This is a guest post by Vivian Altmann
My Exploratorium program, Community Educational Engagement, facilitated drop-in workshops on “Tinkering with Tops” at SFPL branches throughout the city this December. We’ve done a bunch of different hands-on, making and tinkering workshops at branch libraries since about 2011.
In recent years, our main and branch libraries throughout San Francisco have really flourished as more than spaces to read, study, and explore books. They’ve developed into welcoming, active community centers with all sorts of programming for folks of all ages.
My on-call staff—facilitators from the XTech program—and I visited the Oceanview, Chinatown, Bayview, and Excelsior branch libraries laden with cardboard, golf pencils, scissors, hot glue, markers, mini-binder clips, washers (for weights) and LOTS of decorative washi tape. We tinkered with tops at each venue for about two and a half hours.
Several Exploratorium programs develop activities and methods of facilitation—the Tinkering Studio, the Teacher Institute, and the Institute for Inquiry, to name a few—but tend to implement those activities in somewhat controlled settings—I mean, if one can ever really call a classroom “controlled.” But you know what I mean: settings that are familiar, with participants of a specific age range, and in known numbers.
The challenge for me and for my staff is to roll with whatever the situation presents to us. What will the space look like? How big will it be? Will there be natural light? Will we have a separate room or be in a corner of the library trying to facilitate an engaging activity while staying quiet enough not to disturb the other library patrons? How many folks will show up? Will the ages range from preschoolers to teens?
One element that we can control is making sure to have enough facilitators working that we can cover almost all eventualities.
Several things surprised me. First of all, I didn’t think that making and playing with tops would keep kids interested for over two hours. But virtually all the participants stayed that long building, decorating, testing them out and adjusting, exclaiming, “Oh, I have another idea” and creating multiple tops. It certainly helped that we had a lot of staff to assist and with whom one could engage in conversation, bounce ideas around, and try stuff out. And making sure we had a huge array of washi tape, markers, and stickers inspired creativity in both decoration and design.
I was also surprised by how engaged and focused very young children could be with tops. In one particular instance at the Oceanview branch, a girl of maybe three worked with her mom to make a top that she delightedly decorated with all the glitter and rhinestone tape we had on hand. I’m guessing the concept of balance wasn’t too important at her age. But this little girl and her mom were investigating persistence of vision! The fact that her random (to my eye) placing of glitter tape on her top took on the look of circles of bright colored light as her top spun was magical!
At this branch, we were in a small room upstairs with windows letting in bright sunlight. Spinning in the sunlight made it look almost alive! I likened it to seeing time lapse video of a crowded freeway at night, with all the lights from the cars sparkling as they streak past. You could see her excitement when her top transformed in the sunlight. This is not a photo of that particular top but another one with glitter tape (Batman also makes an appearance) to give you an idea of how the tape might reflect when the top is spun.
At the Brooks-Burton Bayview branch, a little boy who was also about three worked with his mother to create this amazing top. At three years old, he was directing her to cut this exacting, symmetrical shape which they both decorated in Raiders colors. Experimenting with one of our facilitators, through trial and error, this boy came up with the optimal spots to glue the weights (on the underside) so that it spun for almost a minute. (We brought stop-watches.) This three-year-old was given the time, space, materials, assistance, and encouragement to create this feat of engineering!
I’m struck by the sense of sharing and community that always unfolds during any of our off-site workshops. My XTech facilitator staff is adept at engaging anyone—from three-year-olds to older adults. (And in two cases we did in fact have an older adult stop by, solo, to hang out, chat, and build a top. After all, libraries are a safe, warm place to come into out of the cold.)
When one of my staff was asked by a group of girls at the Excelsior branch if they could make any shape and turn it into a top, she told them to try. I mean, why not? They ended up making six tops shaped like animals. Placing the spindle properly so that these oddly-shaped tops would spin was a challenge. But through some trial and error—success! All six tops spun well.
Creating the space, time, and lively atmosphere to tinker resulted in double-decker tops, tops shaped like sea creatures, tops that looked like they were so off balance that they’d never spin but balanced by strategically-glued hidden weights, tops with complex geometric shapes, tops that were works of art. A couple of teens who stopped by the Bayview branch let their sports allegiances inform their respective designs. They spent a lot of time playing with the best way to spin—the two-finger approach or the between-the-palms method. These older kids were most engaged with how weights versus no weights would affect duration of spin.
In the coming couple of weeks, I will be trying out “Tinkering with Tops” at two other venues—a family science night with about 50 families at an SFUSD elementary school and at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital’s schoolroom. Both situations should be entirely different from each other and from the library venues. But I’m looking forward to seeing what folks create now that I’ve been given a taste of the possibilities.