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Research: Rigamajig builds 21st Century Skills and development in STEM disciplines!

Effects of Rigamajig Play Materials on Elementary Children's Early Development, Learning, and Interest in STEM

The CarMax Foundation and KABOOM! released an independent research study providing new data describing the engineering-related, physical and social play behaviors kids display in a semi-structured play environment using Rigamajig. The study found that when children engaged in high levels of engineering play, they were more likely to exhibit 21st Century skills, such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.

This research is a part of the recently launched Future Innovators Program developed by The CarMax Foundation and KABOOM! that addresses the need for early development of STEM interest and 21st century skills through child-directed creative play. It was conducted by Dr. Zachary S. Gold of Concordia University, and Dr. James Ellicker at the Purdue University Human Development and Family Studies Department.

Key Findings

Engineering Play

  • Early engineering behaviors occurred frequently within play groups of elementary school children, an average total of 60-80 times for each child during a 30-minute play session.
  • Children at all three grade levels displayed similarly high levels of engineering play. Though not statistically significant, 2nd graders had slightly higher levels of engineering play than kindergarteners, and 5th graders had slightly lower levels than 2nd graders.
  • Older children used significantly more language-based engineering behaviors than younger children. Second graders and 5th graders used significantly more building explanations and STEM vocabulary words than kindergarten children.
  • Most early engineering behaviors declined slightly over four weekly play sessions, probably reflecting increased efficiency in communication, design, and building, and with experience working together in a play group.
  • Engineering play by groups of boys and girls occurred with similar frequency. Small differences favored boys, but were not statistically significant. Play with Rigamajig offers boys and girls similar opportunities to develop engineering and 21st Century skills.

Physical Activity

  • Rigamajig offers rich opportunities for active play and physical development. Overall, each child engaged in an average 125 gross motor behaviors and 57 fine motor behaviors per 30 minutes of play. As with engineering play behaviors, physical movement of most kinds decreased slightly over the four play sessions, perhaps due to increased efficiency in the groups' building processes.
  • Girls engaged in significantly higher rates of gross motor physical behaviors than boys. Fine motor activity was not different by gender.
  • Children in the older groups displayed more fine motor actions (manipulating objects with hands) than kindergarteners, while kindergarteners were more active in gross motor behaviors (movement of the whole body) than older groups. These patterns may occur because with age children gradually become more proficient at using their hands, and thus less reliant on large whole-body movements. Also, younger children may require more whole-body movements to carry and manipulate larger pieces.

Social Competence (21st Century Skills)

  • Children displayed impressive levels of social competence (21st century skills) within Rigamajig play groups. On average, each child engaged in 38 cooperative behaviors and 8 leadership behaviors during each 30-minute Rigamajig play session.
  • Girls displayed higher overall rates of cooperative/team-based competency than boys, and sharing and cooperation increased for both boys and girls in higher grades. Rates of positive emotional expression, leadership, and sharing were similar among boys and girls, and leadership and positive emotion expression were similar across age levels.
  • Collaboration in play occurred with high frequency and increased across grade levels, from 33% of the time in kindergarten groups to 57% in 5th grade groups.
  • When children displayed higher levels of engineering play, they also were more likely to show more frequent social competencies (21st Century skills).

Interest in STEM Careers

  • Children's interest in STEM careers (as reflected in the pre/post pictorial surveys) did not change significantly over the four Rigamajig play sessions.
  • Boys and older children expressed higher levels of interest in STEM careers than girls and younger children.

Research Methods

Researchers observed and video-recorded children's weekly 30-minute play sessions with Rigamajig® play materials in their home elementary schools. Each play group, consisting of either boys or girls, was observed in four 30-minute play sessions over a 5-week period. The main research questions were:

  • When playing with Rigamajig® materials do elementary students exhibit early engineering behaviors that parallel the basic design process used by professional engineers?
  • When playing with Rigamajig® materials are elementary students exercising physical skills, both fine- and gross motor?
  • When playing with Rigamajig® materials are elementary students displaying social competency work skills (21st century skills)?
  • Are the engineering, physical, and social skills employed by girls and boys similar or different?
  • How do play skills with Rigamajig® materials change across kindergarten, 2nd grade, and 5th grade?
  • Does play with Rigamajig® materials increase elementary students' interest in STEM-related careers?

Play sessions were facilitated by classroom teachers, who provided an initial play prompt and maintained safety guidelines. All play sessions were video-recorded and later coded for frequency of engineering play, social competence, and physical movement. In addition, prior to the first play session and after the last play session, children completed a short survey assessing their interest in STEM-related careers.

Implications for Teachers and Play Facilitators

Small group play with Rigamajig® offers rich opportunities for school age children to develop and exercise a variety of 21st century skills: engineering thinking and construction, physical skills, and leadership and collaboration within a peer work group.

Children need adequate time, space, and freedom in order to gain the most from Rigamajig. In this study, the play spaces were found within the elementary schools in various places: maker spaces; a corner of the library; the music room when not in use; or other unused school spaces. Play can take place outdoors when weather permits. In the study, children were provided spaces at least 25 ft. by 25 ft. in area.

Adult play facilitators were encouraging, but not directive. They offered a play prompt at the beginning, which typically was a problem the group could solve by designing and building a structure or contraption. They did not tell the children what or how to build. When the group stalled or got stuck, the facilitator asked open-ended questions to help the children identify their problem and offer possible solutions and ways to move forward. If play became raucous or unsafe, the facilitator reminded players of the safety or courtesy rules.

Having enough time to think, collaborate, and build is important. The play sessions in this study were 30 minutes, which often was not enough time for the groups to fully work out and realize their construction plans. Providing at least one hour of uninterrupted time is recommended or opportunities for children to return to their creations over the day or week to complete them.

Think about the optimal composition of play groups. In the study, researchers limited the groups to same gender children, with four students from the same grade level. This allowed a study of age-related variations in play, uncomplicated by cross-gender attitudes and interactions. Researchers found that girls displayed as much, or more, engineering, physical, and social competence skills as boys. The researchers encourage facilitators to experiment with groups of different sizes and composition, including mixed-age and mixed-gender groups, to see what happens.

Think of ways that you can integrate or blend academic objectives from different subject areas using Rigamajig materials. Hands-on science, technology, engineering, mathematics learning (STEM) opportunities abound within Rigamajig play, especially if the teacher or facilitator is alert to the possibilities. As they play, students are highly motivated to think, collaborate, experiment, and build, and the alert educator will find ways to discuss and extend these learning

Project Plans

We've developed these 20+ research-based Project Plans to help teachers and educators inspire kids and maximize Rigamajig in their classroom, children’s or science museum, community organization, library, maker space or anywhere kids gather to play and learn!
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Rigamajig Basic Builder Kit

Rigamajig Basic Builder is a large-scale building kit that inspires collaborative and creative hands-on free play, discovery, innovation, problem-solving skills, and STE(A)M learning. Ideal for schools in the classroom, and/or in larger environments like gymnasiums, playgrounds, multi-purpose rooms, maker spaces, and school libraries!
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Two children playing with the Rigamajig Basic Builder Kit.

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