Homeschooling with Lego

It’s finally feeling really cold and wintery in central Ohio this week and I struggled to get us outside on at all Monday. This is highly unusual for me – a dedicated dog walker who needs to move my body. While our homeschool days are regularly filled with reading, drawing, and playing (educational) games, hanging out inside all day I got the urge to do something different.

Last month, Cora got a few new Lego-related gifts. I found these by searching the web for “gifts to give kids with too many Legos.” This wasn’t because I want her to stop playing with them. On the contrary we LOVE Lego around here – search this blog for Lego and you’ll find lots of posts on the subject. But I wanted to inspire her to do new things with the bricks she already has. Yesterday we dove into one of the books where we met a real building challenge, for mother and child.

Here are a few things I took away from our lesson, which I went into thinking about as supporting girls and innovation. I’ve touched on this topic before, see for example in this brief post about STEAM related picture books.

The first, and ongoing, challenge is finding pieces that meet the supply list for whichever project you choose. At first, Cora selected a project and started building but quickly found she didn’t have certain specialty gears we’d need. Reminded me of times I have started cooking something new without reading the recipe all the way through only to discover I’m missing an ingredient or specially pot or pan I need.

We looked through the book again together and found a project we seemed to have the pieces to complete, though we had to take a lot of liberties finding substitutes for what was recommended. For instance, the walls of our coin bank are made of a range of colors and sizes, not the specific red and gray bricks the author identifies. This seemed like a good lesson about using and being grateful for materials you have on hand, which the author suggests, though the picture perfect images in the book suggest otherwise.

We went through a lot of trial and error, which I was simultaneously happy about and genuinely challenged by. I personally had to fight the desire to give up at least a handful of times. Cora started building a few side projects at some points. I had to remind myself, you are a model right now. If you give up, so will she. I remembered the time Cora asked me to make her shoes that could fit a Barbie doll; the confidence she had that I could do it, and my desire to not let her down. And so we persevered, for hours – losing track of time and reaching a state of flow so intense we nearly missed her piano lesson – until we got the coins to roll down the ramps and into the drawer below.

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How Playing with Legos Can Change the World

Photo by Julian Halliday

Someone once told me that little kids are like puppies, older children like cats.  The younger children want as much of your attention as they can get, and then beg for more.  The older ones are often happy to have you put food out, and then leave them alone.  Lately, my stepson has been acting more and more cat-like around me.  And I’m not a cat person, if you know what I mean.  So our relationship has been feeling a bit strained.  At least from my perspective.  Something tells me he’s not perseverating over is as much as I am.

When I heard the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity would be hosting an exhibition of Lego-inspired art, Think Outside the Brick, I hoped it might be a way for me and George to reconnect.  Today we checked out the show and then joined others for Dispatchwork, an international guerilla art project in which people fill cracks in the urban landscape with Lego constructions.  My family’s participation in this happening helped us achieve a degree of togetherness I’d been longing for.

The moment we stepped out of the museum, we were engaged, together, in the project.  While we planned to get in the car and ride across town to a location we had in mind to create our work, we were immediately drawn to a spot in the museum’s parking lot.  We examined the spot, did a bit of minor preparation to the ground by shifting some gravel around, and discussed how we would go about our brick laying.  Then we got to work.

Even with a predetermined course of action, there were decisions to be made along the way.  At what point was the work complete?  Did figures and/or constructions made to look like real things have a place in the piece?  Should we leave it in place or photograph the piece, gather the bricks, and create something new in a different location?  Would our structures sustain a strong wind or rainstorm?

Ultimately, we dismantled our piece at the museum lot and moved on to our original destination, a building downtown that my husband leases and rents to musicians and artists in the community.  We figured that, even if no one else saw them, those folks would appreciate our offerings.

George and I set to work repairing a big crack at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the building while my husband went inside to check on some things.  We talked about what we were doing and how we could do it differently.  While we didn’t always agree, we listened to each other’s ideas, with patience, something which, if I’m honest, I haven’t been as great about modeling for him lately as I’d like. I had an artistic vision for what we were working on, and sometimes I felt George’s ideas would corrupt it.  A few times I had to consciously remind myself that the product we produced mattered less than the time we spent together.  The fact that it was 70 degrees and sunny in November, in Central Ohio, made this dramatically easier!

Another thing that helped me persevere, as dorky as it might sound, was the realization that we were practicing some key 21st century skills that related right back to issues he and I had been having at home, namely, communication and collaboration.  As I became conscious of this, I started to feel like sitting on the sidewalk playing with Legos with George was really important.  We weren’t just working on getting along better as a family, we were building our capacity to be contributing members of a global community.

Through our work, we saw how our actions could physically change the landscape.  But, as a parent and art educator, I also saw how playing with Legos could change the dynamics of human behavior, not least my own.

*Note: I could write an entire blog post about how Think Outside the Brick relates to trends in museum education and efforts to engage museum visitors through more interactive and transformational exchanges.  I’m saving that for some other time.  Bottom line, the show is great and if you are in town, I definitely recommend it.

A Most (In)Appropriate Place to Begin

I had planned to begin this blog with some posting about my 2 year-old daughter’s creative development.  Afterall, she inspired me to get going on this project.  And everything she does is super cute.  How better to cultivate a following of readers from the start?

To help me ground my observations of her work with formal and informal artmaking modes and materials, I turned to one of my longstanding favorite art educators, George Szekeley.  Like Piaget, Szekely based much of his research on observations of his own children.  I find descriptions of kids’ artmaking and related recommendations for motivating students in the art classroom are engaging and inspiring.  While reviewing The Art of Teaching Art (1996), I came across this comment:

“I have observed that moments of play become much fewer and more difficult to capture as children become older.  Play opportunities diminsh.  Play comes packaged in video games and other influences which override the individual’s own creative impulse.  Many children become wired to entertainment media and simply stop playing.”

This had me running to the basement to take another look at the paper gun collection my stepson (age 13) was working on over the summer.  I have to preface this all by saying, I’m not a big fan of guns or his fascination with them.  His knowledge has been fueled, in large part, by countless hours in front of the XBox playing Modern Warfare, in keeping with Szekely’s prediction for boys his age.  However, I admit that time has taught him some useful things like the history of world wars, and have inspired some of his most creative pursuits off screen.  Come to think of it, most of his creative projects over the past 2 or 3 years has focused around weapon imagery – Lego battlescenes, detailed drawings of the guns in his virtual arsenal, the paper guns.

When George first showed these to me, I have to admit that I was blinded by the amount of tape he used and the fact that he didn’t use recylced paper.  This morning, as I picked them up and examined them, I was impressed by George’s attention to detail and the quality of his constructions.  At first glance, I wasn’t able to see that the handgun above includes a removable magazine that slides smoothly in and out of the pistol’s handle.  His personal notations amused me.  He truly took ownership of this work.

This past week, George spent his allowance at the hardware store purchasing spray paint he used to give some of his Airsoft guns a makeover.  He experimented with how far to hold the canisters from his “target” and used tape and parsley from the garden to mask the surface to create patterns with the paint.  Again, while I wish these creative endeavors took some other form, I was impressed by his persistence with this project and the results.

I was in school earning my master’s degree in Art Education at the time of the Columbine shootings.  While I was teaching in the classroom, there was a zero tolerance policy for imagery of violence, and especially guns.  So, I’m left wondering, what place do George’s experiments have in the artroom?  If I were his teacher and I asked the students to bring in independent projects they were working on in their home studios, what would I say about George’s work?  Would I allow him to share it?  How far outside the lines does it lie?

Postscript: As it turns out, a quick Google search for “rolled paper guns” taught me that George isn’t an outlier, per se.  He’s part of a group of makers who are sharing their designs online on sites like WonderHowTo.com, which hosts more than 300 paper gun tutorials and twenty pages of spray paint lessons for gun owners.  And here I thought he was making this stuff up on his own.  But that’s a topic for another time…