Here are two quick stories about how play and imagination can be so instrumental in the learning process.

catapult
A photo taken before the birthday decorations
1. The Catapult’s Birthday
The other day my students were making catapults out of junk in the back of the classroom for an engineering project.  I noticed the first thing one of the groups did was, not to start building the catapult, but to invent a computer that connected to the, soon-to-be-built catapult, in order to record the data.  I quelled my inner ‘teachery’ voice that wanted to say something horrible like, “be sure you stick to building the catapult.”  A few days later, after the catapult had been built, I saw, that now, in addition to the computer, they also acquired had an old scale and a broken clock, “hooked up” to the “computer.”  They also had an old fashioned floppy disk.  One of the children was walking around with the floppy disk over her eye.  She said she was videoing what the other children were doing so they could get some more good ideas for their catapult.  She then ran back to the group and they “uploaded” it on their “computer.”   Sure enough, the information that had been gathered via floppy disk i phone gave them lots of ideas and they were once again eagerly at work on the catapult (massive amounts of duct tape).   Soon, I heard sounds of a count down.  “10… 9… 8…”  After the launch, in between their joyous sprints back and forth between the catapult, clock, scale, and computer, I asked them about the clock and the scale.  They said that the scale was to weigh the load before every test to make certain that it was always the same weight.  Why?  Because if it wasn’t, it would throw off the results being recorded on the computer.  (Scientists call this a variable.) The clock was to record the distance in meters.  They also had a working catapult! The next day I saw they were tying golden ribbon around the catapult and the youngest boy in my class had glued a sea shell to the arm of the catapult.  They said that this day was the catapult’s birthday and the tiny seashell was its birthday hat!!  🙂
2. The Gold Rush Revisited
It can be immensely valuable to introduce historical subjects through imaginative play before talking about facts and “reality.”  Two years ago, I had my class make up their own worlds.  The classroom became the cosmos… and they got to be astronauts and go on a discovery mission to discover their world.  They calculated how far away their planets were from each other.  They had assignments which took them from discovering how surrounding stars and other planets created life, seasons, day, night, and survival on their planet.  In between, we gained an understanding of how these things happen on earth and in our solar system, so that they could begin imagining what conditions might be at work in their imaginary solar systems.  They had some pretty cool and creative ideas.  They then made mini models of their planets and created who lived there and how.  Then, each day, I would give them a new event.  First, I said, “What are the most valuable resources on your planet.”  The next day: “You discover something amazing in your back yard.  It is a natural resource that is very valuable to the inhabitants of your planet.  What is it?  How is it extracted?  What is is used for/  Why is it so valuable?”  Next, I told them some people found out about it and began coming to the land.  What did you do?  So the questions go on and on, until some of the kids end up with two  or more factions having a big dispute – even in some cases, war, as did the gold country miners and the farmers along the American River in the mid 19th century.   Some of the children found solutions early on in the project.  When we finally went to the little museum at Malakoff Diggins State Park, I was surprised that the children were able to follow the video. Several cried out, “That’s just what happened in my world!”  They were able to understand the experience of the miners and the farmers because they had literally lived through it already in their imaginations.
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