"Alistair was a sensible boy. He made lists of things he was going to do and lists of things he was not going to do."
It is one of those books that humors adults as well as children. I decided it would make an excellent starting point for engineering...
I read up to the point that dear Alistair is happily walking along the street to the library, to return his books on time, when, suddenly, a spaceship filled with Goots, snatches him up into outer space. And then I closed the book.
With their rapt attention, I whispered,
"We have a problem."
Total silence filled the room.
The children just stared at me, wide-eyed.
What?! We aren't going to find out what happened?!
"We have an engineering problem. We are engineers. We know how to fix things. What can we build that will prevent Alistair from being taken up into space?"
As usual we would use nothing but recyclables. Alistair was represented by a small paper "doll" I had created - "this figure needs to fit into your device." After our devices were built, we would test the devices by using a small fan as the spaceship - could they prevent Alistair from being blown away?
Immediately, there was a chorus of voices as the children brainstormed how to solve the problem. As usual, I was mesmerized by the diversity of thoughtful ideas and creativity expressed by these young children. They are problem-solvers!
Eleanor asserted, "We need to put some weights on Alistair, something heavy like rocks, so that he cannot be taken by the spaceship."
Lucca created a rocket ship and said, “It’s a rocket ship. This is a shooting thing and this is for battles. He’ll climb in this, and he’ll be crying, and he’ll stop crying and be safe in this rocketship.”
Billy created a rocket ship and said, “Mine is big and has a lot of tape. He jumps in it and it flies up and away. And he gets away fast. It is a rocket ship.”
Alex made a pool and said, “I am making a pool for him to jump in and hide. No, he doesn’t go in there. The spaceship falls in the pool and it gets stuck to the tape. And Alistair is safe.”
Salma created a device to hide Alistair and said, “He jumps into here and he goes climbing towards here and jumps down, then he goes over here. Then he goes back here and hids. He stays safe.”
Naia created a sled and said, “This is a sled; it goes really fast as a rocket ship or a car. Alistair has it with him. It has a special extra – pieces of tape, so it can stick to the ground. And when it’s time to go fast, they come up, and it goes up in the air.”
Gideon created a device that releases a parachute and said, “Alistair climbs onto this and climbs up and goes across and falls in here. And, the parachute jumps out and he lands back at the library, so he can get his book.”
Paul built a device to make the spaceship crash and said, “The library is broken by the spaceship. This device, it has a hose to spray the spaceship. And it makes it fall by the water. Alistair jumps on it.”
Samiya created a device to hide Alistair and said, “He jumps on it and lies down. He hides. It can’t find him. The string wraps him and keeps him stuck.”
Sukey created a rocket ship and said, “Alistair jumps on it. It is a rocket ship. It saves him. It comes.”
Oscar created a car and said, “There is a car. He jumps into it and stays in because it is a racing car. It gets away fast. Oscar is the driver of the car. It even has a remote control steering wheel and makes the TV go on.”
Yes, it was a wonderful engineering exploration. This is true learning through play. Although they are laughing and talking and, to the untrained eye, simply cutting and taping recyclables, the children are:
- thoughtfully planning what to build and then following through, which are essential school-readiness skills;
- orally writing and editing descriptions of their projects (I not only take notes on what they build, but read these aloud to the children, allowing them to refine or modify their ideas);
- collaborating with one another about how to improve their projects (developing real team-work skills);
- attending, focusing, and persisting on their ideas - work habits that will serve them well in future years of schooling;
- cutting and manipulating tape and cardboard - essential fine-motor skills, which will actually help them in holding writing tools; and
- developing essential literacy skills, as they consider who are the main characters in a story and what is the main problem or plot.
With all this rich learning, let's remember: let them play, let them play, let them play!