Great ideas grow through the years until suddenly, the perfect time and place arrives for them to reveal themselves. One such spot opened in Benicia on November 13, after brewing in the owner's mind for a while. It was based on more than a decade of working with children and observing the way they played with Lego toys. She saw the incredible layers of learning hidden in such simple blocks of plastic.
Fary Koh, owner/founder of BrickSpace, has a strong academic background which led her so perfectly to this current venture. After graduating from Michigan State University, her first job put her Masters of Education to good use. At UC Berkeley, she managed Academic Support Services for the 5,000 students living in the residence halls.
Following that, she created a much sought after enrichment program for twelve years in her Benicia home, providing after-school and summer programs. She began collecting Lego sets and grew her supply through the years. She noticed how the kids responded to the toys. For some, it was the first thing they played with as they arrived, and the last toy being used before they left. She saw all the skills being discovered, and has always felt kids will learn if they are engaged, challenged and supported.
She realized how Lego sets transformed the children, amazed by the ability to build, play independently, cooperate with friends and create a big city with a movie theatre, pet shop and school. All the by-products of a good Lego session (teamwork, confidence, imagination and challenge) were revealed like gifts buried in the bricks.
Because of this, she felt there was a glaring need to use these items to teach math, science and engineering skills. She is a big fan of hands-on learning and finds Lego toys to be great teaching devices. After doing extensive research on the value of using tactile methods, she was ready to face this new challenge and opened the learning center.
The natural name became “BrickSpace,” a nod to the successful program she ran in her home for so many years, called “Kidspace." Here, children are engaged, a word which completely sums up Fary’s vision.
Benicia’s one-of-a-kind concept is located at 418 East Military, where the magic takes place. Friend and colleague Barbara Combs is the Curriculum Director responsible for lesson plans and teaching some classes. All instructors have credentials in education. There are birthday parties, drop-in play and semi-structured programs where engineering concepts are taught by using Lego sets as a tool. All of this is a mecca of fun for the kids, but parents love the wonderful skills picked up in this environment. Children build plastic block creatures which come alive through ‘child-vision’, and through their stories, you see it too.
Children of all ages will encounter exciting options:
- For the shy or first time builders. There is a ‘recipe.’ The list of ingredients has proper names for the varied sizes of bricks. The children retrieve pieces from the bins and with directions, they cook up a creature. As their confidence grows, they go off the grid and boldly build from memory, with daring colors and ‘outside-the-box’ beasts, machines or scenes. It is a victory each time and underneath it all, Fary is able to sneak in valuable skills: reading, following of directions, spacial thinking, new vocabulary, confidence, fine motor skills, etc.
- Birthday parties. A time of great fun where a bit of learning captures the guests between cake and presents.
- Build and Rebuild. Using an inclined plane, kids build cars which will most likely explode into pieces at the bottom. They are assured it is supposed to happen; this being the process used by engineers every day. Many concepts are unearthed in the valuable process of trial and error, and they figure out how to build a better vehicle. Second chances are treasured here and mistakes are a good thing.
- Drop-in play. There is a relaxed structure, but structure nonetheless.
- Themed classes. Jedi robes and light sabers scamper right alongside the busy project of building their training academy.
Through it all, the adults do not commandeer the playtime. No teacher is voicing thoughts on what will work or not work. They support, encourage and manage with a loose structure. The older kids are also encouraged to help mentor others, and working together is highly emphasized.
Fary bases each day on three very important cornerstones of a good program, “Concepts, Collaboration and Communication” (C-cubed! Pun fully intended!) Each child will hear at least three concepts, such as friction, gravity and inclined plane. They will be part of a team, working together to create something larger than themselves. At the end, they get to talk about it; being prompted to explain the process, what it does and telling a story about the piece. Here, they encounter public speaking skills and poise without even realizing it.
This is not just a business. It is more of a community center, where the outreach goes far beyond the property. BrickSpace will soon hold after-school classes at Mary Farmar Elementary, in a four week series called “Creative Challenges” for K-5th grade. Kids will be given a task such as building an ‘untippable’ wall. Engineering and physics will be alive and well during these afternoons, taught by an instructor from The Inventor’s Lab in Vallejo, a satellite of the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley.
The Vallejo High School Robotics program has been invited to hold a full day workshop at BrickSpace. Fary will funnel all proceeds to the team’s travel budget for competitions. Other daycare providers in Benicia also use this space to enrich the children in their care.
In addition, she plans to develop a Girls-Only workshop to encourage the exploring of interests in science and technology. This harks back to her time at UC Berkeley, when she created a living and learning program to support Women In Science and Engineering.
"What matters most is that everyone has a good time in the place she has created,” said colleague Barbara Combs.
Fary tells the kids to, ”have fun, be kind and supportive," and jokes, "please, don’t take any Legos home!”
She has been so grateful to receive immense support from the community, regarding donations and volunteers who painted and helped in getting the place ready. She welcomes suggestions, donations of even more Lego sets, and of course, would love to have your child experience the benefits and skills she offers. There are holiday classes, birthday parties and drop-in play.
“Everyone is welcome here. Twelve years of bricks are ready and waiting. They are wrapped in years of good karma and love.”
For rates and times, here is the link. http://www.brickspacebenicia.net/brickspace.html