What if the future of early-childhood education didn’t involve an iPad? What if, on the playground, movable blocks and ladders replaced fixed plastic slides and tubes? What if teachers acted more like guides and were less beholden to worksheets? School would be more like the creative process (rather than the counting-the-minutes crucible that many students experience) and the tools would look quite different: wooden play pieces, ropes and pulleys, nuts and bolts. That’s where Cas Holman comes in. Holman is the founder of the toy company Heroes Will Rise, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, and one of six designers profiled in the second season of “Abstract: The Art of Design,” on Netflix. In the episode that features Holman, we get a glimpse of the educational future, as Chinese kindergartners, dressed for the rain in full-body yellow slickers, create a life-size version of a Hot Wheels track out of ladders and barrels, learning about coöperation, gravity, and momentum along the way.

Holman, who is forty-five, is best known as a member of the design team behind the Imagination Playground blocks: blue foam logs, bricks, arches, and chutes, some as big as a preschooler; they allow children to build their own playground and, in the process, practice teamwork. Since 2010, when the blocks were launched, in a park in lower Manhattan, they have spread to libraries, children’s museums, more parks, and schools in more than seventy countries. The blocks, which are bulky but lightweight, make it possible to set up play practically anywhere; the minute they hit the floor, the kids take over, creating their own world, with their own hands—not without some bickering. “The reason I design for children is I’m designing for people,” Holman said. “These are the people that are going to make the world suck or not suck. Good toys make good people.”

Holman has plenty of toys of her own—so I invited myself over for a playdate. She owns an apartment in Providence, but her main abode is a former day camp in Hope, Rhode Island, which she calls Camp Fun. She was raised in a small town in Northern California, and you can see her love of the outdoors and her appreciation for the time that she spent there, playing alone, in the toys that she designs and the way that she lives. The property includes a house, a studio with a wood shop, a pool, a basketball court, a trampoline, part of an old metal slide, beehives, and a neglected vegetable garden. When her friends bring their children around, she insists that they learn to whittle or follows them as they search for frogs.

All of Holman’s designs build—literally—on earlier work by designers and educators, such as Caroline Pratt’s Unit Blocks and Maria Montessori’s pink wooden cubes. One of her most successful creations is the Rigamajig, a wooden building toy that she has called “a glorified pile of construction debris.” The basic Rigamajig set consists of two hundred and sixty-five parts, including long wooden planks, “S”-shaped hooks, wheels, and various lengths of rope. The wooden parts are punched with holes so that kids don’t need additional tools. Plastic nuts, bolts, and pulleys are made in basic black so that they look more real and less like the typical toy. Holman was delighted when, during filming of the “Abstract” episode, several schoolkids decided that the most interesting thing to build with Rigamajig would be a boom mike. You can catch a glimpse of several little girls trying to record their elders.

The director of Holman’s episode, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, was the co-director of “Free Solo,” about the climber Alex Honnold. It’s a brilliant pairing, because Holman, like Honnold, is uncomfortable with the world as it is, charismatic without seeming at all interested in fame. But, unlike Honnold, who often seemed to be folding himself away from the camera, Holman’s hazel eyes are bright with a desire to explain. At lunch in Providence, I offhandedly told the waitress that I don’t understand the difference between iced coffee and cold brew, and Holman stepped in with a thorough explanation that left us both a little wide-eyed. “But can you taste the difference?” I asked. No, no, she responded, she’s not a coffee person.

Viewers may find themselves admiring Holman’s unisex utilitarian wardrobe and her close-cropped red hair. Both seem designed for any eventuality—trampoline, wood shop, breakdancing. (The grid sweater that she wears is vintage—though the Brooklyn knitter Annie Lee Larson makes a close cousin—while the photorealistic mountain bomber jacket is Love Moschino.) In the episode, Holman discusses feeling out of step with gender norms as a child. When her father, from whom she has long been estranged, took her back-to-school clothes shopping, she would smuggle clothes from the boys’ section into the girls’, hoping that she would be allowed to wear something different. By the time she reached middle school, “It felt like there was a set of rules, and that if the other girls didn’t follow, those wouldn’t be expected of me. So I was a little bit mad and disappointed at them for following the rules of wearing dresses and screaming when you see a worm.” Holman has also felt thwarted in her adult life. By school: she left the University of California, Santa Cruz, after she lost scholarships owing to a poor freshman-year G.P.A., and then took a break, working for her aunt and uncle at a research station in the Galapagos. By clients: she was once awarded a big playground commission that never made it past the first round of design development. “I wouldn’t work with a client who wasn’t brave,” she said. “I’m not going to make compromises because the client doesn’t trust children.”

Holman had almost given up on creating the ideal playground when she got a call from an American educator. “You’re being knocked off in China,” she said. The educator was in Anji county, in Zhejiang province, where an early-childhood approach called Anji Play, has been in place for the past thirteen years. The Anji Play schools were using bootleg versions of Rigamajig. When Holman saw photographs of the children with her design, however, she wasn’t angry. Instead, she wanted to collaborate. “I was speechless. I had been working for over a decade in playground design and material design and, to some extent, I had quit trying to do something that ideal,” she said. “I knew it was possible for children to do all those things; I didn’t know it was possible to let them, because of rules and liability.”

She got in touch with Cheng Xueqin, the educator who began developing the Anji Play curriculum, eighteen years ago. Cheng, who appears in the “Abstract” episode, was responding to U.N. Article 31, adopted in 1989, on the child’s right to play. Currently, there are fourteen thousand children between the ages of three and six enrolled in Anji County schools, with plans to expand to more than two million children in the province and more nationally and globally. Preschools and public libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area, Wisconsin, and upstate New York have pilot programs under way using the Anji method. As the Anji Web site relates, “Ms. Cheng observed joy being ‘ruthlessly stripped’ from children in the service of adult ideas about how play should be directed to serve specific educational and developmental goals.” More recently, this anxiety has come home to roost in some corners of the American parenting establishment, as reflected in the Free-Range Kids movement and in op-eds stating “We Have Ruined Childhood.”

At Anji, the school day includes a minimum of an hour and a half of outdoor play. Materials, which include barrels, ladders, boards, buckets, climbing cubes, and a now-licensed Chinese version of Rigamajig, are stored around the schoolyard. When playtime is over, the kids clean up, and that is also considered part of the play. After they go inside, the children talk about their experiences and make drawings—not unlike the drawings pinned up all around Holman’s studio—describing, verbally and visually, what they did that day and their plans for the next day. For Holman, working with the educators in China to standardize the Anji materials for more schools has been invigorating. “I don’t think the system is winning at all—I do not accept that. I think Rigamajig is trying to blow up the system from the inside,” she said. “Kids are using Rigamajig instead of a math book, and I’m O.K. with that.” But then she paused. The ideal is possible. In Anji, the future might be now. “This is what kids need. This is what we are doing.”

Sourse: newyorker.com

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