On a family vacation to Charleston last summer, I stumbled upon an interesting storefront that at first appeared to be a cross between an architectural design firm and a toy store. From the window displays, it caught my attention when I realized that this toy store sold one toy, by the hundreds. Curiosity drew me in. The store was quiet. The perimeter of the store featured example after example of what could be done with this single toy.
The bulk of the store's square footage, however, was designed as a "play area", with a large carpet and about 3,000 blocks. All the blocks were the exact same - The Golden Ratio: 1x3x10.
My 17-month-old son observed the work of others on the rug and quickly went into action to tear down what they had done. I was a bit embarrassed, not knowing the "rules" of the area. About that time, the manager of the store, hastened to assure me that she would have to knock down the work if my son didn't.
It is often the case that great ideas occur when you're not looking for them. The learner in me had a hundred questions about the blocks and because I was on vacation, I had the time to ask!
Through our conversation, I shared that I worked for a K-12 independent school, was the Director of Visual and Performing Arts and was always looking for interesting things to share with our school community. I was particularly interested in the idea that these blocks seemed to blend elements of art and design in a way that was organic and centered around creativity and play.
When I returned to campus, I decided that a collection of these blocks would be a perfect attraction in our Thurber Arts Center for the start of our school year. We are in the first year of a new schedule, offering the students more unstructured time... maybe they could do something constructive (literally!) with their time.
Building structures using unstructured time
Our campus and our schedule provide a lot of unstructured time and settings that require our students to figure out what to do with themselves when there aren't a lot of directives. I think this is a really important issue for our students to wrestle with. It's part of their maturity and it's a really important life skill.
You might guess that I wouldn't have written this article had our Kapla exhibit not been a huge success. Let me share with you the top ten reasons why your school must have a Kapla exhibit!
- Kapla blocks allow kids to be kids: creating, thinking, learning, collaborating.
- The blocks are smart: everyone will learn something about the Golden Ratio, how the blocks are balanced, and why architects and designer have used this ratio for thousands of years.
- Students are looking for a way to express themselves - Kapla blocks allow them to do this through art and design, and we learn a lot about how they think and what they are interested in.
- During free periods, students have something to do that is constructive, educational, and affords them the opportunity to work alone or with others (whichever they prefer).
- Kid rules apply.
- Very little direction is needed and the fewer rules, the better.
- They are inexpensive.
- They store easily.
- They travel well.
- Kids (and adults) love them!
Robin Barr, who manages our department, has a unique vantage point on this interactive exhibit as her office has a window into the lobby of the Thurber Arts Center: "The Kapla Blocks exhibit has been such a unique and fun thing to have going on in our lobby. Students frequently use this space to hang out, study, or visit with friends. With the blocks here, I see students using their free time collaborating on building various structures, competing with each other on building projects, or concentrating quietly on constructing something based on an example from one of the Kapla books. At almost any time in the school day, I can hear the sound of the blocks being used. Once, after the exhibit had been temporarily removed for an event, and was brought back, I heard a student exclaim, 'Yeah! They’re back!'"
It has been interesting to watch people interact with the blocks. Teachers at inservice hurried past them, only a few stopping to investigate. Students were willing to get down on the floor and explore. Tower competitions gave way to more creative compositions and designs as students tried to test the boundaries of what was allowed and then what was possible.
We will bring the blocks to Under the Christmas Tree as part of Randolph's community booth -- stop by and learn more about how we are trying to foster more creativity through design, space and the classroom environment. We plan to bring the blocks to the Drake campus this winter and it will be interesting to see what our younger students make with them.
I asked Ryan Murphy ’14, the executive director of our student news operation, to collect some more feedback. Here are a few things our students and faculty had to say about Kapla:
“I really like the Kapla blocks because they are really fun to play with and they provide a creative activity to do during the day.” –Claudia Watring, 12th Grade
“I like Kapla because it is a very hands-on activity.” –Dakota Bush, 10th Grade
“I enjoy Kapla blocks because they help you get your mind off of schoolwork and allow for some relaxation.” –Jaya Patel, 10th Grade
“I think it’s a great way to let out anger when you are stressed because you can build a house or building and then destroy it.” –Latha Karne, 11th Grade
“The one time I played with Kapla, I was in a free period. I didn’t have a car and my friends didn’t feel like driving me anywhere, so we built towers and knocked them down to relieve stress. It was actually very fun, and we Snapchatted videos of it to everyone. It was a great way to mentally relax.” –Natalie Burdine, 12th Grade
“It is a great exercise of creative thought and individuality.” –Ashwin Ramachandran, 12th Grade
“I saw a very large production of the Kapla blocks and was fascinated with how the towers were built so high and so stable. I found that awesome, but also mysterious.” –Mr. Gee
“Can we keep it?” –John Laney, 10th Grade