When I was in the 5th grade, I loved making miniature replicas of things that I was learning about in school: prairie houses, covered wagons, log cabins, and so much more. When I read about ancient history, I would make models of castles, pyramids, and I even made a sugar cube Roman Colosseum. I loved designing and building in miniature. I loved the challenge of finding materials that could be used in my creations. My good friend, Roxane, was an expert at sewing tiny families of mice clothed in wonderful Victorian costumes. I didn’t know how she crafted them so meticulously. My creations definitely looked child-made. I was so proud of them. Taking the time to create them deepened my understanding not only of the crafting process, but also of the time period I was endeavoring to replicate.
This month in the Wonder Studio, the 5th graders have been working on a small scale. No one mandated that they do so. They all just started making tiny projects. It might be due to the fact that they are starting a unit in math in which they are required to make tiny houses for clients. The clients are comprised of willing teachers and school staff. No matter what the reason, this focus on small is age appropriate and well-suited to their developmental level. Their fingers are now skillful enough to manufacture tiny things, and they are intellectually curious about how various things work. By making miniature models, they are able to gain a fuller understanding of how the real things work.
This is the 5th graders’ second round in Wonder Studio this year. They no longer need an introduction to where materials are stored or how to operate simple machines the hot glue gun, saddle stapler, saw, drill, cardboard scissors, iron, etc.) As soon as we enter the studio, they rush to work. They all have ideas and are ready to put them into action.
A group of three students, then four, now six are constructing a model of their classroom to present to their teachers on Teacher Appreciate Day in April. Four students are creating the classroom with foam core, cardboard, and wood scraps. Two others have labeled themselves “the carpenters,” and are making a series of tiny wooden desks and chairs for the classroom. I sit back and marvel at their ingenuity. I jump in when I’m asked for materials or crating assistance. But the ideas? The ideas are all theirs. In these short set of weeks, I’ve seen their confidence and ideas grow. They are more willing to take risks. They problem-solve, collaborate, and call on each other’s best skills. When I witness this natural buzz of creative process, I become so excited because to me this is the essence of learning. They are in the zone. They are in what Csikzentmihalyi called the state of flow.
Another pair of students have decided to create bakery products. They are concocting donuts, coffee cakes, and cupcakes with found objects from the Wonder Studio. One student found a way to make roasted marshmallows. They find things that I didn’t even know we had! They cut, paint, glue with happy abandon.
Anna has brought a small plastic bag with her to the Wonder Studio. She takes out a miniature pinball machine that she started at home. It is incredibly tiny, and she is determined to make it work. I am in awe of her precision. I keep wondering how we can transfer this kind of agency and enthusiasm to regular classroom experiences. The students always tell me that Wonder Studio should be a “real subject” like math and English. They want that challenge of coming up with an idea, their own idea, and seeing it grow into a reality. They need time to do this.
Ida, who is unafraid to try something new, excels in Wonder Studio. I call her “our engineer.” She loves making tiny replicas of machines that really work (a humane trap, a windmill, a rolling cart – to name a few). This week, she saw a “That was Easy” button I had on a counter and decided to make one out of cardboard soup container lids. Ida’s button says, “OOF!” on the top, and when you press it, it makes a soft whooshing sound. I am amazed and ask her how she constructed it. Ida looks at me like I have just asked the dumbest question on the face of the planet, shrugs her shoulders, and says confidently, “Compressed air.” I am constantly surprised by Ida’s ingenious designs.
These small creations, this work in miniature, garner big results. The students now own the Wonder Studio. It is their space. They know how to use it. They are no longer hesitant but dive head-long into projects – trying ideas, sometimes abandoning them, but mostly following through and sharing their creations proudly.