Thinking Creatively Through Construction

Why should children play through construction? Why is it important that they fail?

Having kids build stuff seems like an unremarkable activity, but in reality what’s really involved is much more complex.  

By nature, children are explorers and playing on a daily basis supports brain development in multiple ways. With the rising popularity of STEM or STEAM education and the research that is available on brain science, there are many reasons why children should not only play but construct.

Children are inherently imaginative, and when they construct, they are frequently revising their approach to their vision. They are also engaging in a two-step thought process known as “divergent thinking”. Divergent thinking involves seeing many different possibilities, which is crucial to creative problem-solving. Other key skills children practice when they are building include creativity, mathematics, scientific reasoning, and social and emotional growth.  

So encourage children to play, be inventive, and allow them to fail. Each time they fail, they generate other ideas, and each attempt forces them to create more possibilities! This is how children learn. They also learn to move on from minor frustrations by trying again, strengthening their resilience for when they face future challenges.

In my own practice, I am intentional about providing as many opportunities as possible for open-ended design projects. When my students play through construction, they are highly engaged, in charge of their whimsy, and by necessity, experimental. Since starting at my current school a few years ago, I’ve been gradually revising our curriculum to include more construction based projects, which have now been studiously integrated into other literacy, writing, and math units. They range from dioramas to bridges and boats in fairytales, to stop-motion animation videos, which can all feel overwhelming at times, but it doesn’t need to be.

I suggest getting started with a straightforward construction challenge that can be done at home or school requires only two materials—marshmallows and toothpicks (if marshmallows cannot be found, perhaps substitute with clay or play-dough). And it’s appropriate for children of varying ages!

In my 1st grade classroom, we spent several weeks learning about arctic animals, and so within our learning context, I challenged my students to create an animal shelter for some small arctic animal figurines I had provided them. Before students began, I gave them some time to sketch their ideas. I also prompted them with questions about the shapes they could use to create a sturdy structure that would hold up over time. One helpful tip is to have students build their projects on cardstock or even a paper plate so that students can relocate their work easily. Also, make sure there are plenty of materials so that students have the opportunity to redesign and/or create multiple models. Once the construction began, I gave students as much time as they needed for the challenge (for six to seven-year-olds, their stamina for building is no more than one hour).

My students were committed throughout the challenge and enthusiastic to present their final product to classmates and families. At the end of our construction time, we discussed what geometric shapes worked best for a sturdy shelter, which they concluded to be a combination of triangles and squares.

This was a simple challenge to set up, with minimal prep time and access to cheap materials. Equally important, there are endless design possibilities, which is key to activating divergent thinking. As a project that offers many opportunities for learning, it is well worth a try!

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