Block Party!

The Play Lab after school program brings a new kit of playful, curated materials to schools each week. This spring, all eight Bellingham schools have already explored our block party kit: A collection of construction materials, most of them familiar to the 5-8 year olds at Play Lab. We ask kids what blocks are familiar to them and what looks new; we open a dialogue about their experiences with the materials. Then, we invite them to play.

A Magnatile house sized for a cat.

A Magnatile house sized for a cat.

One of the core goals of each curriculum kit is to engage kids in self-directed play. There is no example to copy, and no final goal post that everyone needs to meet. Self-directed play looks different on each kid, and it looks different within each group.  We bring block party early in the session - it is an easy entry point for kids who might be unsure about what to do.  


It is easy for kids to get stuck and discouraged - just like it is easy for an adult to get stuck and discouraged.  The skill we want to help kids develop is the ability to persevere.  Buildings will fall over; someone else will have the last red LEGO; you will be one Magnatile square shy of what you need for your stuffed cat to fit inside that castle you’re working on.  We are not trying to frustrate kids (or ourselves as teachers), but life is full of bumps that you have to acknowledge, and if we can use blocks to work on those life skills, that’s excellent practice.

The striking thing about these problems is that they are created by the kids themselves, through play. We don’t walk into the room, as teachers, and create these scenarios. With the right materials, kids want to execute an idea of their choosing. They’ll run across a problem, and they’ll create a solution. A lot of this happens when we aren’t watching. This is the core of playful learning: engaging with a world you are actively creating a modifying.

We want kids to brush off these external challenges and push through, so we encourage them to keep working towards a solution to their problem by supporting them. We don’t give them a solution or do it for them. Block party gives us the opportunity to teach this way because the materials are so familiar: most children will dive headfirst into materials like LEGO, Magnatiles, and Kapla blocks.

We have all been frustrated when we have encountered a problem, and our first solution didn’t work. But we have to keep on trying, or reframe the problem.

We do a lot of both at Play Lab.

D's Game

Play Lab After School Enrichment is a simple idea: during the eight-week session, kids engage with a new set of open-ended materials. The materials are curated to spark curiosity and wonder, prompting kids to experiment and explore. When designing the curriculum, we experiment and explore as well: this week marks the fourth iteration of the curriculum launching in after school programs. To prepare, we do what we ask the kids to do: we play, we test, we reflect, and we learn from what we try in our next attempts.

A new prompt this past winter was an invitation to make a game. In the final week at two schools, we brought a collection of materials that kids had become familiar with from previous weeks: loose parts, cardboard, LEGO, and kapla blocks; we also added some familiar game materials, including dice, playing cards, and spinners.

game materials

Offered the opportunity to make a game, the kids on this particular day were buzzing with ideas. Puzzles, mazes, board games, video games: this group set to work as individuals, with some in pairs, to experiment with ideas.

We noticed that D pulled materials to his own table and started work right away. He worked alone, and from time to time he would step back to look at the game board as a whole, and thoughtfully move one piece or gather new materials to add.

D’s game board.

D’s game board.

Over the course of about 40 minutes, D was deeply engaged in this design journey. The game was real and vivid in his mind, and he worked to bring it to life with cardboard, hair curlers, popsicle sticks, LEGO, and more. He executed a vision that unfolded over this play session, focusing on the process of the play, rather than something he would be taking home.

When the play session was finished, D’s friend B came over and asked about the game, and D explained the rules of play. B asked thoughtful questions, and D had clear ideas about how the game would be played.

What we observed in D’s work was engagement and ownership over learning.

When we play, the deep learning comes from the PROCESS - the wandering of our minds, the problems we create and the solutions we imagine.  It can be challenging to engage kids in the process of play because so many of the things we interact with everyday are about the product - the “finished thing”. There was no anxiety here about finishing, or being right, or taking something home. This is what we hope for when we offer children interesting materials: that they will explore and experiment and tinker. There is a sense of ownership that comes from engaging in the process rather than a focus on a product that might just be identical to the product of everyone else in the room.

We can, of course, make things and be interested in the ending. D was interested in the ending, and took home this cardboard to recreate his game at home with other materials. If he is inspired to be creative with everyday materials, without the confines of a structured toy, we have definitely accomplished something.

Most of the time, at Play Lab, a prompt is nonverbal.  We bring playful materials that get along well together.  The kids infer, they find the affordances.  They see what objects are familiar and often begin with that as an entry point.  It’s a reason long, uninterrupted play is important.  Kids get familiar with materials through play: just because we tell you or show you something doesn’t mean you don’t need to try it on for a while.

D ended the session, as we end all sessions, by creating his play story. This is a chance for kids to articulate their vision, and write, draw, or sketch about their play. D drew his game board.

D’s Play Story.

D’s Play Story.

D wanted to remember this work, and between the cardboard he took home and the play story, maybe he will continue iterating and refining his game. Maybe he won’t. We hope that the experience was sticky: that he feels empowered to work and play towards personal goals within his interests; and that he is a confident player, engaged in process and working through the tricky parts.