Saturday, February 13, 2010

Then We'll Play With Something Else

I don't recall where I acquired this toy, but I've owned it as long as I can remember. I spent a good chunk of my youth in South Carolina and I have vague memories of visiting military museums and installations like Ft. Jackson, so I suspect it was purchased for me as a souvenir.

I have far more concrete memories of actually playing with this coin-sorting bank. I would spend hours dropping coins into the slot above the cockpit, listening to the sound of them rolling through fuselage, then pushing the button to release them into their proper cylinders. At first it seemed like magic. How did the coins know where they were supposed to go? 

Through experimentation, I noticed that the larger the coin, the less distance it travelled toward the tail before reaching its destination. That lead me to the realization that the narrowing of the fuselage must be an essential part of the design. I tested my theory by first inserting a larger coin, like a nickel, followed by a smaller coin, like a dime, then pushing the button. Both coins would fall into the nickel cylinder, which is exactly what I expected. If I inserted the smaller coin first, they would fall into their proper places. I did this over and over until I was convinced. My theory was confirmed.

Before I even knew the word gravity, I figured out that the angle of the jet was essential to the process. By holding the entire toy in my hand and tipping it to change that angle, I could force coins to fall into the wrong cylinders.

I removed the jet from its base and studied it from the underside, pushing the button over and over to watch how the simple machine worked, and how the spring forced the apparatus back into place when I released the button. To make sure I understood the mechanism, I would hold the button down before inserting coins and sure enough, they would all, whatever their size, fall into the first cylinder in the row.

The cylinders have marks on them to indicate the relative values of each column of coins. I found that a stack of ten dimes equalled one dollar, while it only took 4 quarters to do the same. A dollar's worth of nickels was the tallest, while I couldn't use this toy to measure that many pennies. It bothered me that the coins didn't sort into their cylinders in order of their value, but try as I might I could not conceive of how to design a machine that would do that. It was with a sigh of philosophy that I had to accept this limitation of the technology.

I didn't learn all of this by playing with the toy just once, but rather over the course of multiple sessions, over the course of at least a couple years, just picking it up in idle moments and fiddling with it.

I found the toy last weekend as I scavenged in my basement for things to try out in our Little World experiment and brought it into class. On Tuesday, I introduced it to our Pre-K class. We took turns inserting coins of various sizes, then predicted where they would go when we pushed the button. It was hit or miss at first, with the kids seeming surprised when they guessed correctly and confused when they didn't. Some of them worked on theories about the colors of the coins or the pictures on them or their button pushing technique, but after a half dozen turns, something clicked for Josephine. She accurately predicted where a quarter would land, then a dime, then stated her theory to the table, "The biggest ones go to this end, and the littlest ones go to this end, and the middle ones go in the middle." She then began helping her friends with their predictions. It wasn't long before they all understood the principle.

The toy was in class for the rest of the week and there was rarely a moment when at least one child wasn't using it. The table was most often crowded with little bodies waiting their turn to play with this simple, mechanical toy that I love. They'll get to play with it again and again until it's broken. 

Then we'll play with something else.

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Unknown said...

You so brave to share a beloved toy, even though you realize it probably will get broken! Look how much you learned from this---and think how much your little friends will learn with you guiding them! Awesome!

Deborah Stewart said...

You reminded me of a toy that I bought years ago when my daughter was little. It is a little box with all kinds of locks all over it. A great way to teach preschoolers how to unlock every door in the house:) LOL! Over the years my nieces and nephews have all enjoyed playing with the box and each has tried to "steal" the box from my house and take it home at one time or another!

Floor Pie said...

Through play, they're learning scientific concepts and methods of thinking that just wouldn't happen with memorizing and reciting facts.

Teacher Tom said...

This toy epitomizes for me the power of play-based education.

Humans don't play because they are young, they have a period of youth because they must play.

Scott said...

You are so right, Tom. This toy represents all I try to accomplish through play with my kids. Play is the way kids figure out how things work.

SurprisedMom said...

I just love your attitude about sharing your toy with your students! You are teaching them with a beloved toy from childhood, yet you realize it will probably be broken. I think a lot of your students will remember the teacher who shared his toys.

Centers and Circle Time said...

I love the idea of playing with something not-so-common. My grandma had many treasures of this sort when I was growing up. I took great pleasure in playing with her toys.

I would love to take an old telephone to know the ones that you stick your finger in to dial. The kids would surely get a kick out of that!