Videatives Views Issue #217: Building a Tower

In this video clip, Oliver is stacking large wooden frames that can be securely fitted together by placing the legs of one frame into the notches in another frame. He says, “Put it on the tower,” as he lifts a wooden piece and places it on top (00:03). His tower at this point is a randomly placed pile of these wooden frames.

Oliver uses pretense to enhance his role as a builder. He says, “I need to hammer this” (00:06). Perhaps he notices that his pile for frames wobbles a bit. He transforms a soft cloth monkey into a pretend hammer by swinging the monkey with great force and making a sound effect, “m-m-m-mamps” (00:11). It is interesting that Oliver does not select a rigid object to represent the hammer. He may believe that a hammer is best characterized by the swinging action, rather than the hammering sound. Or, he may recognize that swinging a rigid object with similar force could cause the tower to fall, so he makes a practical choice.

Oliver uses occasional self-talk to guide his work. He removes a wooden piece from his pile of frames and says, “That” as he sets it on the floor, perhaps designating the start of a new structure (00:17). As he moves the second wooden piece into place, he says, “Like this” (00:25). Later on, he notes his surprise by saying, “Whoa!” when a wooden piece tips and does not align with the piece below (00:56).

Oliver knows about how the wooden pieces work. He carries the second wooden piece with “legs” extended (00:22) and ready to be inserted into the empty notches of the piece below. The wooden pieces can be stacked securely in either orientation – legs down or legs up. Oliver may assimilate the protruding “legs” to a chair or stool and thus orients them downward. He works to add a third level by seating one leg and then wiggling the wooden piece until the other three legs shift into place (00:38-00:44). Oliver notes his progress as he steps back to observe the tower (00:44-00:46), before reaching for another wooden piece.

The size and inter-locking design of the wooden frames enable Oliver to build quickly. Soon his efforts yield a tower that is taller than he is. Oliver raises a wooden piece above his head and stands tall in order to add it to the top. Although the wooden piece stays in place and does not fall, Oliver knows the placement is not quite right. He says, “I need the stool for that” (01:43). Oliver removes the wooden piece and again says, “I need a stool for this” (01:46). At the beginning of the video, Oliver labeled the collection of wooden pieces “the tower” and did not object to their unaligned configuration. Here, he applies different rules.

The teacher (holding video camera) encourages peer collaboration. She works to help Tommy (off camera) gain entry into the play by saying, “Do you want to bring that (stool) to Oliver? He needs it for the tower” (01:55). Oliver says, “I do want this,” and he positions the stool beside the tower (02:01). Tommy adopts the strategy of helping as a way to participate in Oliver’s play. He brings another wooden piece over to the tower and sets it down close by Oliver’s reach (02:10).

Oliver stands on the stool with the tower nearly eye-level. He begins to lift the wooden piece (02:22) but then pauses and looks at the top of the tower (02:24). Next, Oliver works to orient the piece by rotating it mid-air (02:26) and adjusting his grip (02:31) before adding it to the top of the tower (02:33). As Oliver stands eye-level with the tower he likely observes the recessed contours along the edge. He understands that the empty notches will be filled when he adds another wooden piece. Like solving a puzzle, Oliver searches the piece in his hand for the protruding parts (legs) that will fill the empty notches. He shows resourceful planning by orienting the “legs” correctly ahead of time. Oliver minimizes the physical effort required to lift and set the wooden piece in place, thereby assuring his success.

Tommy announces his friend’s accomplishment by saying, “Tower” (02:41). Protective of his work, Oliver cautions Tommy by saying, “Don’t knock it, down” (02:43). With Tommy as his audience, Oliver may feel inspired, and he says, “I can do more” (02:46).

Tommy may want to share in his friend’s success as he says, “Tower, tower, high!” (02:51). Oliver begins taking the wooden frames down (03:00). When Tommy tries to help by grasping a piece, Oliver says, “It’s not done yet. I’m climbing this down” (03:16).

Tommy hopes for a turn playing with the wooden frames and picks up a seemingly discarded frame from the floor. Oliver says, “No, mine” (03:21). Each boy conveys that he wants to play with the wooden pieces, and they have a back and forth exchange saying, “It’s mine.” A frame piece passes close by Tommy’s head as Oliver carries it away. Tommy likely feels frustrated and says, “Ow!” (03:32).

Oliver continues taking down the tower and piling the wooden frames off to one side. Tommy gets closer to the action by sitting on the stool beside the tower (03:41). Oliver may work to maintain control of the play as he narrates his actions by saying, “It’s not down. It’s down. It’s down” (03:43). Tommy acknowledges Oliver’s goal and affirms his progress by saying, “It’s down!” (04:02).

From watching children of this age build with blocks, we know that they usually either build a tower or dismantle a tower. Oliver could have built a new tower using the frames he was dismantling from his completed tower. But such a strategy of un-building in order to build requires a slightly more complex way of thinking. Each frame would have to be treated as simultaneously the one I don't want and the one I do want. It is clear that Oliver was treating the frames as parts that he no longer wanted on his tower.

We also wonder why he did not pause to admire this rather impressive tower that he had made. Does building and un-building come from the same mental place in the young child's mind that drives them to fill a cup with small objects, dump it out, and fill it up again? We need to understand the purpose of these seemingly ritualized oscillations between two end states; a back and forth that by adult standards seems isolated from a sensible goal such as filling a cup and then carrying the contents to another location. Perhaps children engage in these ritualized actions as a way to define the boundaries of this action scheme, a purely structural motive rather than a functional motive. Such encoding of an action scheme eventually allows the child to engage in higher ordered actions, such as building at the same time that he is dismantling.