Saturday, July 24, 2010

Education: You can't block that kick

Dr. Richter's blocks were intricate and beautiful.
I must have had blocks when I was little, but the only ones I remember were simple cubes with letters on each face. I wasn't deprived -- I did have Lincoln Logs. But not blocks anything like the ones described by Geoff Manaugh on his website BLDGBLOG.

These were not simple blocks: They were part of an entire educational system intended to produce to tidy, industrious and perhaps creative children during the late 1800s by Richter's, a New York City-based toy company.  The children who grew up using them -- or toys a lot like them, part of the Friedrich Froebel system of visual and spatial education -- included Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Georges Braque. In short, architects and artists who changed our observed world.

They are amazing these blocks and the structures they combine to make, so intricate, so much like my Disney-fantasy world of Old Europe with towers and turrets and arches. Manaugh doesn't show any castles. I would have wanted castles, but even without them I would have traded in my Lincoln Logs for those colorful blocks, despite living for a while near Lincoln's birthplace in Kentucky. At least I think so.

As adults contemplating ourselves as children, how much certainty can we summon for such a judgment? As an adult making toys for children, how much certainty did Dr. Richter (his title in the extensive manuals for these blocks) or his cohorts have that children would like them enough to learn the lessons they contained?  I have a feeling he was more certain of his judgments than I am of mine.  It was a time of certainty or at least its appearance.

If I had played with those blocks, I would compare them to the many Lego sets I assembled with my children. Yes, we sometimes assembled them, though mostly they were spread over the floor, tiny pieces slipping furtively under rugs and couches, down vents, even out the door. Mostly, the clumsy hands and unruly minds of children didn't follow the instructions, despite their father's suggestions that maybe they should. 

What if Lego included an entire philosophy of education with each castle, pirate ship and space station it sold? Maybe I would have been a lot more, um, instructional in my approach. We would have pursued our object with the steady purpose that adults muster from time to time: The perfect castle for the Viking raiding party to pillage.

Did Dr. Richter get that a boy (the blocks were specifically for boys, by the way) builds a medieval village with protecting castle in order to pillage it at the end? Not to show his parents what a skillful lad he is. To pillage it.

I have a suspicion that these blocks were used primarily in specific instructional settings, kindergartens and grade schools. And if they replaced some of the drudgery of the tasks in those classes, then I'm all for them, manuals and all. 

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