GRAFTON – North Street Elementary School students have become “Playful Engineers.”
Throughout the week of Dec. 10, second- through sixth-grade students put aside their textbooks as Playful Engineers – an Amherst, MA, based company – shared their innovative approach to learning. The company’s “hands-on” approach allows students to express their creativity while learning.
“We believe that kids learn the most when they’re fully engaged, and when they’re having a good time, and when they’re following their own creativity and their own interests and curiosity,” said Playful Engineers co-founder Jay Mankita.
He created the company with his wife, Susan McGinn, after their 4-year-old child became obsessed with Rube Goldberg machines.
Playful Engineers started at North Street Elementary School with an all-school assembly, showing students the creative, engineering-based arts-and-crafts projects they would soon be able to attempt. For instance, Mankita exhibited several crafts, including a butterfly that – with the push of a popsicle stick – could flap its wings.
“[The kids] were very excited after the assembly – in fact, they were so excited it was hard to calm them down… [Mankita] was showing them so many examples of the different mechanisms,” said North Street Elementary School Co-Principal Roseanne Kurposka, who worked with Co-Principal Stephen Wiltshire to bring the program to the school.
After the schoolwide assembly, classrooms had the opportunity to do the engineering crafts in smaller groups. Though Mankita gave students a brief presentation to open the small-group activities, students were largely left on their own, allowed to experiment, collaborate and design their own project.
“We like to think of ourselves as ambassadors of play, and we are helping kids learn some really valuable knowledge and skills – especially post-pandemic, [when] maker skills, hands-on, confidence and motor skills seem to have been reduced,” said Mankita.
He said that the open-ended nature of the activity allows kids to be adventurous and curious.
While some more-experienced students immediately created designs, peers were able to help less-experienced students create innovative crafts and designs. Though the students were given the flexibility to explore, they learned about mechanisms, simple machines and engineering techniques through the crafts.
“It gives a safe space for those individuals who are less comfortable with engineering and gives a space to be creative for those students who are comfortable,” Kurposka said. “This opens up a world to them that they can be very creative and curious about. In addition to creativity and curiosity, they are learning about simple machines and mechanisms and how they operate. There’s a lot of teaching tools that [they] provide at the tables. They’re collaborating – constant conversation with each other, which is wonderful.”
As students picked up markers, popsicle sticks, and scissors, there was chatter, laughter and learning. Students left the session with unique crafts, but also left with an enhanced understanding of engineering they developed through experimentation, trial-and-error and hands-on learning. Mankita said he values the “growth mindset,” and enjoys hearing students say “that they can’t do something yet.”
For more information on Playful Engineers, visit https://www.playfulengineers.com/.