Last year I came to school one day to see a giant marble maze created with blocks by two older boys. It made the most pleasant sound as the marble got to the bottom: clinkity, clink, clink! There are these kinds of pivotal learning moments that stick in the minds of the kids even this year. The other day I heard a younger student, who started this fall and hasn’t met the older kiddos very often, referencing “the day Tino made the awesome marble maze.”
Marble mazes have become part of the culture the group of 2 to 8 year olds in our play based early childhood program. This year one of the oldest kiddo in our crew (age 7) began making marble mazes early in the school year. With lots of time trying this out at the block center another kiddo latched into this idea quickly. For at least two months there were marble mazes built every day. They were built inside with unit blocks, with miniature unit blocks inside and and outside and outside with hollow blocks.
Following this interest Carla, our Discovery Place partner, and I brought in more materials that might extend the interest. We made marble paintings, tried a pre-made marble maze kit, made our own felt balls and used cardboard and straws to create labyrinth style marble mazes.
It's been exciting to see all that has happened just around this one concept. It really has become a collaborative extended inquiry. Here are some of the things I noticed along the way!
Lots of physics is involved in block play and building generally. As kids manipulated blocks, cardboard or pre-made pieces they had to think about how the materials worked together, what would create sturdy pathways and walls. They decided which kinds of blocks or other materials would work for specific purposes. As they played more and more with the marbles, they developed understandings of force, movement, and incline. They tried different kinds of balls, too: felt balls, beads and wooden balls. They had discussions about the weight of the balls, the size and the smoothness of the surfaces and how this changed the way the mazes worked. They explored symmetry as they created two sides of the maze or two tracks side by side. They explored length and measurement as they tried to see and describe to others how far certain inclines would allow balls to roll and as they found ways to articulate to each other how long a certain part of the maze or even a certain block needed to be (i.e. "Hand me the long one. No, the one that is like two of these.")
And there were overarching learning ideas in constant play, too, particularly this inquiry made space for iteration, revision and mentoring from one another. They revised the mazes in the moment as they went. Usually a child would begin building and at some point would stop to try rolling the marble to see how things were going. Then back to building to make changes. Eventually they would declare the maze as ready or done and often get someone to come over to see how the marble rolled. Sometimes this sharing process would lead to more changes. Sometimes something unexpected happened during the share and kids went back to the drawing board. Sometimes another child coming to see would have an idea for improvement or just something different and they would try this out together. Very often multiple kids worked in the area on various mazes. They watch what others are doing and try the ideas out themselves.
They also hold the old mazes they have seen in memory and try them again next time. I guess this is the thing about the extended inquiry. This interest continued over months. So the kids were iterating all the time, trying the ideas again and agin. They were able to build on their own attemps, on what they saw other kids do and even on the lore of last year :) Overtime I saw marble mazes change from a long flat structure to ones with multiple pathways, two side by side tracks, high rise mazes, large scale mazes, mazes with obstacles. Something like adding obstacles spread through the group, until this idea was common knowledge.
Ideas from the marble maze inquiry spread wings in new spin off projects, too. The kids started making obstacle courses with large hollow blocks, chairs and boxes. Carla and the kids even made a rat maze for the Discovery Place rat, Patsy (now renamed by the kids as “Petsy”). They used blocks to build a maze with multiple paths and areas for Patsy to find carrots.
The social goes hand in hand with all of this (of course!!!). I saw how marble mazes worked to build relationships between children and among the whole group. As the marble maze inquiry continued and was shared, every child was involved at some point and so the inquiry became a point of cultural connection that was important in our transformation into a gelled community from opening of school into the fall. The reason the interest became an extended inquiry is because the kids felt connected to the ideas and the other people playing around with it. It's always back to the social-emotional :)