able to create a design and hold it in their hands the next day. The original Ultimaker was working non-stop with students literally camping out in the studio to start a new print as soon as the last one was done. Students were able to rapidly iterate on their design ideas and the final projects were noticeable more polished than any of the previous cohorts. Now of course, we have an entire wall of Ultimaker printers including the new Ultimaker 2 Extended but the original Ultimaker is still there printing away." -Professor Ultibot, Integrated Product Design Chair, Ultimaker University @Ultimaker #3dprinting contest entry. Inspired by feeds of @glaser_m @carladiana @pennipd

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3D Printing as a Storytelling Tool Ideas: Try using 3D printed character as a writing prompt for your students. Have them photograph the characters out in the world and write captions for what is happening. Create storyboards using 3D printed characters and objects. Use your box of failed 3D prints as an inspiration box for student stories. (Think of it as a classroom Island of Misfit Toys where every print has a story and a place where it belongs.) Have students design their own characters and tell their tale.

For Maker Educators looking for an alternative storytelling tool, check out the concept of the LEGO StoryStarter at https://education.lego.com/en-us/preschool-and-school/lower-primary/6plus-storystarter/introducing-storystarter.

How do you using 3D printing and making to tell stories? Please share examples from your makerspace, classroom or library in the comments or tweet @DesignMakeTeach.

P.S. The power for children to appropriate cultural icons and tell their own unique stories is increasingly important in a world in which modern copyright stretches into infinity and original stories become harder to find a place.