Fourth Grade Play-to-Learn: Colonizing the Block Room

Well, it’s the New York State math test this week, so I signed up for the block room again.

This time it’s a little different though. We’ve just started learning about colonial America. On Monday we looked at a painting of the Speedwell, talking about the people and the journey they were about to make, and the story the painting might be telling. That got us talking about how a group of people might need to set things up when they get to a new place that’s totally unfamiliar, lacks the resources they’ve come to take for granted, has resources they might not know how to use, and is home to very unfamiliar people.

This is about when my own personal line of inquiry about learning through play popped into my head. Of course history provides wonderful content that can be accessed through play. I had been thinking with my grade-level colleagues about how to make the beginning of the study feel more active and exploratory- more of a way to stimulate curiosity. I had already signed up for the block room several weeks ago, and it just seemed like a perfect match.


This is the very beginning of our study, so kids still have very little knowledge about pilgrims, colonists, New Amsterdam vs. New Netherland vs. New York as a colony, not to mention any of the other colonies. Over the course of the two weeks in the block room, we’ll be learning more content in the classroom. We’ll be reading lots of books, watching videos, looking at art and other kinds of documents from the time period.

Meanwhile, in the black room, we’re building a settlement.

On the first day we looked at some books and thought about what a group of pilgrims would need in order to get started. Kids agreed on these things:

  • homes
  • a meeting hall
  • a church (they thought that since they were willing to make this journey for religious freedom, their religion must be very important to them)
  • a garden and farming area
  • access to natural resources, such as water, animals to eat, and wood
  • protection
  • food preparation and storage

We split into groups and went to the block room to allocate space.

On Day 2 groups just read and started to draw plans. I noticed some assumptions and misconceptions. (Some kids referred to a place to keep ice, assuming it would always be available, for example). I heard the ‘homes’ group having a debate about wood vs. brick homes. They found pictures of both in our collection of books. This made me realize that I need to create a visual timeline with the students so they can see how daily life changed between 1610 and 1778, and also when significant historical events happened.


References to prison, court, and the slave trade are telling me we’ll need to spend some time looking closely at the ugly side of our country’s beginnings.


We might have to do research about when domesticated animals came on the scene.


A plan to make a fort with cannons might be a longer time after early pilgrims arrived than kids think.


Garden and farming area


Creating the meeting hall and other community buildings


Creating a mini-village to show how the surrounding fence works


Building the church

As kids play in this way, they’re feeling an urgency to know more about the subject of their play. They have asked to bring the books back and forth to the black room so that they can research right away when questions arise.


This group was working with a way to make use of natural resources. They learned that running water provided energy to grind grains and cut wood, so they are creating mills for the rest of the settlement.

I’m eager to see how this shapes up.



5 thoughts on “Fourth Grade Play-to-Learn: Colonizing the Block Room

  1. Stephanie-
    I would love to hear how you organize the use of the block room at your school. Do students leave their projects after a session? Do other students have to work around standing projects? How do you organize who gets to use the block room when? Any explanation would be greatly appreciated 🙂

    • So teachers sign up for it in a google calendar, for a week at a time per class. For the Colonialism work, I was able to sign up for two consecutive weeks. Teachers can decide when and for how long they want to go to the block room during the week they have claimed. I went about 4 times a week for about 50 minutes to an hour.
      There are 6 rectangles taped off on the floor, and groups of kids get a rectangle to work in. I had students choose their own groups based on interest, and they came out pretty even. They have to build within the tape boundaries for the sake of safety, but two groups MAY join their rectangles if it makes sense and remains safe.
      At the end of the week (or two in my case) I had to plan for a solid hour for clean-up. I also enlisted some adults- a few paras were available, to help with clean-up. It can get noisy and unsafe easily!!
      So in a regular week, one class will have the block room from Monday to Thursday to build, and Friday to clean up.

      I hope this helps!

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