Last fall, Byron Gilliland asked the janitor to help him move most of the furniture out of his classroom, leaving behind just a few tables and chairs, and a huge amount of empty floor space. He was thrilled to have extra room for educational adventures. The janitor was happy to help (it would make the classroom easier to clean).
Byron is a 1st grade teacher at Jefferson STEM Elementary School in Winona, Minnesota. But sometimes he feels more like his students are teaching him.
"At least once a week, I point out to my students something I've learned from them. They figure out things that I wouldn't have thought of. As a student they absolutely love that. How often do you hear as a first-grader that you're smarter than your teacher? It gives them more drive to put in extra effort."
Byron is always looking for new ways to challenge his students creatively. When he heard about Rigamajig, he had a hunch it would be exactly the learning tool that he was looking for; something that could help his students cultivate enthusiasm for scientific inquiry. On its surface, Rigamajig is a collection of wooden planks, nuts, bolts, and loose parts. However, when mixed with the passion of a caring, motivated teacher, it becomes an infectious means to encourage free play and inquiry-based learning in the classroom.
Byron's been focusing on science and engineering because it helps his students with higher-level thinking skills. They're encouraged to think outside of the box to develop practical solutions to real-world problems.
Recently, the class did a joint effort with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to develop new ideas for uprooting invasive species. The students had a brainstorming session to determine what kind of machine would have this capability. Eventually, they settled on a pulley and sketched out different possible designs. Using the Rigamajig, the students were able to bring their ideas to life. They negotiated different pulley systems and voted on the one they thought would work best. Afterwards, the class went into the field to see the machines that were actually in use by the USFWS. The students relished the opportunity to relate the work they were doing to the real world.
Byron's approach to project-based learning with the Rigamajig encourages inclusiveness in the classroom. Students of varying academic and social competencies find themselves working together, suggesting ideas, and learning from each other.
The class has had a bunch of adventures with the Rigamajig. From performing operations in base 10 to creating leprechaun traps, Byron has found endless uses for the learning tool, and the outcome has validated his approach:
"It's amazing how much you can get away with when the results show up. As our test scores go up, it seems like I can try a lot more things in my classroom."
Now, when the janitor passes by Byron's room during the school day, he often stops to watch and smile – and not just because of his lighter workload!
Learn more about Rigamajig. We have grants available for qualifying schools and organizations. See what Byron's been up to on his class's Facebook page.
The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum (GRCM) celebrates childhood and the joy of learning by providing an interactive, hands-on environment that inspires learning and encourages self-directed exploration. In the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., a Playful City USA community, the GRCM has celebrated 16 years of play with over 2 million guests. Enjoy this guest blog post from the GRCM.
Play is an essential part of life—specifically unguided, open-ended, free play. The kind of play that has no right or wrong answer: creativity and imagination without a specific end product. In other words, play for play’s sake.
The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum (GRCM), located in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., is committed to play and part of that commitment is giving our guests, adults as well as children, permission to play.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates this idea more than the museum’s most unique exhibit: our staff.
Our floor staff, or Facilitators do not direct play; they do not give specific instructions, but invite our guests, adult and child alike, to play with them. They facilitate play by asking open-ended questions (“What are you making?”), engaging in parallel play (playing along-side or near a child in a similar activity, but not directly with the child until they invite the staff member to join), or by simply asking if they can help with what the child is creating. This not only leads to very unique creations but also demonstrates some simple ways to continue playing at home.
When the GRCM celebrated our 15th anniversary last year, we were fortunate to be able to share a new exhibit, Imagination Playground™, with the community. No other exhibit illustrates the concept of open-ended play as well as Imagination Playground™. It’s a wonderful catalyst for collaboration. Parents and teachers immerse themselves in the creative experience with the children (and our staff).
We often joke that our Facilitators have enjoyed Imagination Playground™ even more than our guests. Nearly every day, the office receives a call inviting the administrative team to come and see a new creation—a fort, a throne, a robot, a boat or two-story ball run—that the Facilitators and guests have made together. More recently, we were able to borrow a Rigamajig (formerly Workyard Kit), which is very similar to a large Erector Set, and were happy to see some even more elaborate creations.
While we continue to provide a number of experiences and exhibits that would be difficult to replicate at home, one thing we do try to impart on our guests is how easy it is to play. In February 2013, GRCM launched a “What Can You Do With a Spoon?” campaign (see video below) to get people thinking about ways to play, even with items that normally wouldn’t be thought of as toys, and demonstrate how easy it can be to include some play every day.
The enthusiasm and imagination of our staff inspires play. It invites museum guests of all ages to join in the fun, letting them share in the joy of making a giant bubble, the excitement of showing off a Lego airplane, the thrill of putting on a fire-fighter helmet and piloting a helicopter. But we strive for more than having fun while visiting the museum. We hope that their experience here carries over into their play at home and that they allow the kids in their lives to guide the activity. That they remember to ask open-ended questions like “What are you building?” “What are drawing?” We hope that our guests take with them the idea that play really is for everyone and that everyone, regardless of age, should take time every day to enjoy some play. You have our permission.