I love giving my students an opportunity to make things. I have maker bins in my classroom – Lego, Knox, Playdough, marble runs and all sorts of other things that involve them working together to problem solve, collaborate and just figure things out. However, I am also lucky enough to have not only one unit, but two, in my grade 3 science curriculum – “Building with a Variety of Materials” and “Testing Materials and Designs” where they are challenged to build something in the classroom and then test their design to see how it worked.
Last year my grade partners took a chance on a crazy idea I had and we had a giant cardboard arcade unit. (you can read about the experience here – Our Cardboard Arcade Journey) It was honestly a great project based learning activity and both my students and I learned a lot from it.
So when the time came around this year, there wasn’t much debate as to whether we would do this project again. It was more how could we improve it. The students were actually chomping at the bit to start – it was one of the first questions my students asked when they walked into the classroom, were they were going to be allowed to build their own arcade games this year too. (they had remembered going to the gym and playing them last year). So it was funny how quickly they all hit the ground running with this project.
Many started looking at YouTube videos to get ideas, many talked about how they had seen games they liked last year and were going to make them better this year. And they were correct in those statements – the quality of the games my students came up with this year were more better than last year. We gave the students the same parameters in our expectations. Their games had to be firstly functional – potentially over 150 people would be playing their games by the time the afternoon was done so it needed to be in good enough shape to play. Next the game had to be sturdy – and we had long discussions as to what this word actually meant. This was something that quite a few of the students found challenging this year – many of them thought that if they added more duct tape, then the sturdiness factor would just come. The “less is more” conversation came up more than once during the unit. But in the reflections after the build, quite a few talked about how they would have done things differently when it came to making their games sturdy so this was a good learning experience. The last piece was the extra add on -making their game eye catching so that it stood out from the crowd of over 60 games that would be in the gym. It was again a great learning moment when some realized that they themselves could be the eye-catching piece – that if they played their games or called friends over to try, that could be the catalyst that got people to come play their game versus another one.
I will warn you that while this unit is an amazing learning experience – it is not for the faint at heart. My room was a mess of cardboard, boxes, tubes, tape, glue and much more for over a month. I had to give up control of the room and just be willing to be okay with the organized chaotic mess (which was hard at times, I will not lie). But again the end result was I had students that were engaged and excited about their learning. The ones who found things easy in some areas (reading, writing) were challenged by bringing their design to life. Quite a few the design had to change because what they had on paper did not translate to real life. Some had to persevere because their designs did not pass the sturdiness test and there were quite a few back to the drawing boards for some. But I saw student after student digging in and being willing to try, even those who if this activity involved doing it on paper would have given up long before.
On that final day when we had masses of students running around the gym trying out games the students had built, I saw happy and excited faces. I saw quiet students coming out of their shells to talk about how to play their games. I saw students who might not have been the best writers beaming because grade 6 boys were excited to play the game they had designed and built. For me, the best moment came when one of my more challenging boys in my class came to life because his dad had taken the time to stop by for half an hour to see his game. The memory of the smile that lit up his face will be one that I tuck away in my own memory box.
And that is why projects like this are important. Why being willing to give up control and let my students just build, make a mess and figure things out is essential. When we do these things we give our students meaningful learning experiences that they will remember. And isn’t that at the heart of what we are hoping to do in the classroom??