Why learning with children’s toys stacks up

Accessing an older student’s inner child is one of the keys to overcoming their resistance to learning, believes Emily Gunton. She explains how breaking out the Mega Bloks helped her secondary music class to build confidence in the subject
10th January 2020, 12:04am
Learning With Children's Toys Stacks Up
Emily Gunton

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Why learning with children’s toys stacks up

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/why-learning-childrens-toys-stacks

The two problems occurred at the same time: my students needed a new approach to learning music, and my son's bedroom was in urgent need of decluttering. You might think there was no possible connection between the two, but you'd be wrong.

I like to make my lessons interactive and engaging. Having tried different strategies over the years, I have concluded that my lessons need to have three essential ingredients to achieve those aims:

  • Include an element of surprise.
  • Be entertaining.
  • Find the inner child in your students every once in a while.

When you have been teaching for a few years, and particularly when you have been elevated to the dizzy heights of head of department, meeting these objectives can be tough: you tend to lean towards recycling resources and PowerPoint presentations without so much as a second glance. But you get jolted off the treadmill now and again, and this time it was Molly who did it.

I was teaching the white notes on the keyboard to a Year 7 class (having already spent some time emphasising all the reasons not to press the demo button). Molly stated, as one child does most years, that she was not musical and could not grasp it. The Molly effect was contagious and I soon heard other students in the class giving me the "but I'm not musical" response when things were becoming challenging. I had to be honest with myself: was my teaching part of the problem? I conducted a quick Ready Steady Cook-style survey with the class - red tomato for finding it hard and green pepper for doing OK - which confirmed that a number of students were finding this particular topic a real challenge.

Fundamentally, all the notes on the keyboard looked the same for many pupils and I had to think about a way to make it easier to identify them without scribbling all over the notes with whiteboard marker (a music teacher's nightmare).

Around the same time as I was contending with the Mollys, I was also battling my son's bedroom. Looking at the slightly battered Peppa Pig game, Mega Bloks and soft football that had been the focus of many a near miss in my kitchen, I realised that they weren't appropriate for a charity shop to sell. But could they work as classroom resources? (Stay with me - this was not just about me getting free resources for school while tidying my child's room.)

Remember, my problem was that my students found it difficult to recognise the pattern of notes on the keyboard. I also needed to develop their understanding so they could move on to building chords. I figured that if they understood the theory, they could then apply it practically, which is what I set out to do with Mega Bloks (if you have no idea what I am talking about, they are big blocks that kids can stack together - think Lego on steroids). I stacked the coloured blocks and wrote the notes of a scale on them. What I had was the notes of the keyboard, albeit vertical rather than horizontal, but hooray, my new teaching strategy was born: the children would build scales, and then chords, using Mega Bloks.

You may be surprised to learn it worked. The notion of building scales and eventually chords with my construction-ready Mega Bloks paved the way to making music accessible. Molly stopped wailing and, paired with a Stormzy-style rap about how to construct chords, my work was done.

I compared this class with the class the previous year: on entry, the former class had performed better on their baseline test; on exit, my current class had outperformed the year before on their final test. And the only thing I had done differently was to add the Mega Bloks to my scheme of work.

So I wasn't going to stop there, was I?

Next up was GCSE revision and a use for that Peppa Pig game. It was basically a rip-off of snakes and ladders. My adaptation was as follows: if they landed at the bottom of a ladder, they had to answer a question correctly before they could go up; if they landed at the top of a snake, they could save themselves by answering a question correctly.

Having written a list of questions myself, my students then wrote their own exam-style questions to add to the list (it turned out to be a great homework task - go me!)

Meanwhile, the soft, fluffy football became a key tool for questioning (you lob it at a student, they catch it, they answer the question, and if they are not paying attention they get a soft ball to the face); a sad-emoji cushion became something the class grabbed when they needed further explanation; and an old version of Trivial Pursuit was transformed, too.

It all worked. That slightly worn out, hand-me-down toy collection changed my classroom for the better. I had students collaborating more effectively, engaging in a subject that they may have previously found challenging and understanding more than they ever had done before.

My students tell me they enjoy learning away from the whiteboard, booklets, iPads and the often noisy practical music lessons. They enjoy accessing their inner child. And they really are learning - it's there in the data.

As my sons get older, I wonder if I'm going to lose inspiration from them or gain it, but in the meantime, I've got a bingo machine that needs to be upcycled into something useful. And this time, it is heading in the direction of my A-level class…

Emily Gunton is director of music, head of cocurricular and outreach, school consultant teacher at Blackheath High School

This article originally appeared in the 10 January 2020 issue under the headline "Learning with children's toys: it stacks up"

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