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Problem-Based Learning That Feels More Like Play

kids building tower on floor

If you ask a child what jobs they might like to have someday, you’re likely to hear “veterinarian” and “toy inventor” pretty near the top of that list.

Ken Scheel of  Harrisonburg, Virginia has enjoyed years of success doing both. After a rewarding career in keeping animals healthy, he has made his toy-creating pastime into a full-time empire crowned by building blocks he calls  KEVA Planks.

Scheel says he has always felt like an inventor, since the childhood he spent building and shaping things with his brother.

“I think I am hardwired to try to think of new things, and how to do things better,” he says. “We spent hours playing with train sets and making paper-mâché mountains for them, that kind of thing.”

He also credits a surplus of downtime in his formative years, something he says is missing in many of today’s childhood experiences. Children whose weeks are packed with scheduled activities don’t have the time to explore and build the way he and his brother did.

“Childhood was long stretches of time to fill in whatever way you came up with for yourself,” he says. “That’s where you found out what you really wanted to do.”

By the time he was in veterinary school, his creative streak had produced a new toy. He was about 21, working summers as a YMCA camp counselor when an idea hit him during a game of Ultimate Frisbee. He filled a sock with dirt and found that if you whipped it around and flung it, it could travel great distances and be easily caught by a playmate.

“I called it Ultimate Sock at first,” he says. “Friends of mine said, ‘You need to market this!’”
He eventually wrote his own patent for it, and the  FlingSock was born.

His love of play and discovery combined again 14 years ago with the birth of  KEVA Planks, a collection of precision-cut maple blocks that can be used to build  endless varieties of structures and sculptures.

“What are KEVA Planks?”

“One part of the appeal is that they’re all the same, there’s no digging for specific pieces,” says Scheel. “And the dimensions are appealing. They’re much more versatile than cubes. You can just arrange them intuitively.”

And because they don’t snap together like many other building toys, when the stacking is done, they fall spectacularly. Scheel says that breathtaking cascade is another reason for their popularity.

“People sometimes build huge, complex structures,” he says, “just to see how they look when they fall down.”

Experimenting with  KEVA Planks helps kids learn about the  scientific method, in which discoveries are often made only through repeated trial and error. If one design topples over before it’s done, stepping back to reassess can lead to a successful approach.

It’s a process Scheel says he experienced while trying to create them in the first place.

“When you go to make a plain, rectangular block of wood, everyone with a table saw thinks they can do it,” he says. “But there are a very small number of places that can make them truly, precisely the same.”

Scheel’s commitment to making them in the USA narrowed the field even further, but he tested a few mills until he found one that could produce them flawlessly.

“It’s the precision cut that makes them stack so perfectly,” he says. “If they aren’t cut precisely, the stacks will wobble before they get very high.”

Once perfected,  KEVA Planks became a perennial favorite at science museums around the country, where families are invited to tackle projects together.

“It is such a joy to watch,” says Scheel. “Often at museums, you see kids having fun and dad just patiently waiting for them to get tired and move on. With  KEVA Planks, dad is on the floor building until the kids are ready to move on.”

Because  KEVA Planks can be used to build bridges, towers, and other structures, their value as a science learning tool is clear.

“You can see even a 3-year-old starting to learn the physics of it when they begin stacking and building,” Scheel says.

But, he says, principles of engineering and physics are only a small part of what  KEVA Planks unlock in kids who play with them.

“It’s  problem-based learning,” he says. “If we want to build a bridge, let’s figure out how. Mistakes are made, improvements are made. You learn that there might be multiple iterations of a project before it’s successful.”

That builds an  array of skills: teamwork, cooperation, perseverance, problem-solving and more. These are qualities that serve all of us well in life, whether we grow up to build skyscrapers or not.

Scheel has some advice for parents who want to encourage the kind of creativity that led to his success.

“Give kids the freedom to follow what interests them, not what you hope will interest them,” he says. “They might start with music and that leads them to electronics. Just let that unfold without trying to control it.”

In classrooms, he recommends teachers give students a little freedom to experiment without fear of failure. He has developed lesson plans for using  KEVA Planks in STEM activities, and in a  variety of other subjects.

“Try to carve out some time in your week when kids can explore new things without pressure or grades,” he says. “Failure is one of the primary ways we learn and grow.”

Fourteen years after the invention of  KEVA Planks, Scheel says he still can’t get enough of seeing the spark they create.

“I haven’t come close to growing tired of it,” he says. “Especially seeing families play together. Adults who haven’t done anything artistic since middle school suddenly rediscover the joy of creativity. We are all born with that impulse, so it’s nice to see it rediscovered.”

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