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Blockheads? Us?

It's a castle!It's a castle!Earlier in the year, inspired by some posts from the TAB Yahoo list, I borrowed a set of unit blocks from a preschool colleague. I added them to the list of possibilities, attached them loosely to the 3D Construction center, and fabricated some new rules for the kids. I had several goals. One was to observe some of the motor skill development of my students. Many children, particularly those who haven’t had the benefit of formal preschool, haven’t had much experience with heavy wooden blocks. In some cases there are Lego-type toys at home, but the skills of balancing and spatial manipulation are different with stand alone blocks. I wanted to see how children worked together. Much can be learned by listening to the interplay between small groups – who’s dominant, who generates ideas, who is flexible in thinking, etc. Among my goals was my desire to encourage the kind of planning and strategizing that goes into actual building, as well. Architecture is a special art form that is nourished by “doing” just like the other fine arts represented by the mini-studios in our room.

As I looked at the cart with the preschool teacher’s well loved maple blocks stacked in piles, I had a vision of future chaos, complete with maniacal shrieks and flying blocks. We needed something much more thoughtful than the average preschool experience and, hopefully, to create a learning experience a little beyond what we expected from three year olds. Using my best “Walk this way” teacher confidence, I proceeded to outline how these blocks were different from the blocks the students had encountered in daycare or at their cousins’ house.

    Block divasBlock divas

  • These are special architectural blocks. With them you can build anything you can imagine, from castles to schools to parks to rocket ships to undersea cities. We treat them with care.
  • Since we’re artists, we like to keep track of our work. To that end, when a structure is complete (as decided by the artists) the teacher will be called over to take a picture with the digital camera so we can have a record of our creations. (Fellow TAB teachers speak of students drawing their creations but we haven’t found time to do that yet – maybe from photos later?)
  • Because we’re thoughtful, caring artists, we have a special set of procedures for our block area. Creations may only be built in the center of the rug with walkways left on all sides so that other studio users may move around us. Special care will be taken to place blocks carefully and to take them down deliberately. We don’t want to disturb other artists, after all, and startling the art teacher can be a dangerous thing.
  • Since it takes a bit longer to gently re-stack the blocks on the cart, block artists need to start their cleanup when they hear the three minute warning. Ordering and categorizing are skills that improve with practice, too, and there’s a Zen-like feeling in watching the blocks get reassembled a different way each time.

Life was good and the building trades were brisk… until the teacher needed to borrow her blocks back. How could we argue with preschoolers? Blocks are essential on many levels for the little guys, too. Still, we were crushed. Sad. Bereft. Blockless.

Having the blocks gone was important for some conversations, too. I needed to see how important they were to the students, and they let me know in many ways. Several of the most dedicated builders wistfully drew pictures of themselves and the missing blocks and, when I told them that we had found money in the budget to get another set to share, they were thrilled. This was more like a barn raising, somehow...This was more like a barn raising, somehow...The new set, dedicated to the art studios, was delivered last week and is happily ensconced at the end of the “meeting place” rug.

Photographic evidence shows some brilliant structures, as well as some satisfied contractors. I love the look of pride on the faces even more than the carefully constructed buildings. I’m intrigued with the way children choose partners with which to build or how some choose to tackle a structure single-handed. There’s something in shared building that makes even unlikely groupings work beautifully.Ta DA!Ta DA!

Friendship loom - woo hoo!

Our first "big loom" weavers try it out.Our first "big loom" weavers try it out.The loom finds her first friends! It's been a long time coming. I've been working on building a loom like one I've seen online off and on for a few weeks. The design wasn't too hard to come up with but putting it together with damp lumber (wouldn't you think that lumber yards in this rainy state would cover their raw lumber?) in an unheated barn wasn't too much fun.

Then there was the base of the thing, which I cleverly installed backwards the first time (not the cold this time, just the reality of forgetting the axiom: measure twice, cut once) and had to re-do with some more scrap lumber.

The loom made its way to my classroom this weekend and I finally had enough heat to paint, secure the sides, and pound in the nails.

This morning's first graders were the first kids I turned loose on the loom and they were thrilled. I got pictures for posterity and really smiled when I watched them develop their own systems for making it work for them. Here's how it works. I poke the yarn between the warp string and say, "over." My partner on the other side pokes it back, one notch over, and solemnly says, "under." I love it.

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