I’ve been wondering how to transform the building portion of our social studies work into something that the girls can do if they are at home, or at school with restrictions due to the pandemic. And, I’ve been thinking of ways to see the need for change and the limitations of the pandemic as opportunities rather than road blocks.
Our social studies builds include many opportunities for collaboration, thinking, spatial reasoning, community building, engineering, imagination, and communication. Often we do them with wooden blocks filling our maker space with buildings that the Kindergarten architects and builders must travel between with careful purpose. At other times the builds are even grander as our maker space becomes a supermarket with life size walls, working doors, and handmade products, cards, cash registers, and shopping bags.
I decided to give the PLUS PLUS – 240 Piece Basic Mix blocks a try. They come in a small tube, and seemed to have a plethora of ways one could use them to build, create, and tell a story. And, since they are small, creations could be made at a desk, and easily captured by a photograph to share with one another if we are working remotely. I bought a set for myself to experiment as I constructed lessons and provocations for the girls.
I was excited as I dumped the 240 pieces onto my desk. I can only imagine the joy the girls will feel. I was happy that even though there are 240 pieces they can stay in a rather small space, and since they have flat sides they didn’t roll away from me at any time.
I started my exploration by simply playing with them, and seeing what I noticed along the way. It was a lot!
My first noticings:
What do I like? Trees. Let’s see if I can make one.
My first inclination was to use the rectangular nature to create a bottom square base. I’m not exactly sure why. I almost think i was distracted from the nature of the tree, by the nature of the blocks. But no worries.
I noticed plus plus printed on one side of the blocks. I considered turning them so as not to see them — I found them distracting. So might some of my learners. It’s a good thing to notice, honor, talk and wonder about, but also to encourage the possibility of breathing through — especially as one is in the playing mode.
The square base seemed like a logical starting point. But instead of giving me a place to start, it became an obstacle as the sides are all different and made building up from the base quite difficult. Dare I say impossible? Perhaps, I will, but just for now.
My fiinal noticing for this shape helped me as I moved forward. You really have to be willing to fail, notice, think, wonder, and start again with no fretting. It’s a basic design thinking principle. There was actually a course at the Stanford d.school entitled “Fail Faster” highlighting the idea of failing early and often. I love that we can begin encouraging some of our youngest learners — and ourselves — to embrace a basic tenant of design thinking through the use of block play.
Failing Faster and Noticing more:
After being mesmerized by the rectangles, I decided to focus on the tree. I wondered if I could make a circular trunk? Close, but not perfect by a long shot, and it seemed to become more wonky as I added more blocks.
I felt a moment of frustration and then reminded myself — “It’s play, Molly. It’s about discovery, learning, and joy.”
So I considered embracing the imperfections. What story could I tell if I worked with the imperfections instead of against them? What could I learn by just moving forward? I imagined animals that might live in the tree, or that the spaces were the knots found in the wood grain. As I began to have more fun, I become more proficient, I actually began to find a bit of flow.
This is a big noticing I think. Play is important. Discovery is important. Joy is important. We need to remember that as educators. We need to model it, encourage it, and celebrate it.
I love my tree!
As I looked at it, I imagined a classroom discussion.
The comments could be negative: “It’s got a really short trunk, and not many branches.” “I’ve never seen a trunk like that. Why is your trunk multi-colored?” Positive: “Wow. That’s awesome!” Self–deprecating “Wow. I could never do that!” Seeking information “How did you do that?”
I noticed that my creation which made me feel so good, could become something that made me feel bad, made others feel inadequate, or could be a source of continued joy, discovery, collaboration and learning. It’s all in how we talk about it. It’s critical that we give our students the language they need to engage in positive, collaborative, respectful, learning driven conversations.
Simple phrases like — I notice. I wonder. Tell me more. What if? How might we? — are great ways to collaborate and share ideas. Oh! I’m reminded of the great questions in James E. Ryan’s Book.
His questions encourage conversation, understanding, and teamwork. Wait, What? I wonder…? Couldn’t we at least …? How can I help …? What truly matters? If you haven’t read his book, you should. It’s easy reading, funny, and super insightful. Imagine if you and your students embraced his 5 essential questions in the classroom, and life!
What else could we do?
I loved the idea of creating letters or favorite words. Again it wasn’t as easy or straight forward as it sounds. It was important to remind myself to play, and to stick to the basic form I was after rather than chasing a very elusive perfection. After I created my letters in 2D form I worked to add feet and allow them to stand. Interestingly enough, the different letters required different types of feet in order to stand. And, even though I was successful creating feet for one didn’t mean I could immediately create another pair — even tho they were the same!
This brought me to some critical thinking. It’s vital that we find a way to share this with parents. Play is important. Struggle, failure, noticing, wondering, trying again are integral parts of designing, but also of learning in all its forms! I want to construct some sort of a fact sheet for parents that gives them the same phrases we want their children to use, and helps them understand play, and how they might enhance their children’s play and learning!
My last noticing and thought is, funny enough, I think I want to open each tube and remove the instruction sheet. I found it a hinderance to my play and discovery. It was quite prescriptive rather than inspiring. It’s unfortunate because the blocks have such potential. I found this video showing children playing with the blocks. It was inspirational, so I might direct parents to it at some point. But really I want to steer them away from the already done and encourage play, trust, try, do, learn!
Testing my theory:
Is play, trust, try, do, learn really the best approach? I decided to find a video that showed how to make a top. It was made by a kid, which was fantabulous. It was fun to watch, learn, and create. I learned a bit about how the blocks can fit together. But, I must say I was also left at a stand still. What could I do with those blocks? There is value in learning to make a shape I am sure, but I think there is a danger as well — of getting stuck, of thinking that is the way to go, of wondering if you need someone to tell you what to do.
So, yes, play, trust, do, question, learn. It’s the way to go! Now to embrace that as I notice, think, wonder and create spaces for block play and learning in social studies!