Friday, May 13, 2016

Small, Well-Crafted Objects

"Teacher Tom? Wanna hear about my game?"


He arranged the small, cube-shaped wooden blocks for a moment, gathering brown ones together. 

"This game is called Mud Brick." When I didn't say anything, he clarified, "Because they're brown like mud."

"How do you play Mud Brick?"

He gathered white blocks together, "You get these and you try to break through the mud brick wall, like this." He demonstrated by shuttling a white block toward the mud brick wall, breaking through. "I get a bonus for that."

"May I have a turn?"

"Sure!" He pushed the white blocks closer to me. I did my best to imitate his technique.

He enthused, "Look! You got two points!" He showed me the two blocks that indicated two points. He then reached into the pile of blocks and sorted out red, green and blue blocks, "I have another game. This one is called Fire in the Hole." It was a similar game, but included a vertical dimension.

The following day he created a game called Pumpkin Squash because "pumpkin squash are orange."

I've had these blocks in my life for as long as I've been teaching. Indeed, they predate me at the school. They are old, but because they were stained and not painted, there is no chipping. The colors have certainly faded since they were made, but they remain clean, crisp things. I'm drawn to small, well-crafted objects and I include these blocks in that category. 

They are accompanied by a set of cards that suggest designs children may choose to imitate. They're nice, sturdy cards that have survived for decades, but they contribute nothing pedagogically. That said, I nevertheless often make them available to the kids alongside the blocks. I'm waiting for that day when they speak to a single child. I know that day will come because, in their way, they are small, well-crafted objects as well.

These blocks were manufactured, I assume, to encourage children to explore color, pattern, sequencing, shape, dimension, and other mathematical concepts. And for at least one child, that's exactly what they did. For most kids in our classroom, most years, these blocks are "drive-by" playthings, often just knocked onto the floor and left to be underfoot, but they don't take up too much space and they are, after all, small, well-crafted objects. One never disposes of small, well-crafted objects.

Some time after having learned to play Pumpkin Squash, I happened by the red table upon which I'd put the blocks. A crowd of kids, including our games master, were attempting to knock down towers by throwing cubes at them. This is where their mathematical explorations had taken them. When I suggested that throwing blocks in a confined space might risk injuring others, I was informed that they had already calculated it into the game. "If you hit someone," they explained, "you lose two points."

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