A garage full of fun

Who would have thought that the boxes of wooden parquet flooring blocks that my parents brought home one day would be the instigator for hours upon hours of fun and play!

I created the above “equation” for the course I am doing called Learning Creative Learning, offered by MIT Media Lab. We have been encouraged to think about a toy from childhood that had an effect on us or one that we particularly remember. This is in response to Seymour Papert’s short essay on “Gears of my childhood“. I immediately thought of the boxes of wooden blocks – one of the few “toys” that has transcended my childhood and grown with us, as we used them for ever more complex games.

Quite fortuitously, I had booked flights to go home this last weekend to visit my parents in Richards Bay, South Africa, where I grew up. I was delighted to find out that they still had one box of the wooden blocks up in the roof so my father hauled them down for me. I attempted to recreate some of the things that we did as children, as seen in the photo above, although this does not nearly capture the intricate maze of paths and ramps that would decorate the garage floor after a day at home during the holidays.

Once my parents had driven their cars out for work, the massive expanse of a garage floor became our blank canvas to decorate for the day. Marbles being another key ingredient, my brother, Heath, and I tipped out the box of parquet blocks and set to work playing, experimenting, inventing, imagining, (squabbling!), laughing, learning!

We would build up large stepped structures, almost like a pyramid, and then lay other blocks lengthwise over the steps to create a smooth ramp. We placed a line of blocks down the sides of the ramp to create a curb to make sure the marbles didn’t roll off the side. This would be the start of the marble “roller coaster” for want of a better description. Marbles of all different shapes and sizes would then shoot down these ramps, and be guided by the maze of paths, obstacles and ramps that we created further down.

As the day went on, the marbles’ journeys became ever more elaborate, with forks in the road which one of us would operate, various toy animals and people were dotted along the side to create towns and farms in between our tracks, (and the odd dozy animal would “walk” onto the track and be blown over by incoming marbles!). Our own jack-russel dogs would also often get caught up in the stories as they wanted to be in on the action, walking around the garage and knocking over our structures, “godzilla-style”! With hundreds and hundreds of blocks to go around, the possibilities were endless!

A "catapult" for shooting blocks over to the other side.
A “catapult” for shooting blocks over to the other side.

Our two neighbours, Carmen and Lamont, would often join in. And nothing fuels creativity like a bit of girl versus boy competition! Girls on one side, and boys on the other, we would see who could create the largest structures, whose marbles would go the furthest, ramp the highest, knock over the most obstacles. Invariably, these competitions would degrade into full blown war as we tried to break each others’ structures down! We even made our own rudimentary catapults to do this.

Years later, I am now working for an innovative education technology start up, called Siyavula, based in Cape Town, South Africa. Last year, I coordinated the production of a set of openly licensed Natural Sciences workbooks. These resources are aligned to our national curriculum and aimed at Gr 7-9. I wanted the presentation of this content to be one of curiosity to engage young learners’ minds, and in doing so, they are able to discover the possibilities. We do not yet have a website up for these books, but you can view and download them here.


At one point last year, I was writing an activity for a section on conservation of energy. This is quite an abstract concept for young learners who have only just learned about energy. So, I used the demonstration of rolling marbles down a ramp and into a polystyrene cup. From experimenting, learners would see that the steeper the ramp, the further the cup is knocked by the marble. This is a really great activity, as it is so simple, but can be extended in many ways, for example, it can also be used to demonstrate friction which is why the cup the comes to a stand still. Below are the illustrations I had drawn to accompany the experiment.

Experimenting to learn about conservation of energy (CC-BY Siyavula)
Experimenting to learn about conservation of energy (CC-BY Siyavula)

Engaging with this content again and reflecting back, it immediately made me think of those days when we were sprawled out on the garage floor, creating our own ramps and experimenting in our own time. Who would have thought that with a large garage floor, several boxes full of parquet flooring wooden blocks, a bag full of assorted marbles and the minds of two young kids, we were actually learning the principles of potential and kinetic energy, conservation of energy, momentum, friction, gravity, acceleration, and even projectile motion in our catapults! Who would have thought 🙂

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