The images below are from my workshop, “Blocks as a Learning Tool in the Early Childhood Classroom: Literacy and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.)” held last Saturday at the Early Childhood Lab School of the University of the District of Columbia. I had just come down to Washington DC after walking past thousands of booths at the Toy Fair in NYC to see the latest products. It is always curious to view toys through a commercial lens in contrast to an educational lens. The glittery Toy Fair screams, BUY! BUY! BUY!, without much thought about how or why children would be using the toy over time. More is More. At the workshop, in contrast, we focused on children’s and teacher’s interaction with a variety of building materials – modular blocks, recycled and natural materials. What kinds of materials provoke and expand children’s thinking and how teacher’s observations, questions, and conversations with children can further enrich their ideas.
I am always struck by the quantities of toys that are being produced each year. Who needs them? I realize that this is a peculiar question to be asked by a toy designer but I have always favored the idea that less is more.
The images below show educators constructing a series of buildings of equal height during an exploration of non-standard measurement.
With all the latest Lego model kits and Lego theme packaging it is both
curious and refreshing to see Lego used in this basic way. The simple Lego
brick appears on a street corner. Is it a mini-art installation, a
decorative touch to add contrast to the gray stone, or a clever and colorful
repair for a partially crumbling wall.
I am intrigued about the question of scale and building with young children. What happens to the play narrative when a child constructs a two foot tall building with blocks and places a one foot toy elephant next to it? Does the play narrative change when a 3 inch toy tiger enters the scene? Does scale matter to young children?
Check out these photographs on the huzi design site. Although the images are of food and miniature figures, they provoke the question about how scale changes meaning and potential narrative.
Seattle-based photographer Christopher Boffoli presents an odd yet intriguing relationship with food in his Disparity series. Inspired by the media he saw as a little boy, he takes these images that look like kids living in an out-of-scale adult world.
This excellent video on the Infant Toddler and Preschools in Reggio Emilia
was created and first broadcasted in 2007 by RAI UNO, Italian public
television. It was prepared by a highly respected Italian science journalist
and writer, Piero Angela, in cooperation with Reggio Children. It has
I have always been fascinated with the way children retell and re-imagine stories or real events with blocks and construction toys. For a number of years I have been presenting workshop for teachers exploring the blocks and literacy connection. I came across this series of projects in Design Observer where three architectural firms “…look at fairy tales through the lens of architecture.” These wildly imaginative, yet grounded presentations confirm this rich connection. Be sure and see the entire slide show.
“Fairy tales have transfixed readers for thousands of years, and for many reasons; one of the most compelling is the promise of a magical home. How many architects, young and old, have been inspired by the hero or heroine, banished from the cottage, lost in the woods, who risks everything to find a forever-space?
In this series, which appears in three installments this week on Places, we look at fairy tales through the lens of architecture. Participating firms — Bernheimer Architecture, Leven Betts and Guy Nordenson and Associates — have selected favorite tales and produced works exploring the intimate relationship between the domestic structures of fairy tales and the imaginative realm of architecture.
Houses in fairy tales are never just houses; they always contain secrets and dreams. This project presents a new path of inquiry, a new line of flight into architecture as a fantastic, literary realm of becoming. We welcome you to these fairy-tale places.”
— Kate Bernheimer & Andrew Bernheimer
Why and how to assess and “measure” young children’s learning is a burning issue in early childhood education in the U.S These questions are frequently asked about the Reggio Emilia approach as it is interpreted in Reggio inspired schools in the U.S. Lella Gandini clearly addresses this important issue in an excellent article (The article is on pages 78 -82), The Challenge of Assessment: scaling-up the Reggio Emilia approach in the USA? Lella Gandini, United States Liaison for the Dissemination of the Reggio Emilia Approach, Reggio Children, North Hampton, Massachusetts.
Finland also offers some important challenges on the question of assessment. See the Atlantic article What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finlands School Success
From the basic simple form developed by Ole Kirk Christiansen that came with no directions, to specific model kits and licensed theme-kits and now to Lego girls- What does this trajectory say? Is what is best for children’s development the same as what is best for a company’s bottom line? Check out the 40 million dollar marketing campaign to launch “Lego is for Girls”
This following article in Business Week magazine gives a detailed description of the rationale behind the development of Lego figures for girls. It touches on the question of the meaning of “beauty “for young girls. It does not look at the question of what “beauty” means to all young children? This is a very complex question. The rationale for Lego figures for girls seems to adhere to the stereotype that “harmony,” “friendlier colors” are a girl thing and that “mastery” is for boys.
“The Lego Friends team is aware of the paradox at the heart of its work: To break down old stereotypes about how girls play, it risks reinforcing others. “If it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains,” says Lise Eliot. A neuroscientist at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago.
A current Facebook campaign by Art Jonak reaching tens of thousands features this ad and text.
It’ s interesting to compare advertisers concept of beauty in 1981 to today.
The British toy shop Hamleys, prodded by the blogger Delilah (Laura Nelson,) recently changed the way it arranges their toys from gender specific to category specific. This change elicited a whirl of responses– should there be a division in toy stores by gender and what does this division imply about gender stereotype?
During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s there was a similar attempt to confront this stereotype and some stores did change their policy but this was short-lived. Walk into most any toy store today and you will see this gender division – sometimes clearly in your face and other times in more subtle ways. It is not impossible for a four-year old girl to find her most coveted truck or for her brother to discover the baby doll he has always wanted but they may have to wonder if they are in the right section even if they cannot read the signs.
Hear what Swedish children are saying on the topic.
For one of the most clear and comprehensive descriptions of the Reggio Emilia Infant –Toddler/Preschools of Reggio Emilia, both past and present, be sure and read the extensive interview with Lella Gandini in the latest issue of The American Journal of Play. (Volume 4, Number 1, Summer 2011)
Here is the The Journal of Play Overview of the Interview with Lella Gandini:
A student of children’s folkways, Italian author and teacher Lella Gandini is best known in the United States as the leading advocate for the Reggio Emilia approach to early-childhood education, which emerged after the Second World War in Northern Italy—in the town that gives this approach its name. Gandini’s many publications in English and Italian include volumes on early-childhood education and Italian folklore, and she is coauthor or coeditor of such works as Insights and Inspirations from Reggio Emilia: Stories of Teachers and Children from North America; The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education; and Beautiful Stuff!: Learning with Found Materials. She holds a doctorate in education and has taught at the University of Massachusetts, Lesley College, and Smith College. In this interview, Gandini discusses how teachers and children in Reggio schools make thinking visible as they draw, sculpt, tell stories, construct theories, make maps, compose poetry, and explore their creativity in dramatic play. Key words: Alliance for Childhood; bedtime ritual; cantilene, Eric Carle; Bruno Ciari; filastrocche; Loris Malaguzzi; Don Milani; Montessori method; National Association for the Education of Young Children; Reggio Emilia”
View PDF ►
We are very pleased to announce the publication of the third edition of The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation . The book will be available for purchase on our web site towards the end of January. You can pre-order now to assure you will be among the first to receive a copy.
This new third edition traces the evolution of the world-renowned preschool system in Reggio Emilia as it continues to respond to the demographic and political changes in Northern Italy over the last 15 years. The adaptation of this system to increased immigration, shifts in party politics, economic pressures, and their own international celebrity provides us with a model of professionalism, care and quality. This book provides the reader with a historical and contemporary overview of the Reggio Emilia experience and addresses in detail three central themes: teaching and learning in the context of building relationships, the use and evolution of the hundred languages of children, and the integration of documentation into the process of observing, reflecting, and communicating among educators, children and parents.
Blocks as an essential material in early childhood classrooms have made a comeback. Or, so it would appear from the November 28th article in the NY Times. This is not a new phenomenon but comes from a long tradition dating back to the mid-19thc. with Friedrich Froebel’s Kindergarten Gifts and evolving in the early 20th century with Carolyn Pratt’s unit blocks. This tradition stresses the basic role of play as the prime learning mode for young children – including play with open-ended materials such as blocks. Unfortunately, in response to” high stakes testing,” many early childhood programs have shortened or in some places even eliminated time for play. The schools cited in the NY Times article are more the exception than the rule, despite all the studies that show that through play with open-ended materials such as blocks, children acquire and enrich their physical knowledge, math concepts, language, creative thinking and social skills.
For more insights and images on block play read The Ode to Blocks from Beyond the Classroom.
I immediately thought of how the facade resembled our Colorframes building set, both in the variety of colors and in its playful and interactive intent.
The vertical wood shutters over the glazed façade are painted in bright colors on one side and natural wood on the other. They can be rotated by the children to change the interior and exterior design of the façade and to create interior shadows.
It is unusual to find a building concept where the children, who are the prime users, are active participants in the ever-changing exterior and interior design of their learning environment.
I was struck by this lovely image of a building structure designed by Visiondivision that will “grow” to completion in sixty years. Adding to the Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Schools, Slow Living, Slow Travel and Slow Money movements, here is Slow Architecture. “Patience as the main key for the design” and I would add, time for reflecting, musing, and appreciating the natural world.
“Visiondivision was invited as guest professors by Politecnico di Milano for their week-long workshop MIAW2.The workshop, playing with the metaphor of forests, aimed to generate new visions to explain the contemporary and immediate future ways of being in the spirit of green design, resilience, recycling, and ethical consciousness. Our intention with our project was to construct a study retreat at the campus with patience as the main key for the design. If we can be patient with the building time we can reduce the need for transportation, waste of material and different manufacturing processes, simply by helping nature grow in a more architectonic and useful way. The final result can be enjoyed at Politecnico di Milano in about 60 years from now.” For the complete article and additional images see: http://www.visiondivision.com/
I am also reminded of the amazing new DVD, “The Times of Time” from the Reggio Emilia’ Infant-Toddler and Preschools that features children’s idea of time as seen through their own photographs and thoughtful comments.
“Nothing is so fleeting, so elusive as time. To grasp an idea of time, children make use of metaphors, spatial figures, and similes, where it appears cyclically connected to the dynamic nature of matter, energy and thought.” p. 13 The Times of Time. Reggio Children Publications
“The Times of Time,” a new DVD from Reggio Children, infant-toddler and preschool centers of Reggio Emilia
We have received many requests for more video documentation (DVD) of long term projects from Reggio Children, from the world renowned infant-toddler and preschools in Reggio Emilia. So we are excited to tell you that Reggio Children has just come out with the new DVD, “The Times of Time.” This DVD marks the debut of the new audiovisual series from Reggio Children called VisionAria. “The Times of Time” describes the project that involved children from the infant-toddler center to primary school that occurred during the time of the international photography festival Fotografia Europea 2008.
The images are organized in three different sections: the catalogue of the exhibition“The Times of Time,” a short documentary on the project in the Reggio Emilia Infant-Toddler Centers, Preschools and Primary Schools, and the photography ateliers held in the town. The DVD creates an interweaving between the learning experiences of the adults, the experimentation of the children, and the photographic images, highlighting an approach to the visual language that is constructed in a context of many relationships.
The “Times of Time” can be purchased on our web site under
The High Line in NYC, a raised urban park that was formerly an elevated railway, has recently inspired some building ideas and designs for and by children. I can just imagine Carolyn Pratt, the early childhood educator who “invented” the large scale unit blocks in the early 20th century, bringing her young students to explore the High Line. Upon returning to the classroom I am sure they would get right to work, representing their experience of this structure and the surrounding neighborhood through the medium of blocks. (The original High Line was built in the1930’s lifting freight traffic above the street.) It is encouraging to see that exploring the neighborhood and reconstructing it with blocks continues today. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer kindergarten and first grade children have blocks in their classrooms, or, if they do, the time for building is very limited. Research has shown that building with blocks and other three-dimensional material is directly tied to the development of mathematical thinking, scientific investigation and language development.
Check out the “High Line Children’s Work yard Kit,” a set of loose parts for children to build with- on site – at the High Line. Developed by Cas Holman in collaboration with Early Learning Educators and Friends of the High Line, “… the Work yard Kit reflects the High Line’s industrial history and simple, honest materiality.”
“Designed as a custom play feature for the High Line, this collection of wooden planks, wheels, pulleys, “wing bolts” and rope allow children to follow their curiosity while playing. There are no wrong answers, and while the pieces can come together in the form of a structure used to convey buckets or materials, they can also become a giraffe, monster, robot, airplane or just a “thingy”. Here the act of playing and playing and building is the goal, not the finished product. “
Architect Jeanne Gang, best known for her design of Chicago’s Aqua Tower, has just received a $500,000.00, 2011 MacArthur Genius Grant. The Aqua Tower is the tallest building in the world to be designed by a woman, questioning Erik Erikson’s theory that boys build towers with blocks and girls build rooms and enclosures close to the ground. Gang, in a September 20th interview with Melissa Block on NPR, talks about the important connection between her early play experience and her architectural career. She notes that she was not interested in dolls and instead made playhouses and structures for the neighborhood kids. Gang emphasizes how much she learned from breaking things, by making changes in materials, rather than just observing them.
Photo credit/more about building, CLICK HERE
Read more on research on gender differences in children’s block structures: The Complete Block Book, Eugene Provenzo, Arlene Brett, pp. 47-51.
A group of Early Head Start teachers explored the use of blocks as a learning tool at a workshop I conducted last week for the SCO Family of Services Program in Brooklyn, New York. We discussed how young children’s play experience with open-ended, three-dimensional materials (blocks) is essential for the growth of language and for the development of mathematical and scientific concepts (STEM) from infancy up through age three.
I know that most teachers are not given time to play, on their own, with the same materials that are used by the children in their classrooms. It is difficult to understand some of the complex problems and often joyous solutions that children have when building with blocks unless one experiences it firsthand. Wood, plastic, foam, and cardboard blocks vary in size, weight, color, texture, and in the way they sound when they are banged together or fall down. This is a visceral experience that cannot come from just observing.
Following up on my last blog on “pink,” I remembered this short video clip we made at the Burlington Children’s Space. A small group of three year olds were playing with the Colorframes – an LMW wood block set with 42 different colors. I was intrigued by the children’s conversation – their strong color preferences and their use of color vocabulary.
First boy “Mine is a darker pink”
“What is your favorite color,” he asked the teacher.
The teacher responded “I don’t have a favorite color.”
(Boy) “Here are my favorite colors,” (showing the purple, pink, and blue blocks.)
First boy “I made a pink window.”
Pink seemed to be a definite favorite with these two boys. What is it about pink?
I wonder if the children would have been influenced by their color choice if the teacher had given her preference.
Very excited and honored to announce that Learning Materials Workshop has just received Dr. Toy’s “100 Best Products-2011” and “10 Best Creative Products-2011” Awards for our brand new building toy, Coloraturo!
This prestigious award is presented by Dr. Toy, Stevanne Auerbach, PhD, who for many years has been one of the nation’s and world’s leading experts on play, toys, and children’s products. With 30 years of direct experience, Dr. Auerbach includes educationally oriented, developmental and skill building products from the best large and small companies in her four annual award programs. Many parents, teachers and toy buyers use Dr. Toy’s guidance in making selections.
“I was very pleased to hear Learning Materials Workshop was selected once again for this selective Dr. Toy award. It is always a great honor to be recognized by an organization that highly values creativity and play in children. Thank you to Dr. Toy for choosing Learning Materials Workshop for these awards.” – Karen Hewitt President/Designer Learning Materials Workshop
Karen Hewitt’s new toy Coloraturo, based on the Italian word “coloratura,” refers to elaborate melodic variations in vocal music like “runs, trills, wide leaps, and similar virtuoso-like material.” The multi-hued forms of Coloraturo inspire virtuoso constructions…in a visual form. The building/design toy elaborates and embellishes on building forms that vary in hue, value, and intensity. This smart toy functions both as a designer art piece and a high quality children’s building toy that provides endless experiences with color in both two and three dimensions. Builders of all ages will enjoy all the possibilities of this open-ended toy, creating geometric patterns, multi-hued skyscrapers, imaginative dwellings for people to live in, or even abstract pieces of art. The color, form, and sheer beauty of Coloraturo will attract children as well as architects, designers, and playful adults.
Place your order for award-winning Coloraturo today!
A three-year old girl visited my studio office several weeks ago with her mother and grandmother. She spotted one of our “limited editions” of 42 pink (low-intensity red) Colorframes, immediately took it off the shelf and started to build. “She loves everything pink,” said her grandmother. I was curious about the pink road and the small pink building she started to construct. I began to look for examples of pink architecture that I thought might interest and inspire her to continue building. After all, we now have Architect Barbie and her Dream House and Lego’s “pink bricks for girls” (brought out in 1994) but what about real pink architecture? Here are just a few examples that I found:
Why do girls start to love pink around age two? Even if parents make an effort not to dress their daughters in pink and not to buy pink toys from the “girl’s side of the toy aisle, the desire for pink is still insistent. Comments welcome.
I just came across this amazing video which is described as a “Rube Goldberg machine with a twist.” Be sure and listen to it with your volume turned on as the sound and the visual component are both important. I immediately thought of the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics ] Workshop I led for early childhood teachers in Washington DC in June. Although Melvin the Machine, which includes a fire sequence, is obviously wildly more complex and daring than the teacher’s inventions, the delicate engineering plays with the same basic concepts of motion, speed and cause and effect. Check out this video.
What inspired me to design Coloraturo, my most recent building toy?
But first, where did I get the idea for the name? I based the name, Coloraturo. on the Italian word “Coloratura” referring to elaborate melodic variations in vocal music- “runs, trills, wide leaps and similar virtuoso-like material”. The multi-hued forms of Coloraturo reminded me of the possibilities for creating virtuoso constructions in a visual form.
I have always been aware of children’s interest and attraction to color- especially subtle color differences. I have been playing around with a more varied palate for a new design building on Colorframes a block set I designed several years ago. Pantone formula guides offered some delicious new possibilities to consider.
I started with a color sequence going from red-orange-yellow-green-blue-purple with gradients in between. For the prism pieces I chose a darker and lighter shade of each of the seven hues as long as they did not repeat the same hues on the interlocking squares. Each piece always had some of the wood left unpainted since the grain of the wood provided some interest in itself. This combination of color and natural wood allowed one to build with color on the inside “walls” or color on the outside “cladding.”
I was also fascinated by some images of Le Corbusier’s Pavillion Suisse sketches and color schemes for the student’s rooms that I saw in the book The Architectonic Colour by Jan de Heer. This led to a rich exploration of images of color in architecture. (More coming up in future blogs.) It has also led to a number of questions about the presence or absence of color in children’s building toys. Does the use of color make a difference in the kind of buildings children make? Does color tend to make children focus less on the form? Does preference differ with age and/or gender?
Click to read more about Coloraturo and to order today!
Learning Materials Workshop was invited by Shelburne Museum’s Education Department to include our open-ended blocks as part of the Museum’s family program, “Build-O-Rama”.
Last Thursday, we packed our car full of Science and Inventors Kits and lots of Colorframes, Arcobalenos, and prism blocks and drove to the Owl Cottage for the Museum’s special ‘Sunset Series’ event. For over two hours, children from ages two to twelve and their parents built some amazing structures with Learning Materials Workshop blocks. It is always curious to see children of such varied ages equally engaged with LMW blocks. The structures clearly differ in complexity but the open-ended quality of the blocks provided unending challenges, possibilities and delights. Check out some of the creations from Build-O-Rama:
For more information about Shelburne Museum, visit http://shelburnemuseum.org/
Learning Materials Workshop is very excited to introduce 3 new products to our lineup: Coloraturo, Tavolino, and Villetta. All will be available to ship beginning of September- so place your order today!
Coloraturo, a new block set created by award winning toy designer Karen Hewitt, will delight and captivate the imagination of children and artists of all ages. This smart toy functions both as a designer art piece and a high quality children’s building toy providing endless experiences with color in both two and three dimensions. The color, form and sheer beauty of Coloraturo will attract young children as well as architects, designers and playful adults. ORDER TODAY
Tavolino is the ultimate building experience. Create with a rich assortment of 90 of our most popular building blocks, bobbins, and tubes. Set out this elegant wood framed table of award winning construction toys and begin creating towers of color, geometric displays and spinning machines. Children, parents and grandparents will delight in learning through play as they stack, bend and build together. Tavolino makes a great centerpiece for a playroom or a treasured gift from a grandparent. ORDER TODAY
Inquisitive hands will transform Villetta into a village of colorful cottages, a tower of balancing prisms, or an abstract sculptural masterpiece. This artful open-ended building toy expands the possibilities of building ideas never before imagined. The color, form and sheer beauty of Villetta will attract young children as well as artists, designers and playful adults. ORDER TODAY
The spirit of playfulness does not end in childhood – at least for some playful adults.
As a designer of open-ended building toys, I am fascinated by Marbelous.The concept of adult furniture merging with children’s playful ideas brought back memories of my childhood fantasy play. My parents had a double-decker glass coffee table in our living room in a small apartment in Manhattan. This became the perfect venue for the imaginative adventures of tiny wood and ceramic animals who hid under coasters and reappeared on the bottom layer of the glass table. It was an ideal miniature playhouse that absorbed hours of engrossing playtime. As for Marbelous, the concept is intriguing but after the initial thrill, the rolling marbles could be problematic.
Lanks notes “The Dutch design couple Ontwerpduo took inspiration from childhood notions of play, when even pieces of furniture were used as backdrops for elaborate fantasies. The world of adult furniture and the world of children’s toys don’t seem to belong together,” writes Ontwerpduo’s Tineke Beunders. “From my childhood, I remember it was always exciting to combine these two.” Marbelous does just that: It gives big kids the pleasure of watching marbles roll down the table’s spiral legs and along its base; when not in play, it’s just a handsome, decorative piece of grown-up furniture. As much as you might enjoy marbles, however, we still suspect the table is more fun for the cat of the house.”
Architects Design the Real Barbie Dream House
I have not put in my vote yet for the new Barbie’s Dream House but here are the contenders. I would have like to see more natural materials used in her Dream House, even if she is made of plastic.
“Learning comes through play. . . It’s a natural activity for children. Children learn through trial and error and exploration.” Karen Hewitt
Karen was recently quoted in an article written about Learning Materials Workshop by Luke Baynes. This article, featured in Vermont Maturity Magazine highlights the role of Learning Materials Workshop open-ended block sets in “encouraging the art of play”. FULL ARTICLE
Remember to check our daily A New Creation Every Day blog!
If you send us a picture of your own building creations using the block set we feature for that month, you will be entered to win a FREE block set (the set we will feature next month)! Buy Cubes Bobbins and Beams Here. You may upload the pictures to our Facebook page, or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We encourage builders of all ages to send in their pictures.
Here is a creation from today, July 19, 2011 using this month’s featured block set Cubes, Bobbins, Beams.