Rocket Scientists, Loose Parts and Irregular Shapes

by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

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If you’re looking for employment at NASA/Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories (this is where our spacecraft, moon buggies etc. are designed) you’d be ahead of the pack if you had taken things apart and put things together while playing when you were a child. Back in the 1990’s, when their original genius rocket scientists were retiring, the JPL was having trouble finding young engineers with advanced problem-solving skills. Along with another company that was having the same problem; they discovered that job applicants who had built things when they were kids were the best problem-solvers. Those without this play experience often came up short.

Play in a Nature Explore Classroom often involves construction and problem-solving.  And because most natural materials are commonly not perfectly uniform shapes, these constructions can pose special challenges that help develop critical-thinking skill.

  • How many long branches are needed for the roof of a fort?
  • How can this be built so that the wind won’t blow it down?
  • How can you make a house out of organically shaped Barkless Tree Blocks?
  • Can adding other materials such as rocks and mud help make them fit better?

Of course this is just play. Or is it? Building with standard blocks is an excellent way to achieve basic understandings about mathematical concepts and modeling, and to develop skills that will be useful life-long. But there’s something special about the thinking happening during play with “loose parts” and irregular shapes.  Improvisation and seeking out innovative solutions are more pronounced in this kind of play. We like to think that the lessons learned in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms compliment indoor learning,  and that they also add special dimensions to play that deepen the child’s skill-set.

Do we think that JPL talent scouts will be scouring Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms to find future engineers to groom? Not necessarily. But we do think that children in these outdoor classrooms just may have an edge that those original JPL engineers had.  After all, they did grow up in an age when outdoor play was the norm.  Loose parts, irregular shapes, natural materials- important to Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, and important to comprehensive education.

 

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