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by Colleen Corbett
Teacher, Summa Academy, Portland, OR

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January 19, 2017
Building Community Through Blocks

by Colleen Corbett
Teacher, Summa Academy, Portland, OR


What are children learning when they work with blocks?

The city in the image at right is the culmination of several weeks’ worth of rich dialogue and community building that took place between our school’s K-1st and 2nd-3rd grade students, in a project I conducted along with my colleague Ian Peters. Although the imagination and creativity of the group is evident in the current structures, the value of this learning experience truly lies in the process.

This has been an incredible experience for all of us. To capture all of the learning that has taken place during this time would be quite an impossible task because at every turn, for every student, we saw learning opportunities so rich and diverse.

Working collaboratively towards a common goal, students had opportunities for self expression, problem solving, navigating social dynamics, and developing conflict resolution skills. The community that we have built over the last few weeks really reflects this growth. Students were motivated and engaged throughout. Led by their imaginations and creativity, they have also been exploring some important concepts about the way the world works. They experienced that their ideas had value and that they could bring these ideas to life by creating, transforming, deconstructing, and re-creating something unique.

When we began, our main goal was to establish a space where ideas would be valued and respected. For many, this material was new, so time for exploration and trial and error was necessary. Students learned how to work with this new material while also learning how to work in a group. We changed up the groups often in the beginning to allow time to explore the material as well as new groupings. Over the course of our time together, the structures grew in sophistication as did their conversations. As we discussed the needs of a community, our own community was forming. This was a truly magical experience to observe.

Our process
In the beginning, students worked together in small groups to build a structure of their choosing. This was based entirely on group interest and the richness of their imagination. Our primary objective for each student to gain familiarity with the material and each other. In the first stage of this project, the city had a haunted house, an animal hotel, a train city, a gazebo, a school, and a spy building.

After a day or two, we reflected on the group experience as well as the city itself. Questions began to arise...Where would people get food? What about a place to live?

We cleaned the slate and started the process again. The groups were shuffled to mix up the group dynamics and we began to plan our next city. This time we had a barn, an airport, a gymnastics center, a movie theater, a swimming pool and statues and fountains. In our next reflection meetings, children observed that people that came to this city would still not have a place to eat or sleep. So, buildings were modified and sources for food were integrated into some of the existing buildings.

Another important question was asked as we noticed an interest in money emerge. How will people in the block city get money to pay for their food? This sparked some rich discussions about jobs. Block announcements now focused on jobs within the city. The Gymnastics center announced they would be hiring people but they would only hire skilled people so interviews were held on the rug. This is where kids spontaneously demonstrated their flexibility and body strength. They organized themselves completely on their own and managed a system to support their ideas. We also saw that kids were scheduling tours to visit each other's buildings while others worked together to sound out words for their signs and important announcements.

What children gained from this project
The city you see today is a culmination of all of these incredibly rich conversations and experiences. Through their block work and reflections, children are beginning to see that many of the questions or concerns they had about meeting people's needs in a city could be narrowed down into categories or committees. Before building, we worked to create a list of needs and then put these into categories.

As we explored the driving question for this project, “How can we meet the needs of our community?” many conversations about needs and wants arose as well as some interesting dialogue around important topics such as homelessness, hunger and individual belief systems.

In addition to exploring the driving question, children have come up with new questions: How can we keep people safe? How will people communicate? How will people travel? These ideas and conversations could never be planned or read from a textbook. They are emerging from the interests of the students. Working with blocks provides a platform for children to explore what they know and do not know about the world in a way that is tangible and real. It has meaning to these children because it is their world, their ideas, their creation.


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