Monday, February 21, 2011

Building Community From Blocks

I don't know if these blocks are old or very old, but they were already old when I inherited them 9 years ago. I've seen them as incidental elements in photos on other preschool blogs over the course of the 18 months I've been at this blogging thing, so I know we're not alone in owning a set. I'd really like to know more about them. Who made them? Are they still made? What are they called? After yesterday's post in which the blocks appeared as an incidental element in the photos, a couple people asked those very questions and it made me realize I want those answers too. So, if you know anything, there are several of us hoping you'll drop some education on us in the comments.

Our set is a bit of a challenge to build with these days. I guess they've swollen a bit from moisture or just been knocked about too much, but many of the notches need to be sanded out to make them easier to stick together and pull apart. And it would be nice to have twice as many of them because if a few kids get a bee in their collective bonnets about building one large building, parts get scarce quickly should one have other purposes.

I'd also like to send them home with a parent who owns a table saw to cut more notches in the boards, especially the longer ones, at even intervals. That would open up a whole new world of what we can build.

And they are a pain to store, at least at our school. Currently, we keep them in a closet in the back hallway, on shelves that seem made for them, but, well, I'm the kind of teacher who ends up mounding boxes of equally important things in front of them over time, making it a real chore to break them out when we want them. So, once I did manage to get them out, we ran with them in our block area for two full weeks, while typically we change out what's going on in the block area every couple days.

Gripes aside these are very good blocks, ones that give the gift of splinters if you're not careful. Ones that are liable to result in a few bonked heads until everyone gets the idea of how to build safely with them. Ones that don't always go together the way you want them to, so you either have to adjust your plans or improvise. And while I don't know in what era they were made, they were certainly designed with the idea that children are highly competent, capable of creating full-sized structures beyond mere towers or pre-packaged structures that require instructions.

We mostly combined them with our box of scarves and the stuffed animals, but the Love Rats spent time here as well, as did other props from around the classroom. 

For the first few days, we started with adult created foundations. I wanted the kids to see the possibilities, but as the days went on, there were fewer and smaller "starts" from which to get going.

And as we learned more about these blocks and what we could do with them, we gained confidence that we could tinker our way through to something that satisfied the architecture in our minds.

Basic boxes were certainly do-able.

And we figured out that if we were careful we could tip them on their sides and climb atop them.

And a two-room castle, with a door, was not out of the question. As day followed day, I observed that the kids were almost immediately taking apart whatever I'd built to get them going, as if it was just in their way. When I asked Max if he was "dismantling" something, he answered off-handedly, "I was, but now I'm mantling." 

We made cozy places.

We made teeter totters.

And Star Wars fighters.

We made rooms of our own.

And rooms crowed with stuffed animals then covered with a flowery scarf.

We played alone when the others went elsewhere.

We played in pairs.

And we played in large groups, all crowded together where we just had to learn to talk, to share, to get along.

You know, we did the stuff children always do when they're left to play with blocks together without too many instructions or expectations, building not just things, not just structures, but a real community from those blocks.

The Pre-3 class, of course, needed more help when it came to building since the blocks themselves nearly outweighed some of them, but very little when it came to cleaning up. I've always told parents that clean-up time was the core of our curriculum, that's when the kids really demonstrate their ownership of the school. And man, this year's class of 2 and 3-year-olds are proving me a genius.

And don't forget: if you know anything about these blocks, please let me know!

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michellel said...

Here's what I think you have, a set of builder boards. The book sells on the earthplay website, and a few other places.

leahle said...

were do you get them?

Teacher Tom said...

Thanks Michellel! Those are awfully close to what we have.

@Leahle . . . Check out Michellel's link, although I'm guessing you'll want to by the $13 book and have someone make some, rather than the $1500-2,500 pre-made sets!

Lindsey said...

This is such good timing for us! We picked up a book at a thrift store a couple of days ago called "Woodworking projects II" by Sunset. It's a 1984 book and the project that we wanted to adapt was called "modular housing" It's almost exactly what you have but on a two thirds scale. I either wanted to make it larger to be like you have, or if the lumber is going to cost too much then make it smaller to use as a build your own dollhouse kit for the kids. There are no photographs in this book, but hand drawn illustrations showing how the boards fit together. It makes me wonder if this style of building block was fairly common in the 1970s and maybe the ones you have at school (which are FABULOUS!) were hand made as a one off set by someone rather awesome?

Teacher Tom said...

@Lindsey . . . I think you may be right. There are some inconsistencies from block to block that lead me to guess they weren't "manufactured," at least not by a machine.

S. Krajicek said...

I don't know what they are called, but the Children's Museum in Indianapolis has some made of a plastic polymer material that reminds me of the patio furniture made from recycled milk jugs. The next time I go down the museum with my kids I'll try to find out what they are called and where they got them. Cheers!

Renee said...

Here's another site that seems to have a similar set.

It looks like it would be relatively simple to make with un-treated 1x6 boards... heck, a shipping palette pulled apart would probably do the trick on the cheap! You'd probably only need a drill press, hand saw, or even one of the new fancy dremel tools.

Chris Hobbs said...


My wife saw your post and remembered I had shown her something close a few years ago. Check out this scanned article from a 1953 copy of the magazine 'Modern Mechanics':

Teacher Tom said...

I think you win the prize, Chris! That's exactly what we have. Thanks!

Valerie @ Inner Child Fun said...

What fun!! And Kudos to Chris for solving the mystery! :-)

Aaron said...

I built a set of these in the last month and my kids love them!

@teacher tom if you still need someone to enlarge or cut more notches let me know. But more notches means they could break easier.

Anne said...

These are brilliant. I'm seeing a rather large item being added to the honey-do list very soon! I found this website with a variety of sources of ideas, looks like 50s-80s.