A large-scale building kit used for hands-on free play and playful STE(A)M learning

Effects of Rigamajig Play Materials on Elementary Children's Early Development, Learning, and Interest in STEM

The CarMax Foundation and KABOOM! released an independent research study providing new data describing the engineering-related, physical and social play behaviors kids display in a semi-structured play environment using Rigamajig®. The study found that when children engaged in high levels of engineering play, they were more likely to exhibit 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.

This research is a part of the recently launched Future Innovators Program developed by The CarMax Foundation and KABOOM! that addresses the need for early development of STEM interest and 21st century skills through child-directed creative play. It was conducted by Dr. Zachary S. Gold of Concordia University and Dr. James Ellicker at the Purdue University Human Development and Family Studies Department.

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Key findings

The key findings of the research address four topics. Select a topic below to read key findings.

Research methods

Kid and adult work with Rigamajig pieces

Researchers observed and video-recorded children's weekly 30-minute play sessions with Rigamajig® play materials in their home elementary schools. Each play group, consisting of either boys or girls, was observed in four 30-minute play sessions over a 5-week period. The main research questions were:

  • When playing with Rigamajig® materials do elementary students exhibit early engineering behaviors that parallel the basic design process used by professional engineers?
  • When playing with Rigamajig® materials are elementary students exercising physical skills, both fine- and gross motor?
  • When playing with Rigamajig® materials are elementary students displaying social competency work skills (21st century skills)?
  • Are the engineering, physical, and social skills employed by girls and boys similar or different?
  • How do play skills with Rigamajig® materials change across kindergarten, 2nd grade, and 5th grade?
  • Does play with Rigamajig® materials increase elementary students' interest in STEM-related careers?

Play sessions were facilitated by classroom teachers, who provided an initial play prompt and maintained safety guidelines. All play sessions were video-recorded and later coded for frequency of engineering play, social competence, and physical movement. In addition, prior to the first play session and after the last play session, children completed a short survey assessing their interest in STEM-related careers.

Implications for Teachers and Play Facilitators

Kids play with Rigamajig

Small group play with Rigamajig® offers rich opportunities for school age children to develop and exercise a variety of 21st century skills: engineering thinking and construction, physical skills, and leadership and collaboration within a peer work group.

Children need adequate time, space, and freedom in order to gain the most from Rigamajig. In this study, the play spaces were found within the elementary schools in various places: maker spaces; a corner of the library; the music room when not in use; or other unused school spaces. Play can take place outdoors when weather permits. In the study, children were provided spaces at least 25 ft. by 25 ft. in area.

Adult play facilitators were encouraging, but not directive. They offered a play prompt at the beginning, which typically was a problem the group could solve by designing and building a structure or contraption. They did not tell the children what or how to build. When the group stalled or got stuck, the facilitator asked open-ended questions to help the children identify their problem and offer possible solutions and ways to move forward. If play became raucous or unsafe, the facilitator reminded players of the safety or courtesy rules.

Having enough time to think, collaborate, and build is important. The play sessions in this study were 30 minutes, which often was not enough time for the groups to fully work out and realize their construction plans. Providing at least one hour of uninterrupted time is recommended or opportunities for children to return to their creations over the day or week to complete them.

Think about the optimal composition of play groups. In the study, researchers limited the groups to same gender children, with four students from the same grade level. This allowed a study of age-related variations in play, uncomplicated by cross-gender attitudes and interactions. Researchers found that girls displayed as much, or more, engineering, physical, and social competence skills as boys. The researchers encourage facilitators to experiment with groups of different sizes and composition, including mixed-age and mixed-gender groups, to see what happens.

Think of ways that you can integrate or blend academic objectives from different subject areas using Rigamajig materials. Hands-on science, technology, engineering, mathematics learning (STEM) opportunities abound within Rigamajig play, especially if the teacher or facilitator is alert to the possibilities. As they play, students are highly motivated to think, collaborate, experiment, and build, and the alert educator will find ways to discuss and extend these learning opportunities. Likewise, extended learning in language arts, creative arts, and social studies can easily happen with Rigamajig as a motivational springboard!

Project Based Lesson Plans

Rigamajig® now offers lesson plans based on this research. The lesson plans are designed to help support educators that are using Rigamajig® in their classrooms.

Plans are suitable for grades K-2 and 3-5, and are offered at beginner, intermediate and advanced difficulties.

Explore the lesson plans

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