Inventing with Blocks, The Work of Karen Hewitt
by Casey Murrow
Karen Hewitt is a careful observer and researcher of young children at work. She is also an historian of childrens building sets and materials. In 1997 she curated a nationally recognized exhibit called Toying with Architecture, The Building Toy in the Arena of Playat the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, NY. There, she gathered together elaborate 19th century block toys as well as examples of Froebels blocks for kindergarten and larger block sets of the early 20th century. Lincoln Logs, Meccano and Erector sets and other resources for childrens buildings rounded out this unusual exhibit that the New York Times called, "amusing, thought-provoking [and] intended for children of all ages."
New life for a classic toy
Hewitt now makes block sets for children. These sets have been developed keeping in mind the importance of play for young children, as well as the ways in which children respond to the structure and mass of blocks and to the potential for re-invention, as one design changes to become another. Hewitt has written, "It is the moment of destruction, when ... blocks collide, when recognizable forms collapse and apparent chaos ensues, that allows children to refocus and become innovators again."
Karens own blocks, produced by her company, Learning Materials Workshop, are based on this extensive experience and research. She has been a classroom teacher and, in the late 70s, she began to focus on daycare issues and the resources needed to promote creative play. She was working with a university based daycare center and the original Learning Materials Workshop was staffed in part by parents involved in the daycare effort. The first design, and the groups first product, was Thingamabobbin, an award winning collection of dowels, specially grooved bobbins, a base and several rubber bands, all in bright colors. Still in production, Thingamabobbin is remarkable for the variety of designs that are possible using its component parts, from fanciful creatures to four wheeled cars.
Adults and block building
As Learning Materials Workshop became a corporation and a larger organization, it began to offer workshops for educators, to help adults work with open ended materials. Two teachers present most of the workshops encouraging adults to see that there is no final end to a building project and that there are many "answers," even to a specific challenge suggested by a teacher. The staff has noted that some adults when shown a simple construction with perhaps a dozen pieces and then the same distinctive set of blocks built in another way think that construction is comprised of a completely different set of blocks. Children, when shown the two constructions, easily realize that they are built from the same set. Hewitt notes that, adults need experiences with materials such as blocks in order to have a sense of how children approach them.
Ties to Math Standards
Karen Hewitts research has shown that the work children can do with her block designs relate directly to essential elements of the NCTM Math Standards. A book by teachers Mary Gemignani and Alice Leeds, Mathematical Thinking, developed with a grant from two science and math coalitions, supports this contention by noting how the block sets can be used in relation to specific NCTM Standards
Language and literacy
At the same time, a smaller percentage of kindergartens now have block sets of any sort than they did twenty years ago. Hewitt told Connect that the pressure for more formal instruction in kindergarten has limited both time and resources for block construction in many classrooms. She believes that this is a mistake because blocks provide intricate learning experiences, including important opportunities for language development. As early as 18 months of age, these representational tools aid literacy development, she says.
Blocks and construction materials are valuable for older children as well. Karen points to the work of some software developers on computer aided design, allowing children of seven, eight or older to manipulate blocks on a screen, creating both realistic and fanciful designs. The risk in this, she notes, is that children will not have the opportunity to go back to three-dimensional building. "The computer," she says, "is not a substitute for building with tangible materials."
Linking computers to actual building
One design that links the design potential of the computer to hands-on building is the LEGO programmable brick, developed by MITs Media Lab. In this system, the brick can be programmed while connected to the computer, but then be detached to carry out its programmed function while built into a childs LEGO design. Newer bricks, called "Crickets" are under development. This concept allows building blocks to become robots or a LEGO building to have lights that turn on when a doll comes in a door. From Karen Hewitts point of view, these designs encourage children to explore an interface between computers and the child-built environment without loosing the experience of hands-on building and rebuilding.
Looking to the future, Karen believes that as long as children have hands, they will build with blocks. Our task, as adults, is to make sure that imaginative materials are available and that time is allocated for this important work on the part of children. To do this, we have to limit passive entertainment such as television and minimally interactive computer games intended for young children.
Hewitts designs are available through a catalog, which includes over twenty-five distinct construction block products, as well as five kits, made up of combinations of materials. The blocks are all hardwood and finished with non-toxic paints and stains. The plastic pieces (prisms, acrylic globes, etc.) are extremely durable.
Teachers Guides and several videos also have been produced by Learning Materials Workshop. Their latest video, Mathematical Thinking: LMW Blocks and the NCTM Standards, is particularly impressive in providing links to the Standards and pointing to the specific value of encouraging creative play and investigations of blocks by young children.
Maureen Meyers, a second grade teacher in New Jersey, reflects comments heard from many teachers: "[These] materials encourage all children, no matter what their cognitive level or ability, to solve problems, think critically and reason mathematically." For more information, contact: Learning Materials Workshop, 274 North Winooski Avenue, Burlington, VT 05401. 800-693-7164, Fax 802-862-0794, e-mail: LMWblocks@aol.com.
- Casey Murrow is Co-Director of Synergy Learning and editor of CONNECT.