Thursday, January 12, 2012

We've Invented A New Toy!

We made a discovery down at the old cooperative preschool this week. 

As part of last week's magnet play I'd turned a metal cabinet around so that the open side faces the wall, leaving us with a very impressive expanse of metal on which to play with magnets. We've let it run this week, equipping it with a few magnets each day.

If you look carefully near the boy's hand, you'll see a purple magnetic marble rolling down
the metal surface.

Among the magnets are several magnetic marbles. I don't know if everyone has these or not, but they're just as they sound, small plastic spheres with magnets inside. I think most of them were originally part of a building set, but have by now just become a part of our box of magnets.

In any event they're fairly old, old enough at least for many of them to have lost some of their magnetism. That doesn't happen to modern magnets unless they're subjected to fairly high heat or are exposed to a demagnetized magnetic field. Older magnets -- the kind I played with as a boy -- can lose some of their magnetic ability when shocked, say by getting dropped.

As we were putting them away earlier in the week one of the kids tried sticking one of these marble magnets to the back of the cabinet only to have it roll, slowly, right down the side to the floor. I'm sure I'm not doing it justice in the description, but it amazed us all.

So naturally, we tried it again. And sure enough the marble "rolled" down the wall in a controlled manner. Pretty cool! It was interesting enough that Fleur, a visitor from Australia on Monday, asked me, "What is this?" thinking, I suppose, that we owned some special apparatus for making marbles roll on vertical planes. And I guess we do!

We've now been horsing around with this for the past few days. We've noticed that some of them roll much faster than others. We've tried racing them down to the floor. We've set up other magnets thinking they'll create barriers and diversions, but they didn't work the way we'd anticipated, either serving to attract the marbles as they pass, not allowing them to continue, or by diverting them crazily in sudden, lurching arcs as the magnets repel one another.

We've discovered that if one marble gets stuck part way down due to the power of its own internal magnet, you can send another one after it. When they make contact they snap together then shoot to the bottom. In fact the more you stick together, the faster they go.

Here, he's trying to arrange other magnets to "capture" the rolling ones.

A little while back I read an article by a university professor who was arguing for the status quo and against play-based learning, at least as a curriculum for older students and adults, taking aim at Sir Ken Robinson's theories about learning and creativity, in which he defined creativity as discovering/inventing something that no one else has ever discovered/invented before. He also re-defined the term "tinkering," rejecting it as a creative activity, but rather seeing it as a mundane, almost mindless endeavor. By those definitions, he "proved" that almost no one is actually creative, that it is, in fact, a very rare thing, and that perhaps one of the key defining characteristics of older children and adults isn't curiosity, but rather laziness. 


It wasn't such a bad argument if one is willing to accept his definitions, which I don't. Creativity isn't discovering or inventing something that no one has ever discovered or invented before; it's discovering or inventing something that you have never discovered or invented before. And tinkering is a curiosity driven process that may or may not lead to new discoveries or inventions, but it is essential to anyone's creative process.

I'm assuming that we are not the first ones to ever roll a magnetic marble down a metal wall, but the creative process of us doing it for the first time, accidentally, like the apple falling on Newton's head, then experimenting with it, has opened up new avenues in my mind. Even now, I'm imagining new things I want to try employing the phenomena we've discovered for ourselves, so I can only imagine what it will do for the kids as they continue to tinker around. 

As far as I'm concerned, we've invented a new toy and we're only beginning to understand its potential.

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M said...

Great post! Love your blog by the way.

Anonymous said...

cool! I'd buy that. Looks like fun. - brent

Unknown said...

Some of my boys have been experimenting with our magnet marbles this week, too! We also have these short little cylinder magnets. They've mad a long row and spun the marbles down the side. Sometimes, the marble goes straight down and sometimes, it spirals! Captivating! :) said...

Thanks for waking up my curiousity. Can't wait to try it with my preschoolers.

Tabatha said...

A very similar experience happened in my classroom a month or so ago.
A child threw a magnet stick. It landed on on our big magnetic pan...and stuck. What did I do? A gentle game of magnet "darts," of course. It was such a fun experiment/game for them! We tried one at a time, and added more. Some stuck, some rolled and stuck, and some hooked to others. They loved it -- and were quite dramatic in yelling their discoveries! Some of my favorite moments are just like that.
Here's a photo of what that looked like in our room.