As elementary education is taken over by standardized testing, recess and playtime are too often considered unnecessary luxuries, usurped by lessons in multiple-choice bubble filling.
Cas Holman, a professor of industrial design at RISD, was determined to give kids something more creativity-enhancing. A proponent of educational play, she came up with Rigamajig, a new, 263-piece building kit for classrooms. As kids improvise with building elaborate contraptions, or "Rigamajigs," from planks, wheels, pulleys, nuts, bolts, and rope, they learn about engineering, architecture, creativity, and collaboration experientially. And they can make everything from three-legged rocket ships to elephant movie projectors. There are no instructions and no batteries.
Inspired by the European model of adventure playgrounds, in which children collaboratively build wooden structures without much guidance from adults, Holman decided to design a curriculum around teaching, using Rigamajig, in which there are no right or wrong answers and the creative process is more important than the end result. (Rigamajig’s design means contraptions get rebuilt again and again.) She has created a series of imaginative "Play Prompts"—suggestions such as, "Build a Rigamajig you can get inside," "Build a contraption that would allow you to ride a whale," and "Build a structure that will take you to the center of the Earth."
"I’m motivated to give kids opportunities to make their own realities, to be the boss of their own worlds," Holman tells Co.Design. Holman was the daughter of an "avid tinkerer," and was constantly building dune buggies and dog houses as a child. "Most kids don’t get to build their own treehouses and forts outside anymore," she says. "I have scars from when I was little, where nails went through my fingers when I was building a treehouse. For many people, that might be a warning, and a reason not to let kids experiment, but for me, it was part of learning—that’s how I learned not to jump out of trees."
At first, Holman didn't know how to channel her lifelong love of play into a career. "Until I was 28, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a toy designer," she said. Before then, she'd worked as an artist. But soon, a project for The High Line in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood led her to develop the High Line Children's Workyard Kit, which then evolved into Rigamajig.
Holman's ultimate goal was to turn it into a commercial product for classrooms. "I realized that in designing imagination toys and tools, getting them in schools is kind of the sweet spot. Until educators let play be part of learning, this would be kind of an afterthought." Now, after Holman partnered with Kaboom, a nonprofit dedicated to creating great play spaces for children, Rigamajig is in 28 elementary school classrooms across the country.
"Every time I see kids playing with Rigamajig, they make something I've never seen before. Wheels become cookies or monster heads," Holman says. "It allows for this great abstraction." In the classroom, in America, what can be more progressive than that?