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Exploring the World of 3D Modeling

Have you seen Crayon Creatures? The concept is to take a child’s drawing and turn it into a 3D-printed sculpture. Aw…so cute! Grandma will love it!

Until news of this service started circulating on Twitter and blogs and places, I hadn’t thought about how 3D printing might intersect with the lives of kids. The maker movement seems to be all the rage right now, and 3D printing is a significant part of that. In-home 3D printers are becoming a thing as prices drop. They may become ubiquitous, or they may turn out to be a fad. Who knows? At the very least, these devices are likely to have a surge of popularity.

So what does this have to do with kids? They’re going to want to make stuff, too!

So what does this have to do with libraries? Unless your library has money to burn, you’re not going to run out and buy a 3D printer for your patrons. There has been discussion about whether that’s something libraries even want to get in on, but we’re not going there right now. What we CAN do–and it costs us nothing–is recognize a trend and be ready for it. Instead of being involved with the finished project, we’re much better positioned to get in on the creative process.

While Crayon Creatures are cute, they’re obviously for young children…children who, developmentally, should probably be making gifts for Grandma out of play-doh instead. (Just saying!) However, as kids get older they’ll be able to get involved with the 3D modeling process. This is where I think libraries might be of some use. I mean, we’re helping kids learn to code, right? We help them create digital stories and videos. This is another step in that direction. Look at it as the next generation of the LEGO program.

I’m not going to ask you to learn 3D modeling tonight and turn it into a program tomorrow. I’m just suggesting you to play with the technology. Let’s face it: we’re children’s librarians. How much of an excuse do we really need to play with something?

Take a look at these resources. Pick one that looks interesting and test it out. Find out if it’s kid friendly. (My rule of thumb is, if I can figure it out just by poking around with it, your average 10 year old will have no problem.) See what works for you:

  • Solid Dots HD (iPad) – This is about as easy as you could hope for–a great starting point if you have access to an iPad. It’s pixel art, and the controls are simple: rotate, cut, add, and color. It’s not something you can export and print, but it gives you a sense of how 3D modeling works.
  • 3DTin (browser-based) – Start working with cubes, and it works a lot like Solid Dots, which is a nice starting point if you don’t have an iPad. You can also get into other shapes, but it can get complicated fast. Who knew there were so many variations of a cylinder? [Building with Cubes tutorial video]
  • Tinkercad (browser-based) – It’s nice that Tinkercad has a lot of hands-on lessons to show you the ropes, but it’s also intuitive enough to let you jump in and start playing right away. You have enough shapes to make something neat without being overwhelmed with options. I found it the easiest to use of the three. The drawback is, if you want to start storing designs, you’ll have to pay. But play all you want, without saving, for free. [Tinkercad tutorial video]

Go ahead and make something! Bonus points if it’s ugly and looks nothing like what you had in mind. (Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything… *cough cough*) Play, and have fun with it!

Amy Graves is a children’s librarian at the Manchester City Library in New Hampshire, and a member of the ALSC Children & Technology Committee. She has no intentions of personally owning a 3D printer–the risk of adding extra clutter to her minimalist household is too great. Her husband has worked with 3D printers professionally for five years, and Amy has developed strong, speculative opinions about the future of the technology, based on her very limited knowledge. She’d love to chat with you about it on Twitter: find her at @amygrav.


  1. Andrew E

    Without letting them spend all day on computers or iPads, having children understand the concept of 3D modelling is great. It’s something that will only grow more widespread and popular as time goes on. The specific program is of no importance, only the concept of the different features and functions that make up forming a 3D object.
    Once 3D printers are widespread enough to be at home, then school projects will never be the same. Also, designing and printing toys with them will be fun (hello custom Lego pieces). But as you said, playdough, sandcastles, and catching frogs is still more important.

    1. Amy Graves

      School projects…I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but I think you’re right, things will be different!

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