Building Abstract Understanding Concretely

Recently the grade one students at Elizabeth Rummel School embarked on a research project exploring what our town has and what it needs to make it better. In discussions with grade one teachers, we talked about the idea of maps as abstract ideas that are challenging for young students to understand. Because the project was multidisciplinary, we focused on the following outcomes:

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 8.59.48 AM

Using Lego, the students worked in pairs to “build” the town of Canmore. Students brainstormed all the important places in town, and then each group was assigned a building to construct, working from a photograph.


As students completed their buildings, they placed them on a large map of the town. Building locations were identified with yellow sticky notes, so that students would know where to put them.

We decided not to worry about the scale of the buildings but focused more on shape and detail. Once we started putting buildings on the “map,” we could see that we were running out of space in the downtown area, so we created a second, enlarged map of Main Street.

It was interesting to see the different levels of  abstract understanding and building ability.

One boy pointed to a spot on the map and said, “That’s where my grandpa lives.” When I asked him how he knew, he identified the traffic circle (the only one in town) that was nearby. Some students were very challenged with handling Lego and building a likeness of a real structure. Others put a lot of effort into showing the details in their building. Two young builders went to great lengths to get the roof pitch, tower, and sign on Boston Pizza just right.


Once the town began to take physical shape, a level of excitement developed. When two young students placed the Safeway store on the map, they said, “We need to add the parking lot.” Then a student placed Lego pieces as shopping carts, “Because you need those if you’re going to shop at Safeway.”


We set up the town on tables in the Learning Commons and it created a buzz in the school. Students who came in browsing for books, stopped to take a look. The kindergarten classes were fascinated. We heard cries of, “There’s the toy store!” and “There’s the ice cream bus!


It was quite magical to watch students delight over the map of their town.


Once the map was completed, students created ebooks about their town using Book Creator, identifying three things the town has, and one thing it needs.

Some teachers felt that students needed more direct instruction around building techniques. Their concern was that some students already have a considerable amount of building experience while others have none. This is a question that teachers can certainly  research if this tinkering project happens again.

One question leads to another . . .

About sandralbecker

An educator who is passionate about the creation of a school Learning Commons, which supports inquiry, critical thinking, and collaboration.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Building Abstract Understanding Concretely

  1. My Kindergarten students were enthralled with the Lego version of our Town! I wonder if tinkering time with Lego prior to embarking on the creation of the Town would have deepened some students understanding of the first Science outcome “Construct model buildings and objects…”? This time could be considered as part of the research process. Thank you for sharing this age-appropriate, engaging project!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s