09 Apr 2012

Family Life Expo & Camp Fair

This is the first in what will be a series of articles about science and math education for children, activities, learning philosophy and psychology, and a few summaries and comments about interesting education-related stories from other sources.

My assistant Stan Jackson and I enjoyed the March 2012 Family Life Expo & Camp Fair, our first time ever. Enticing opportunities for hands-on exploration drew in a stream of curious children for hours without breaks. The children were so eager that I did not even have time to set up the rest of the activities I had brought, of which there were quite a few!

Of particular interest to me was how drawn most children were to the marshmallows and toothpicks and what they did with them. Building anything significant with toothpicks requires thinking at a more abstract level than does building with blocks. Significant, that is, to the mind of an adult like me. I was thinking in terms of stick buildings. For some, their main intention may have been to see and feel how the toothpicks went into the marshmallows.

Most children built at least a small structure, elaborating on the simple square I had made as a demonstration. Structures often looked fairly random. Most toothpicks were oriented along the horizontal plain of the table, but it was common to see two or three toothpicks rising upwards together, supporting each other to make a vertical peak. I suspect many young children had the desire to build higher but did not know how to go about it.

One boy of around six immediately made a perfect cube and then was finished. Later a girl of about eight made a double cube, and when I exclaimed that she was the first to do so, she proudly said she would add yet another cube. The youngest, a toddler, came by about five times to grab the abandoned works of older children and drop them into her mother’s paper bag.

You may be wondering, as one father asked me, “Where’s the science in this?” I replied, “Engineering,” which satisfied him, but actually there is much more. Building structures of blocks, sticks, or anything similar that comes out of the mind of the child is an exploration of patterns, of shape and relative size, of gravity and center of mass, of material strength, and of relationships between objects. The child has an idea, perhaps not a complete plan, but a simple thought, and he is impelled to try it out. Then he has a related idea, and so he continues. He sees a form develop out of his own activities, giving him a more concrete view of his own thoughts, helping him to make new discoveries. The most important building going on is that of his own mind. And you thought he was just playing!

For younger children, discovering basic physical properties of the marshmallows and toothpicks is important work, as they are forming internal maps and categorizations to make sense of their external world. Their observations, comparisons, classifications and questions are the beginnings of scientific thinking. In addition, children are working on manual dexterity and eye-hand-brain coordination. This is preparation for writing and much more, benefitting future work in all academic areas, including science

The younger children seemed to be the most drawn to this activity. I am sure that, given the right setting, I could have challenged some older ones into building tall collaborative or competing structures, as well as trying out different geometric shapes to compare stability. However, there were many distractions: my table was in an area that was particularly noisy and there were many people moving from table to table. This fair had a disproportionate number of younger children and the older ones tended more toward trying a bit of everything rather than more concentrated involvement in any one thing.

One little boy made his own pattern in toothpicks completely unlike what anyone else had done. He simply made a long chain of toothpicks joined by marshmallows and then stuck one additional toothpick in each marshmallow, at right angles to the other toothpicks, making a pattern like this:


He was quite proud of his work and wanted to take it with him.

A young girl created a hexagon with toothpicks linking a center marshmallow to each vertex, creating six triangles inside the hexagon. She then started building upwards, a three-sided pyramid created by toothpicks stuck into two marshmallows on one side of the hexagon plus a third toothpick that lacked any marshmallow at its bottom end, all joined together by a single marshmallow on top. Her mother said she was four and a half years old, loved science and was already teaching herself addition, subtraction and multiplication. She was obviously very much into discovering patterns. She spent a long time highly focused on this activity.

Other popular activities were:

  • The Wimshurst machine, where children made sparks with a hand-powered static electricity generator.
  • The frog illusion created by a mirascope’s parabolic mirrors.
  • A variety of magnets and objects for free exploration.
  • Artificial snow grown before the children’s eyes as they added water to an extremely hydrophilic (water-loving) polymer that sucked up water instantly. (Children who added even more water were rewarded with snow turned to slush.)

Also on the table was a ball made of springs, and I was surprised that so few children seemed to take note of it. Only four older children, independently, asked, “What’s that?” and it seemed that only one or two had the idea that it might actually bounce. I encouraged all who discovered it to try it. I hope their concepts about what a ball is are forever changed.

My goal is to encourage that question with which children so often irritate their elders: “why?” This is the starting point. Spark a Mind’s mission goes much further: to give children the opportunities, tools, models and mental strategies to answer their own – and each other’s – questions, and to encourage children to apply and develop their in-born creativity to reach deeper and new understandings.

We do this in a spirit of playfulness and camaraderie. After all, learning comes much easier when:

  • Done without fear.
  • The rewards are nothing more than the personal satisfaction gained from new insight and discovery.
  • The exploration is fun.

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