A favorite Children’s Museum activity, Puff Mobiles are made by constructing simple wheeled cars with paper sails, designed to catch the stream of air a child blows through a straw. I’ve seen kids innovate with many creative constructions over the years: wide sails, double sails, weighted bases.I observed Puff Mobiles in an after-school Learning Club and noticed a child who appeared to be disengaged. Instead of huffing and puffing on her vehicle, she rested it on the floor while her eyes wandered the room. Overturning a Styrofoam tray of paper, she fanned the tray in her face, blinking in the wind. Then she waved it rapidly at her sail, sending the vehicle steadily forward. Just as I began to tell her how excited I was and that I had never seen anyone try that technique before, she picked up a carpet square and flapped it at the Puff Mobile, launching it halfway across the room!
This 8-year-old girl was an engineer – applying imagination and analytical thinking to solve a problem, pulling herself so far out of the box she transcended the problem of the sail and changed the air itself! In our day-to-day lives, we overcome challenges by thinking like engineers all the time: assessing the situation, testing and re-testing solutions to make the best of the resources we have available to us. The more practice children (and all of us!) have stretching our problem-solving muscles, the more flexible and creative our thinking becomes.
2011 marks the 60th anniversary of National Engineers Week, February 20-26. Volunteers from the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers will lead engineering activities with Children’s Museum visitors this month. I asked several of the engineers what types of play they were drawn to as kids, and how the adults in their lives supported their interests. Not surprisingly, fort building and creating cities and bridges with blocks and other open-ended construction toys was echoed by each of the engineers. But I was also struck by the common theme of having time and space to figure things out on their own and bring their imaginations to their play.
- Jen DiStefano benefited from a balance of sports, which helped her get comfortable with her position in a team dynamic, and child-driven, unplugged play – “finding ways to occupy our time… outside from early morning to sunset.”
- According to Chad Morrison, “Any sort of toy that involved building and understanding how the parts go together really appealed to me.” (Chad is now designing stairs for the LEGO facility in Enfield, CT!)
- “I would keep all my LEGOs in one huge bin and then just start building an idea and figure out what I needed to do to get there,” Doug Martin remembered.
- “We constantly designed stadiums and houses,” said Matt Pitta. “My parents were supportive and positive, even when supplying constructive criticism on the designs.”
Kids are engineering whenever they dig a moat for their sandcastle or arrange a fort of sofa cushions – special supplies aren’t required. Ideas for engineering challenges using every day materials, like designing catapults or animation toys, are a fun and interactive way to shake up play routines at home. Some great resources the Museum uses are from the PBS shows “FETCH! with Ruff Ruffman,” “Design Squad Nation” for 9-12 year olds, and the now-cancelled “ZOOM”; also Things to Make and Do from the Exploratorium, an incredible San Francisco museum of science, art and perception.
Have fun scratching your heads and discovering “Eureka!” moments as engineers at home!
Join Providence Children’s Museum to celebrate National Engineers Week AND February school vacation! Be An Engineer and experiment with electrical conductivity and oobleck on February 19. Block Builders tackle construction challenges on February 23 & 25. And Young Engineers learn how civil engineers plan buildings and bridges on February 26. Visit the Museum’s website for details.