Learning with Sticks or Shapes?

Followers of this blog know that I have an interest, which borders on obsession, with play patterns, and their triggers. As a designer of play systems, my fascination brings me insights about maximizing the engagement and the learning potential of the systems I create.

Over the past decade, I have been particularly interested in play-based learning facilitated with loose parts. This area of investigation is compelling because, while the subject has a rich history ranging from Montessori to sand tray psychotherapy, from mud kitchens to hollow blocks, there is very little systematic research on the specific triggers for this sort of learning. My current project is a case in point.

Construction toys are extremely popular and beneficial. I got to wondering if these could be scaled up so that kids could build their environments. There are two main types of construction toys in use these days. The more traditional toys are made with struts and hubs such as Straw Builders. Over the past decade, a new system, Magformers, has gained a lot of popularity. These are geometric shapes that link together with magnets.

As a designer, I want to develop useful skills in the widest range of children as possible. As I have observed children using these toys, it has become clear that Magformers are much more accessible to young children. I have watched infants play with Magformers while the strut and hub systems are hazardous for little guys. On the other hand, strut and hub systems can extend all the way to building geodesic domes.

Since there are many large-scale strut and hub construction systems available and none for younger children, the opportunity for a large shape-based construction system is a clear opportunity for development. It turns out this is not easy.

It turns out that those simple-looking Magformers hide some very sophisticated engineering. I should have been prepared for this since the H-Frame system we developed for Gymboree Play and Music required inventing a method of assembly that was patentable. The way Magformers work is that the embedded magnets are not fixed and are free to rotate so as they orient to face the adjacent shape. I know this is hard to visualize, but it becomes immediately clear when you play with them.

As is the case with most development in early childhood, what is learned is not at the conscious level but becomes embedded in the brain’s neurological structures. In this case, when the child goes from playing with Magformers to playing with magnets, they begin to have hands-on knowledge of polarity. When they encounter the classic experiments of magnets creating patterns of metal filings that expose the invisible fields, it opens their minds to scientific inquiry at a profound level. They now know that there are forces that only become visible when look deeper.

One of the things I love about working in the field of early childhood is that most of this this learning flies under the radar. For example, every adult will immediately see that Magformers are OK for infants, but strut and hub toys are not. We get it because we were once infants too, and that experience is deeply embedded, even though rarely consciously considered.

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