Building Imagination: More than “just playing with blocks”

After teaching Building Imagination for three years now, I’ve sorted out four sorts of learnings going on:

One challenge is to build a spiral without a model to study.

— 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. Sometimes they figure out a cantilever and we use that in our constructions. I don’t usually verbalize concepts with them, so there may be a lot going on cognitively, but they just think they’re playing. Or as one student said, “This class is really hard but really fun.”

Three students working hard for twenty minutes: spiral challenge solved.

Three students working hard for twenty minutes: spiral challenge solved.


— 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. There was something deep and primal in re-enacting this archetype and they kept jumping for a while. I only wish we could have jumped the dragon at night, by a fire.

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— 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 works, “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.”

Larger projects, such as this castle, take teamwork to pull off in one lesson.

Larger projects, such as this castle, take teamwork to pull off in one lesson.

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