Inspirational Materials!

Ever since I studied the Reggio Emilia approach in grad school, I have been in love with the idea of materials as inspiration. I’ve had many fantasies of having a part (or all!) of my classroom set up as an aesthetically amazing display of carefully curated natural items, materials for creative reuse, sparkly art supplies and more that my students can use to make whatever these items inspire.

Although the reality of actual physical space and its inherent constraints, plus the eternally irritating factors of time and money have prevented me from fully realizing this fantasy, I have found and encountered a couple of ways to make progress in this direction.

When I taught second grade, I created this classroom “Imagination Station” that my students absolutely loved:

This little Ikea shelf fit my small classroom perfectly. I filled it with whatever I had on hand, and rotated the materials often. Of course, we had to have many practice sessions in using it and keeping it tidy, which was often an issue. At the moment this picture was taken, the kids seemed to be at a yellow “caution” level with regards to imagination station messiness, which means it must have been getting pretty unruly the day before.

When and for what did they use it? They used it during indoor recess to make endless inventions which fueled their creative play. I remember one winter when using the imagination station yarn and some cheap paper plates to make spaghetti for their imaginary Italian restaurant held their interest for weeks. They also used it for maker projects, such as Hummingbird Robotics projects and inventing switches for Harry-Potter-inspired chopstick and LED wands.

Some creative imagination station mess on its way to being a robotic mythological creature.

This clever second grader made a switch with a part of a straw from the imagination station and a paper clip that enabled him to turn his wand on and off! I didn’t think of it – he did! And it wouldn’t have happened without the inspiration of materials!

Fast forward a couple of years, and now my school has found a way to have a reusable materials space for the entire school to share – The Place With Good Things!

The Place with Good Things (named by a kindergarten student!). Bins are labeled with words and pictures to help student put things away in the right place, and the curtains can cover it all up when a tidy hallway is needed!

In our front hallway, we had a bank of unused cubbies that were gathering dust that were perfect for this job. We have stocked it with cardboard tubes, wood and foam pieces, parts of old games, donated scrapbook paper and fabric, and all kinds of other stuff. It has become the go-to space for prototyping all kinds of maker projects. Yes, it requires constant maintenance and reminders to parents about what kinds of things we are accepting as donations.

But, it conveys to our whole community that our school has a maker mindset and values reuse and recycling. It inspires students to make things they never would have thought of without perusing the materials and imagining their potential. It inherently gives students agency over what they create when the materials aren’t always neatly prepped and set before them. It is definitely worth the time it takes to conquer its clutter!