Let me tell you about yesterday's engineering with my theme class of a dozen children, ages 3, 4, and 5.... (I hope my words will paint the picture because, unfortunately, I was without a camera.)
Yesterday I chose the story "Where the River Begins," by Thomas Locker as the basis for our engineering fun. This beautiful picture book tells the sweet story of a grandfather and his two grandsons journeying together to discover the beginning of a river and is accentuated by Thomas Locker's gorgeous landscape pictures throughout. I figured it was just the right opening for the problem I posed - what if the grandfather and his two grandsons wanted to get to the other side of the river, without getting wet? What could we build to get them to the other side?
I was only a page or two into the book when one enthusiastic student called out - obviously not stunned into quiet reverie by the beautiful landscape photos of the book - "What are we building today? What is the problem?!" I recognized that I had perhaps given enough "lead in" for the project, and seeing his words as enthusiasm for engineering, I introduced the problem:
How can they get to the other side of the river?
We had a whole group discussion about how to solve the problem:
What could we build that would get people from one side of the river to the other?
Several children immediately thought of building a bridge, and we shared ideas about all the different types of bridges that we knew about - some just for walking, others for cars, and what about the ones for trains? One child suggested building "something that could jump you across," and was followed by, "something that you could fly!," "no, we could make them a boat," and "what about swimming?" We even had a brief discussion about catapults.
The children were eager to hear about our test: I had removed the long tray from the base of an easel, filled it with water, and thus created a narrow, long river. For the test, we would put three small toy people [dollhouse figures] in/on each device, to see if the device carried them across the water without the device breaking or the people falling in the water.
There was immediately a flurry of activity, some 20 to 30 minutes of impassioned construction - all the eager children gathering materials with which to create, working at the tables with scissors and tape, calling out to us three adults - "I need some help here!," as they tried to cut plastic or tape, or to adhere two odd pieces together. (3, 4, and 5 year olds have a vast range of abilities; some may not have great fine motor skills but have fabulous imaginations - I love to help them make those imaginations become visible.)
Then there was the "enticing" of those children who were not so interested. Two 4 year old boys went immediately to run in the classroom, with only eyes for playing with each other. I became a sideshow carnie, calling out, exciting, motivating, "selling" the effort enthusiastically to the two of them, probing them for their ideas, getting their insight as to how they might cross the river - I felt successful when both sat at the table to create.
We tested all the projects over our makeshift river. A small group of children hung out for each and every test, loving the different projects, cheering for their friends. One young engineer was too busy perfecting her bridge to join us for the early tests - she worked for almost an hour, cutting cardboard and netting (her chosen materials) and adding tape "just so." Another persevering engineer modified his boat three times to pass the test - his first boat wouldn't fit in the river, his second design sunk, and his third one was just right, carrying all three doll figures down the river. I was so excited by his determination, his positive response to failure - try, try, again! This is my engineering class at its best.
But, of course, it wasn't all about the engineering for every child! Simultaneous to the tests, a couple others began a frisky game of wrestling and play fighting...aieeee. Yes, this makes sense, too - it is January, it was only about 20 degrees outside; we've had lots of icy days and I have no doubt that these children have been cooped up inside too much. This rambunctious behavior is the result of that! (Time to get some whole body movement activity going....)
Then there was the momentary sideline by the little 3 year old who finished his project surprisingly fast, and made his way to an intriguing corner of this new classroom, promptly dumping several bins of ridiculously small things into one "sink" - I teach in someone else's classroom; I had no idea these small items were even there. Well, a mathematical sorting game has unexpectedly landed in my lap. Ugh! (My new friend and I worked together to put everything back in its place.)
I switched gears a bit, for these outliers, staying on "theme" - we had snack a little earlier than planned, while I dramatically read The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Paul Galdone. After snack, we built a large block bridge that children walked across (and pretended to fall into the river), all the while acting as billy goats and trolls. The trolls were well played by my frisky wrestlers. At the end of the day, we headed up to a large, open space to play all sorts of cooperative games, including many enthusiastic rounds of "London Bridge Came Falling Down."
If you were a parent who came in at the end of the class to pick up your child, you would see that the children created a variety devices to get three small toy figures across the river, including:
- one footbridge, tightly woven with pipecleaners and straws and tape, only wide enough for one person at a time;
- a catapult device that was inspired by Star Wars and sent people flying through the air, over the river, to the other side:
- a large bridge complete with observation deck, to watch the fish in the river;
- a canoe-like boat, to sail across the river;
- a bridge with a climbing wall for the people to climb up onto the bridge and then across the river, back down another wall to the other side; and
- a bridge with a fort to hide in so that you could play awhile and rest before continuing across the river.
It was a great morning of exploration. I hope my words have adequately captured our engineering fun.
*Check out just these great books for children about bridges and other structures:
Bridges! : Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test by Carol A. Johmann
and Elizabeth J. Rieth ; illustrations by Michael Kline.
Bridges : From My Side to Yours, written & illustrated by Jan Adkins.
Built to Last : Building America's Amazing Bridges, Dams, Tunnels, and Skyscrapers, by George Sullivan
Fantastic Feats and Failures, by the editors of Yes mag.