Playing with paper strips, you can easily create the three basic geometric shapes: the circle, the square and the triangle. Using these three shapes, you can structure the space (two-dimensional or three-dimensional) through infinite combinations.
The same happens when children play with building blocks: using some shapes as modules, they build something in the space and structure it. As a full shape is formed, the empty space around it transforms as well and acquires a new meaning. Just think of the “emptiness” that represents a door or a window in a structure that represents a house: that empty space was there even before the construction of the house, yet it was not seen.
Playing and becoming familiar with these shapes, children can learn to recognize them in many different contexts: at some point, the circle, the square and the triangle will be “internalized” and become “concepts” (not connected to only one specific object).
Construction games activate a spatial, bodily and visual intelligence. During the playing process, many implicit questions arise, although not verbally formulated. What happens if I put this shape on top of this other? How many pieces can I add? Why does it fall? Which shape can I put inside this other one?
Our task as adults is to support and stimulate children researches, without giving them ready answers. Sometimes, expressing interest and curiosity will be enough; other times, a question or an observation will trigger a new significant process… but in another context, the same question could hinder the ongoing process. So what is the right choice? I think it can be found just empathically and carefully observing the child, also with the support of your theoretical knowledge of the developmental stages.
These basic shapes have got interesting specific characteristics relating to angles, edges, curvature and combinatorial possibilities. Each one reacts differently when explored, while through the repetition and accumulation of two or more ones, very complex structures can be created. That’s why this kind of playful research can offer a wealth of learning to all ages and different degrees of competence – from a pre-school to a design college.
Symmetry, for example, is a possible way of combining several elements together. It can be interesting to observe if and when children prefer symmetrical structures, if symmetry characterizes an individual style rather than a certain theme or play context. Again, before talking about symmetry as an abstract concept, it is important that children can “act” it concretely, on their own times.
The abstraction process needs a while to mature and feeds on many concrete experiences. At some point, it will happen that a certain quality (such as symmetry, the round or squared shape) which has been observed and manipulated in different real contexts, will be “abstracted”, not connected only to a specific real object: the concept is born and and we can give it a name.
In nature, there are many beautiful examples of modulated structures. As the designer Enzo Mari explains, the phenomena of nature are always organized according to a series of numerous equal elements which materialize in modular structures, variable according to elementary schemes until they form new modular units.
The most common example is the hive. But why are the cells of a beehive hexagonal? Of course I am not going to reveal the answer… the taste of research is yours! And please, do not reveal the answer to children, rather intrigue them.
Each shape effects us, producing a certain internal resonance, that is not counsciously identifiable or clearly describable in words. Through the human symbolic capacity, everything can become a symbol. However, the three basic geometric shapes (circle, square and triangle) represent a recurring archetypal symbols in human history, found in all times and in all cultures. In particular, first the circle and then the square spontaneously appear in the first drawings of children. Thus, we can say they belong to human nature, in a sense.
All this would open a very rich window… If you would like to take a peek through it, I recommend these little lovely books by Bruno Munari: “The circle”, “The square” and “The triangle”, published by Corraini Editions.
Enjoy your constructive exploration!