Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Last week we were playing with what I refer to as our giant Lincoln Logs, but which I've learned are properly called "builder boards," as they were in the 1954 edition of Modern Mechanics in which the first DIY plans were published. It's always something of a big deal when we have them out, at least for me, because they normally live in the dark, narrow crawl space under the lower level of our loft, which is located on the far side of the room from our building area. The extra time and effort required by me to get them out and then later put them away means I want to make at least a week long commitment to them.

In the past, our daily clean-up routine with these blocks has involved the kids more or less randomly inserting them upright into some of our wooden boxes, which we've turned on end for the purpose, making for an efficient clean-up process. As a method for getting them out of the way so we can move on to other things, which is necessary because our block area doubles as our circle time rug, it works fine, but it means, once more, quite a bit of extra work for me when we get them out again because the kids don't have arms long enough to reach the shorter pieces that fall to the bottom of the boxes.

This time, I tried something new.

In the past, before each indoor free play session, I would remove the blocks from the boxes and stack them by size around the edges of the building area. This time, I arranged them on a bench adjacent to the space, with the longest blocks, some 5-ft. long, upright in one of those wooden boxes. At the end of our play, then, my plan was to assign a couple of parent-teachers to help the kids arrange them by size, essentially "re-setting" them for the next group to play with them. The way this technique generally works with our unit blocks, is that the kids bring the blocks to the adults who then arrange them onto the shelves. Depending on the parents' Tetris abilities, this technique is either a fun game or an overwhelming frustration, but either way, we wind up with the blocks in a reasonable semblance of order for the next time.

This is more or less how it worked out in our Pre-3 class. The kids in our 3-5's class, however, didn't need the adults to create order, whereas the older kids in our 5's class did. I spent the rest of the week trying to figure out why and I think this is an example of leaders and their first followers

In the 3-5's class, there was one boy who has recently turned four who took the lead in understanding and executing the concept of arranging the blocks into stacks based upon their length. Without any motivation other than his internal ones, he positioned themselves at the bench during each clean-up session, not only putting away his own blocks, but also rearranging the blocks being brought in by others, usually by simply helping guide the blocks to their proper place. Soon a second boy would join him, taking on a similar role, often using more directive comments than the leader, "That's a long-y. It goes over there." Before long a third child had joined them in being responsible for proper stacking and on each day that seemed to be the tipping point, the moment the adults could just step back and know that it would be done the "right way."

It wasn't a quick project by any means, with lots of debate and discussion amongst the kids, lots of testing of one block here, then there, to discover where it belongs. They were clean-up times that significantly ate into the rest of our day because, by the end, nearly all of the kids were following this one leader and his first followers.

This dynamic never developed in our Pre-3 or 5's class. I understand that this might have been a bit over the heads of our youngest kids, but our 5's certainly have the ability to arrange the blocks by size. Maybe it's because the 5's have figured out that the longer we take with clean-up, the shorter our outdoor time will be later, something they often talk about by way of hurrying their friends, but their instinct, as a group, was to simply toss the blocks onto the bench, leaving it to the adults to organize them. Where the kids in the 3-5's class tackled the project with a sense that time didn't matter, the older children were attempting to make quick work of it.

But that doesn't fully explain it. While some of the older children certainly did step up as leaders and first followers, none of them did so in the area of organization, instead focusing on things like dismantling the buildings, raw speed, or seeing who could carry the most blocks in a single armload.

I think a lot about the phenomenon of the first follower, finding that it explains so much of how our world works. I don't know, of course, if this is really what was going on in our classroom last week, but it's certainly a worthy matter upon which to reflect. And a bottom line for me, is that however it came to be, these blocks now no longer need be a particular pain in the neck as they are now always ready to go for the next class.

If you're interested in learning more about this first follower phenomenon, this video from Derek Sivers is what first got me started:

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Barbara Zaborowski said...

Here's another interesting building toy...and they're free!

pity said...

This is vey interesting. Useful blog you have :)