The George and Martha House: Engineering and Design in Early Childhood and the Power of Open-Ended Materials

“Children learn most readily and easily in a laboratory-type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves.”
— Simon Nicholson, in The Theory of Loose Parts

Beginning the Process

  • Planning concepts and core ideas
  • Planning physical environment
  • Planning social environment

The George and Martha House emerged unexpectedly, outside of any teacher-made plan. During the first weeks of the 2016-2017 school year, the teachers in Room 15 (Early Childhood Level) placed a collection of beads of different shapes and colors for the 5-year-old children to sort through, as an early math and community-building experience. The children took to the sorting, and it expanded to other materials, including recycled colored plastic rectangles with holes in each of the corners.

Inspired by the rectangles, Ms. Paul drilled holes into a wooden board and placed long rods through the holes for the children to slide the plastic pieces onto. The project ended up being more difficult than planned — the rods were unwieldy and threading them required more coordination and precision than we had hoped for. We were ready to scrap the whole idea, but the children had another plan. Left with the plastic pieces, as well as nuts and bolts to explore, the children began creating sculptures and creatures.

At one point, Kylie exclaimed, “Look, I made a hippo! It looks kind of like Martha,” connecting her work to the James Marshall George and Martha stories we had been reading in class. She drew a pink flower and added it behind Martha’s ear. From there, Noa made George, complete with his gold tooth. Other children started to make couches, tables and other pieces of furniture for their hippo friends.

From a failed art project emerged a new venture, led completely by the children.


  • Assessing and building background knowledge
  • Learning Experiences
  • Questioning
  • Identifying, accessing, and evaluating resources
  • Sensemaking / demonstrating conceptual knowledge
  • Reflecting / Refining
  • Informing teaching and learning

Now that we had our characters and all this furniture, the children wanted to create a house to put them in. Having recently introduced the engineering process, we encouraged the children to push forward their idea by making a plan.

A small group of children worked together to draw a blueprint for the house. They spoke about the different rooms of a house, and made plans for what George and Martha would need and where it would go.

The George and Martha House connected naturally to the other work we were doing in the classroom, across several subject areas. For example, inspired by the blueprint, the teachers created math number stories that asked students to determine the number of windows and doors they would need for their house. The project fit beautifully into our science conversations about living and non-living things and what living things need to survive and be comfortable. It also connected to our study of weather, as we discussed how we could build a house that would protect George and Martha from the elements. Additionally, it provided a meaningful context for the students’ emerging engineering skills. And during our writing workshop unit on labels, lists and letters, the children began making lists of the various items they would need for their house, yet again applying skills learned in class to a project of their own.

After the blueprint had been made, the children got to work creating the house using cardboard, glue, tape and other materials. Before building, they researched dollhouses and decided to leave one wall off so that they could play in their creation once they had finished it.

As the children built, they came across many problems to solve:

How do get the cardboard to stand up?

How will we make the pieces stick together?

How can we measure to make sure everything is the right size and height?

How do we make a stable staircase?

Through experimentation, collaboration, and perseverance, the children built their house.

Once we had the framework of the house, the children got to work filling it with furniture and other materials. Some children began to draw items on paper and cut them out. Then we realized as teachers that the students were having difficulty turning their 2-dimensional plan into 3-dimensional objects. So in order to give them practice thinking about design, scale, and dimensionality we proposed a project: creating a miniature version of the Room 15 classroom out of blocks, manipulatives and various materials. This connected beautifully to our big ideas for social studies for the year, “self” and “community.” We mapped out our classroom on the rug and divided the classroom into committees. In their teams, the children built furniture out of blocks and added details based on close observation of their classroom environment.

Application of Knowledge

  • In-depth projects
  • Solving problems, designing solutions
  • Going public, sharing information
  • Taking action

Now that the children had the shared experience of miniaturizing the classroom, we applied the process to finishing the George and Martha House. Again we formed committees to create the following parts of the house: Attic, Bedroom, Bathroom, Living Room and Kitchen.

In their committees, the children visited the mini iSTEAM Lab, which is our school’s interdisciplinary maker space, where they planned and researched their next steps. The children looked closely at James Marshall’s books for inspiration, and answered their other questions through trips to the library. In each committee, the students found opportunities to apply their knowledge of engineering and of pushes and pulls, whether through lighting a room or creating window shades.


Alongside working in their committees the children created their own clay George and Martha statues to live inside the doll house.

Finally, we brought the project back to where it all started: the George and Martha stories. The children wrote their own stories about George and Martha, based on everything they had learned throughout the year.


  • Making learning visible
  • Using documentation to inform practice

Documentation is a crucial part of the inquiry process at UCLA Lab School. Through collecting photos, videos, conversations, and other artifacts from the classroom, both teachers and students are able to revisit and revise their work, think more deeply, and self reflect. This year in Room 15 we wanted the children to be more actively involved in documentation as a way of making sense and reflecting. We introduced the children to this concept by connecting to the sketchbooks they had been working in since the beginning of the school year. We gave the children a special documentation tool: a clipboard. Then we divided the class, asking one half to play while the other half recorded what they saw. The children wrote and drew all they observed: people, objects, conversations and the classroom environment.

We saw the documentation practice as an opportunity for students to engage more deeply in not only their own work but also the work of their peers. We introduced the iPhone as another tool with which the children could take photographs and videos. With the children we generated questions to help elicit thinking and conversation from their subjects. Some of the questions included:

What are you doing?

How did you do that?

How do you feel? Is it fun? Is it challenging?

In their George and Martha committees, the children took turns documenting their group’s work.

We then shared the work through displays in the classroom and shared spaces of the school.

And now we are sharing our work with you!