What can we build together with these materials?

When we talk about the environment as third teacher, we are talking about creating contexts where learning can take place. When thinking about context we consider the space, materials, tools, people, and time that create it. Different elements will provoke different questions and thoughts, will challenge different ideas, will lead to different discoveries.

This week, we invited small groups to explore new blocks made out of our familiar cardboard. We wanted to create an environment for learning that would challenge children to: work in a space they might not often choose on their own; collaborate with new play partners; see the potential of new shapes and new materials. We expected these small groups to not only influence the participants' learning, but also the learning of the group as a whole—those who observed from the edge of the rug, those who overheard conversations, those who would join in the work once the space opened up for all to play.

Gathered on the rug, Eleanor, Alex, Charlotte, and Sofia listened as Emily oriented them to the new materials organized in the space.  Set in the middle of the rug was a simple structure to show how some materials might be used, to inspire further thinking.  Emily invited them to begin their play with a broad question to guide their research:  What can we build together with these materials?  Observing the structure, Eleanor had an idea.  The idea began to grow.  

I want to make it a play structure.  Eleanor

Where people can sit and hide!  Charlotte

A playground!  We can make this like a little tunnel.  I’ll get more! Eleanor

And use some of these like a little guard, like swords to play fight.  Charlotte

Here, guys!  Sofia

They can go down this slide and it leads to a cave.  Eleanor

Alex joins in with Eleanor and Charlotte finds Sofia. In these pairs they begin to build.

Sofia and Charlotte envision a castle...

As Eleanor and Alex work by their side, Sofia and Charlotte begin to attach lengths of cardboard to a grooved cardboard rectangle, hoping to hold the shape up in the air.

Emily, can we use tape?  Sofia


No, we can’t.  Charlotte


How will it stay?  Sofia


Flip it! Charlotte


Oh yeah, I have an idea.  Hold it in place.  Now we need one in the middle…no more!  Sofia


Oh, here’s another long one.  This is thicker. Charlotte


Oh, see how this on is a little bit smaller? … Oh, what about these tubes?  Sofia


This is gonna be a great playground!  We are gonna build the best playground kids can play on.  Charlotte


Put one in each corner.  Hey, Eleanor, this playground is gonna have a castle!  Sofia


A bouncy castle?  Eleanor


No, not a bouncy castle.  Sofia


Maybe we can squeeze these just like I did.  Charlotte


Eleanor, we just need two more [tubes] Sofia


No, we need all of them.  Eleanor


You need all? …This might work, flat pieces.  Sofia


Yeah, flat might work better.  Charlotte


We got all the pieces we need!  Flat pieces are even better so they can have all the tubes.  Sofia


Charlotte, it won’t push.  Sofia


I’ll be measuring.  Charlotte


I think these are just the best.  Not too big and not too small.  Sofia


Can I help?  Alex


Sure!  I think this one can fit better in the middle, Alex.  Sofia


This should totally fit.  Make some room for the people.  Charlotte


Except this turns upside down, remember?  Sofia


What in the world?!  This is not a good stand.  Let’s try something else.  Sofia


You guys, what’s going on with you guys?  Charlotte


We’re making a play structure.  Eleanor


This works better.  Sofia


More stable, okay.  Charlotte


Totally.  Sofia

After at least fifteen minutes passed, Emily invited the group of four to pause and reflect on their work mid-process. The block structures could barely be called structures. Pieces were all over the rug and it was difficult to distinguish what was intentional and what was discarded. The castle pieces lay on the ground, the slides fell over. The careful work, intense problem-solving, perseverance, and flexible thinking exemplified by Sofia and Charlotte’s efforts were not visible in the end product. This was true for Eleanor and Alex’s work as well. Reflecting on her work, Sofia commented,

“We hadded trouble. I was thinking of using rubber bands like Eleanor was doing, but it wasn’t working cuz I wanted it to go under here. And now we are trying to turn it into a waterslide.”

Here we zoomed into the process we captured of Sofia and Charlotte's work because it exemplified so beautifully the ways in which the process is so often what makes learning visible. It is within the process that success can be seen. This documentation makes visible the ways in which these partners practiced tools and discovered new ones to guide their work:

to envision a goal together,

to delegate tasks,

to invite others into their work, 

to enter into another’s play,

to experiment with stability and balance,

to test materials with various attributes,

to observe and draw conclusions, 

to describe their thinking to others,

to encourage each other,

to play with a less familiar material,

to take risks and fail,

to use humor to encounter the unexpected and the unwanted,

to inquire about another’s work…

What more do you see?