Monthly Archives: May 2013

“I Built It!” ~ Construction Centers for Elementary Classrooms

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Construction tasks provide many benefits for students of all ages. (c) eyeliam, 2008 via Creative Commons

“Bob the Builder” and Other Construction Fun

When I was a classroom teacher, my mother used to scavenge tag sales, eBay and other bargain places and purchase things for my classroom. They would end up arriving in the mail, a brown-paper-wrappered surprise, like Christmas in March. Over the years, I received stickers, little plastic bottles, egg cartons, felt scraps and bags and bags of paperback books. My whole family would gather ’round to see what Grandma sent this time.

One of the treasures most “treasured” was a big mesh bag (about 10 lbs) full of wood scraps. The bag included all kinds of discarded “seconds” from furniture manufacturing, including misshapen dresser knobs, pieces of wood trim and dowels of all sizes. I found a big Rubbermaid tub that you use to store sweaters under your bed, and dumped the blocks in, figuring that I could store the flat box on a shelf in my classroom.

I liked to make a big deal out of all new additions to my classroom, so I scheduled a time during morning meeting to share the newest material for our centers. When I opened the tub, my third graders oohed and aahed and asked when they could use the blocks. They leaned over the tub and breathed in the wood smell, and tapped the dowels together to make music.

The blocks became ramps for Hot Wheels, were painted for a city scape, and sorted for a center on attributes. The best activity, however, was the construction center we set up.

I pulled out my set of goggles from the science kit, and talked about eye safety. We talked about how to hammer to get the best leverage, and how to set a nail before we drove it into a board. We talked about where to put your hands so you didn’t hammer your fingers, and how to hold the wood for a friend, so he could hammer easily. Then we set up an area with nails, hammers, wood and an adult volunteer, and began hammering.

I have a vivid image in my mind, ten years later, of Angel, one of my “newcomers,” so seriously hammering a nail into a chunk of 2″x4″, helmet on his head, goggles on his face, sweat on his brow, saying, “Look, Miss — I’m ‘Bob the Builder!'” I had the busiest group of children in the whole building. More than a few teachers stopped in to see what was going on in my classroom. At first, the visits were inquisitive. Then, I realized that, despite being the last classroom at the end of the hall, our construction center was more than a little too noisy for our upper elementary wing. So we moved shop to the blacktop outside the back door of my room.

I wish I could tell you that I had a specific, scientific purpose for this center back then. I didn’t. But what I did learn about children, science, and inquiry with that bucket full of scrap material has stayed with me for the rest of my career as a science teacher and instructional coach. And I had questions:

  1. What made this activity so engaging for all students?
  2. What important things were students learning and practicing in this activity?
  3. How can I do more hands-on activities like this in my classroom?
  4. How do I articulate to others the importance of tasks like this?
  5. How do I get other teachers to “step out” and transform their own teaching to include more activities like this?

In this article, I will teach you how to incorporate a construction center into your classroom. I will show you why a construction center is important for all ages (not just pre-K), and the important skills and concepts that it reinforces. I will share some suggested materials for your new center, and three different levels of construction center, depending on the space and resources you have available.

Why Should I Have a Construction Center?

Construction, the art, work, job, or business of combining, forming, or putting together materials to make a structure, is an important part of early learning, but can be an excellent addition to instruction for students of all ages. A construction center can easily address skills in many areas:

  • Mathematics
  • Literacy
  • Motor Skills
  • Social Skills
  • Science

Construction and mathematical thinking

Young children learn about numeracy by working with real objects in real-life settings: setting the table for snack, passing out pencils, drawing a hopscotch board with sidewalk chalk on the playground. Children should be able to demonstrate their mathematical thinking in four ways: by acting out math problems; by building math problems with objects; by drawing solutions to problems; and by using numbers to show their mathematical thinking. A construction center can help students move from concrete understanding (acting out and building) to representational (drawing plans) to abstract (calculating with numbers), in one task.

Construction and comprehension

The addition of miniature figures, such as plastic animals, action figures, or cars, to a construction center causes children to spontaneously make up and act out stories that involve their constructions. This replica play is an important step in enhancing students’ later reading comprehension, and helps spark ideas for construction.

construction and physical well-being

My third graders lived in multifamily high-rise apartment buildings, often without a yard, and didn’t have many opportunities for physical play outside of school. In addition, many had baby siblings, so their own access to play materials that weren’t “baby-friendly” (such as nails, scissors, paint) was often limited, in an effort to baby-proof the home.

Besides these factors, we know that young, typically developing children need to develop large and small muscle strength, stamina and coordination in their early years. And our classrooms today will likely include some students who have very specific needs for physical activities. A construction center provides opportunities for both gross and fine motor practice, as well as visual planning, for all students.

Construction and socialization

Constructivism holds that learning is a social activity, that classrooms with conversation yield greater learning than silent, compliant ones. When I added novel building materials to my centers, the level of engagement, the amount and quality of student-to-student discourse, and the level of cooperative work increased (as did the noise level),  but behavior problems disappeared and the level of thinking took off. By talking things over, students also increase their comprehension, and practice important language skills, at the same time.

Construction and engineering

Most of us probably don’t associate preschoolers or first-graders with the word, “engineer.” Contrary to this view, little ones are engaged in engineering design problems whenever they say, “Hey! I know! Let’s build a fence to keep the [toy] cows in!”

When students identify a problem (“The cows are going to get out.”), then propose a solution (“I know! We can use blocks to make a fence!”) and then construct the project with classroom objects, they are using the engineering design process. Giving students real problems to solve by building a solution gives them real-life experience with problem-solving. We will focus more on this last area, in the next part of this article.



Creating a Construction Center for Older Students

While the idea of younger children using blocks and other construction items in a free play kind of way makes sense to most of us, we probably haven’t stopped to consider how to use all that’s good about construction play in a classroom for older students, to reinforce the engineering design process. Take a look at the diagram, below, showing one example of a construction center suitable for elementary students. construction

One example of an elementary construction center. (c) Simple Science Strategies, 2013.


In the above example, you will notice several important components of this center:

  1. A poster of the steps in the Engineering Design Process.
  2. Notebooks for writing in science – for documenting student’s thinking.
  3. Supporting literature (in this case, fiction: The Magic Tree House and The Swiss Family Robinson).
  4. Critical vocabulary.
  5. Models of the item to be created (here, in the form of posters).
  6. Appropriate choice of construction materials (here, logs, bricks and string).

In the example shown, a section of bulletin board or wall space is included, in addition to counter or table space. The center can be scaled down or up as space and student needs dictate. {Click on the link for a diagram and complete list of materials for this center}.

This center can be varied by changing the design “challenge:”

  • Packing crate for an irregularly shaped object
  • Small-scale replica of a famous building (e.g. Eiffel Tower)
  • Oversize replica of a small object (e.g., stapler)
  • Wall to surround a doll house, complete with a gate
  • Model of a playground
  • New classroom furniture arrangement
  • Proposal for a butterfly garden for the schoolyard

It is important to post the steps of the Engineering Design Process as part of this center, to show students that building is only one step of engineering. The table, below, compares the Engineering Design Process for Grades PK-4 and Grades 5-12. You will likely find various versions of the process, but the essential steps (brainstorm ~ design ~ review) remain the same. construction

Teach Engineering has more resources for use when designing lessons to support engineering design activities.

Construction Materials – a (Partial) List

The kinds of materials to include in a construction center can only be limited by your imagination and their availability. The list here includes some tried-and-true items that most classroom teachers (or parents!) have and are familiar with, but I have also included other items when I happened to have them or find them: the perforated tear strips from old-fashioned printer paper; paper egg cartons; well-rinsed milk cartons; food boxes and containers; rocks and sand; graham crackers and frosting. Don’t be afraid to try something, just because you don’t see it here.

Common Construction materials

  • LEGOs / Mega Blocks
  • Duplos
  • Lincoln Logs
  • Bristle Blocks
  • Unifix cubes
  • Plastic links
  • Wooden blocks
  • Scrap wood
  • Cardboard
  • Clay
  • Packing foam
  • Natural objects (sticks)

Your First Construction Center

You can have a construction center, no matter what your budget or the amount of space available.

starting small…

You can begin with nothing more than a plastic shoebox full of LEGOs. My friend, Mary Prathers, teaches a homeschool coop class using LEGOs, where every student gets a small container full of exactly the same number and type of LEGOs. She has many ideas for incorporating LEGOs into your instruction at LEGO Learning at Homegrown Learners. construction

LEGO Deluxe Brick Box, 704 pieces, $49.95 at Barnes & Noble. Click image for ordering information.


Full construction center

Perhaps you have a chunk of classroom that you can dedicate to construction. Early Life Foundations has some excellent photographs of different types of “interest centers” containing construction materials to include in medium-sized early childhood construction centers. You will see that some are only the size of a desk top, while others include bulletin board space or even several tables, depending on the size you need.


Lab or workshop room

Some of you may be fortunate enough to be teaching in a STEM or science-themed charter or magnet school, and have access to a lab or dedicated science room, or be homeschoolers with a finished playroom or basement to use as a classroom.  Craftmanspace has many free plans and ideas for incorporating woodworking and other construction activities into your curriculum, especially if you have a space that can be permanently set up for construction. construction

Woodshop for Kids: 52 Woodworking Projects Kids Can Build. $17.07 at Barnes & Noble. Click on image for ordering information.

Community Construction Projects

Getting kids involved in a community project involving construction is a great way to connect your construction center work to the real world. See how one teacher used her construction center to help a local hospital.

Community Builds Homes for the Holidays

For More Construction Ideas…

For more science ideas, see Simple Science on Pinterest, or click on the Pinterest button in the side bar of this blog.







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NEW Amphibian Nature Study — and a Spring Give-away!

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Spring showers have meant the arrival of amphibians in Connecticut. See our sister site, A Child’s Garden, for a blog post on the study of amphibians, emphasizing survey as an ecological study technique, and the use of approximate measures when recording observations of animals in the field.

See “Studying Amphibians in the Field: Using Approximate Measures” for more information, and a spring give-away of two great e-Books with science journaling resources and nature study ideas.

Or enter using the Rafflecopter form, below:

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Looking Forward: The Next Generation Science Standards

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Why Change Science Instruction?

Why change the way science (and math) are taught in the United States? Check out this great infographic to see why instruction in science, technology, engineering and mathematics needs to change drastically in the United States.

Transforming Science Education

In response to the need for science education to change to meet the needs of 21st century students, Achieve, Inc.,  has released the final draft of the Next Generation Science Standards. The standards are available for reading, free of charge, or can be ordered in hard copy.

Standards can be viewed online, free of charge, or ordered in hard copy (click image for more information).

Where Did They Get the Standards?

The NGSS are based on the National Research Council Framework, which focuses on three dimensions of science instruction: scientific and engineering practices, cross-cutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas (see the tabs at the top of this blog post for the three dimensions and their components). This framework is available for reading online, free of charge, or for free download. See the widget in the sidebar, at right, to get a copy for yourself. Each standard is followed by the frameworks elements it draws on (see image, below), and includes specific language to clarify age-appropriate expectations.

Each standard draws on several elements in the NRC Framework.

I find the color-coding of the three dimensions helpful for quickly identifying different aspects of the framework, for each standard.

Scientific and Engineering Practices

Scientific and engineering practices are the things we want students to DO in science. These are divided into eight areas:

  • Asking Questions and Defining Problems
  • Developing and Using Models
  • Planning and Carrying Out Investigation
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
  • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  • Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information

Here is an example of the scientific and engineering practices connections to one fifth grade science standard:

Scientific and Engineering Practices are the things we want students to DO in the science classroom.


Cross-Cutting Concepts

There are many essential truths in science — concepts so broad, that they extend into all disciplines. These cross-cutting concepts — the things we want students to understand — are listed below.

  • Patterns
  • Cause and Effect: Mechanism and Explanation
  • Scale, Proportion and Quantity
  • Systems and System Models
  • Energy and Matter: Flows, Cycles and Conservation
  • Structure and Function
  • Stability and Change

Cross-Cutting Concepts are the broad ideas that we want students to UNDERSTAND, regardless of the specific science topic.


Disciplinary Core Ideas

Each science discipline has its own “truths,” things that we want students to know about a particular topic. These are listed as disciplinary core ideas, and are broken into the four main branches of science:

Physical Sciences

  • Matter and Its Interactions
  • Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions
  • Energy
  • Waves and Information Transfer

Life Sciences

  • From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes
  • Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy and Dynamics
  • Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits
  • Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity

Earth and Space Sciences

  • Earth’s Place in the Universe
  • Earth’s Systems
  • Earth and Human Activity

Engineering, Technology and the Application of Science

  • Engineering Design
  • Links Among Engineering, Technology, Science and Society

Disciplinary core ideas are the subject-specific things we want students to KNOW.

Integrated Standards and Thematic Teaching

One part of the new standards that I think will be a big bonus for teachers is the connection of related literacy and numeracy standards after each science standard, as well as related framework ideas. With these connections, it is not only easier for classroom teachers to design rich, integrated units of study based on scientific topics — it is also easier for teachers to be reassured that integrated, thematic teaching can address important literacy and numeracy goals of high-stakes testing.

Here is an example of an integrated unit based on the Grade 1 science standards:

If Only I Could Fly – an integrated Grade 1 Science Unit. (c) Simple Science Strategies, 2013. Click the image to download this 13-page document, FREE.


This unit includes three performance tasks, addressing two science standards, two numeracy standards, and five English language arts standards. For each task, a task table outlines key vocabulary, big ideas, a description of the essential task with grade-level expectations, important concepts and any foundational concepts. Components are sorted by Bloom’s Level.

Standards are arranged to show performance tasks, including key vocabulary, big ideas and concepts, and grade-level expectations.


To assist teachers in assessing student performance relative to the standards, sample rubrics are included for each performance task.

For Your Science Library

Please see the sidebar for new selections for your science library and classroom: A Framework for K-12 Science Education, and The Essentials of Science and Literacy.




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