K. Building Imagination: A Curriculum of Blocks

After teaching Building Imagination for three years now, I’ve sorted out four sorts of learnings going on: Cognitive, expressive/therapeutic, artistic and social.

  • Cognitive: This is the mathematical and engineering side of things: how would you design a staircase, how could you make this road ramp up at an angle, can we imagine where the foundation would go before we build it? In the past, we’ve built the Mayflower from simple plan and elevation drawings, we’ve built Gulliver after first imagining what postures were do-able within the constraints of our blocks. Often the students just think they’re playing. Or as one student said, “This class is really hard but really fun.”
  • Expressive/therapeutic: The children have strong desires to build particular things. More than once students have vetoed what I thought would be the perfect challenge for them, and I have had no choice but to follow along and lead from behind. Sometimes there is a quality of “playing house” or “playing race cars” in their building. Or happy discoveries, as when last year we built a dragon, and a child jumped over the dragon, but subversively because he presumed it was wrong, but then I invited all to jump over the dragon, as that had been the plan all along.
  • Artistic: We play with balance, stability, symmetry, representational and non-representational, etc. At the end of class, I often have them look at each others work, “like you were walking in an art museum.” Although they can’t yet articulate why, the children can tell when something is beautiful — there is often a gasp, and then silence, or comments of “That is so cool.”
  • Social: Sometimes students work well together, sometimes it is a challenge. There are many exercises I use to teach them to cooperate, for example: “Work in pairs and in silence. Take turns, you add one block, then your partner adds one block, then you add a block. Your goal is to make a wall that has a pattern.”

I have been teaching this class for several years now. The last several weeks of the Fall of 2012 offers a great illustration of the kinds of tasks your students will be performing in this class:

Building Gulliver — teacher-led, the tallest and most impressive structure we built. The tallest student had to climb on top of a chair, on top of a table, in order to complete the project

Decide what you want to build — it was their call, the opposite of Gulliver. They ended up building a city complete with zoo, runaway dinosaurs, garbage dump, police and ranger station

Build the school — our most representational project, in which we began by taking a “field trip” through parts of the school. I built them a miniature of a chair in the classroom, which they thought was very cool.

Build an abstract sculpture  — or as I said it to the children, “build something that isn’t something and that looks cool.” I then demonstrated two aesthetic criteria, balance and pattern, which many incorporated into their creations.

and finally, Build something that doesn’t exist — abstract or representational, their choice, but hopefully using balance and pattern. Initially I will try to nudge them towards working together, but that may be beyond them. Most of their work will be without my assistance.

By the end of the course their building skills would have improved in terms of mathematics, architecture and engineering, their self-expression and in their abilities to work with one another and represent that which they observe.