Many of the child party places in the Netherlands have a pre-packaged plan. Whether it be indoor trampoline arenas, Lego building, baking themed places or, of course, Little Gym, (is it not everywhere in the world?), they usually have a set recipe for how the kid party will run. Kids come, they jump/build/bake/play, then the place provides some pannenkoeken (Dutch pancakes) with copious amounts of syrup, marshmallows or crisps as their snack, kids eat cake, then bounce home on their sugar high. Given our almost four years of birthday party experience here, we were not prepared for the intro to the new science-themed place we checked out when planning the celebration for our son’s seventh birthday.
Located in an old school where there are multiple businesses housed, finding the right buzzer to this place proved challenging (see photo).
But once we entered the room it was more like walking into Sci-Fi land, with odd and fascinating structures involving wires, pulleys, gears, light bulbs, and propellers…every gadget you can imagine to make something work. And they were all organized in a series of little drawers which reminded me of the nail and screw section at Home Depot. Inside what the place calls the ‘Inventor Workshop’ there were long wooden worktables lined up with all sorts of contraptions created from these assorted odds and ends. There were motorized cardboard structures, tiny flying contraptions that looked like early Wright Brothers inventions, and unbelievably functional folding draw-bridges created from cardboard, straws and brads, to name a few.
Going on past experience, I started by asking the owner what a typical birthday party would entail. She said, “I can’t answer that until we see what your son is interested in.”
“Our son is turning seven, do you have some ideas of what type of activity six and seven year olds would find successful?” I persisted, while glancing at our son playing with a complicated-looking motorized wire vehicle and thinking that perhaps our son’s young age would determine the activity.
She looked at me over her glasses as if I didn’t hear her the first time. Then she repeated, “Let’s see what your son is interested in. Let him walk around and see what he’s drawn to. We’ll make anything work but let’s learn about your child’s imagination first.”
Then I realized that this woman had nailed it. Although I’ve been an educator for over twenty years, have spent time in hundreds of classrooms as a teacher, principal and principal coach, and hold dearly an education ethos that centers on fostering student ownership of learning through inquiry, I had to sheepishly admit that I had not followed my own ideal. I had made an assumption that there would be a set “inquiry-based” activity that would allow the kids to leave with a fun completed project. Instead, the owner modeled just what inquiry is. As one definition states, inquiry is “a seeking or request for truth, information, or knowledge.” How can our son and his friends “seek knowledge” and engage in questioning and experimenting if there is a set, pre-determined activity?
I listened to the owner ask our son questions while he perused all sorts of building materials housed in those fun little drawers. I noticed that she didn’t negate even one of his enthusiastic ideas (such as the “worm mobile” vehicle), but sometimes asked a question to have him think through the possibility of it, and I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to teaching. This is exactly what masterful teachers do so well. Although they have a destination in mind (learning objective) they let their students engage authentically in the learning process to get there. They do this through their facilitation of questions, the use of manipulatives, the opportunity for students to talk and think with one another, and the ability to know when to guide and when to let the students explore. It’s a sincere belief that students will gain knowledge and skills as a result of the process they’re engaged in to achieve the end goal.
In the end, our son thought it would be fun for the partygoers to make something motorized to take home. As he excitedly talked about the endless possibilities, the owner said to me, “By the way, I don’t provide snacks (marshmallows), and the kids won’t have much time for the cake (because they’re going to want to spend their time working 'In the ‘Inventor Workshop’, I thought, as I looked around at the worktables laden with assorted creations). In fact, maybe someone will make that worm automobile here after all.
Lara Lyons is a parent and educator with over 20 years of classroom and school leadership experience. Originally from the Pacific NW, she and her family currently live in The Hague, Netherlands.