Saturday, November 28, 2015


Photo courtesy of Norm Brosterman
Peas-work, also called cork-work or “sticks and peas” was identified by some early authors as Froebel’s 19th gift in his invention of Kindergarten. It consisted of dried peas, softened in water before use, and pointed sticks or wires used to connect the peas into various structural forms. In the case of cork-work, small cubes or balls of cork were used in place of peas, but to the same effect. Peas-work could be viewed as a predecessor to Tinkertoys™.

As described by Norm Brosterman in Inventing Kindergarten, sticks and peas was particularly instrumental in Buckminster Fuller’s development of the geodesic dome. In Kindergarten, Fuller suffered from severe vision impairment and while the other students were making the kinds of rectilinear forms familiar to those who see, Fuller found inspiration in the triangular forms that gave greater strength. As Fuller described it years later,
“When the teacher told us to make structures, I tried to make something that would work. Pushing, then pulling, I found that the triangle held its shape when nothing else did…The teacher called all the other teachers in primary school to take a look at this triangular structure. I remember being surprised that they were surprised.” From the video “Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud,” Produced and directed by Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon (New York: Zeitgeist Films, 1996)
As described by Edward Weibé’s book The Paradise of Childhood,
“the material consists of pieces of wire of the thickness of a hair-pin, of various sizes in length, and pointed at the ends… As means of combination, as embodied points of junction, peas are used, soaked about twelve hours in water and dried one hour previous to being used. They are then just soft enough to allow the child to introduce the points of the wires into them and also hard enough to afford a sufficient hold to the latter.” Paradise of Childhood Quarter Century Edition, p. 264, Milton Bradley, Co., New York, 1896
The peas would then dry and harden again forming a lasting structure. For those wanting to experiment with peas-work, or to offer the benefits of peas-work to their children or students, dried peas softened in water, mini marshmallow bits, or cork balls can be used with toothpicks. In addition to making representations of concrete forms, sticks and peas can also be used to construct models of atoms and molecules in Chemistry. Styrofoam balls would also work, but I would avoid them as they are not likely to biodegrade before doing some damage to the environment.

Sticks and Peas was delineated by Weibé  as Froebel's 19th gift, and should be reserved for those students whose dexterity of hand and mind has been thoroughly developed by the earlier gifts. It requires a great deal of skill to manipulate the tiny balls and sticks into successful shapes.

Edward Weibé described one of the benefits of peas work in the greater permanence of the object created. As the child grows,
“It is no longer the incipient instinct of activity which governs the child, the instinct which prompted him apparently without aim, to destroy everything and to reconstruct in order to again destroy. A higher pleasure of production has taken its place not satisfied by mere doing, but requiring for his satisfaction also, delight in the created object––if even unconsciously––the delight of progress, which manifests itself in the production, and which can be observed only in and by the permanency of the object which enables us to compare it with objects previously produced.”
In this case, sticks and peas, Wiebé is describing what Froebel had called an “occupation.”

A reader from British Columbia alerted me that my quote from Matthew Crawford's first book, Shop Class as Soul Craft that was used as the opening to chapter one, was also explored thoroughly at the close of his new book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. The quote has now been used as the opening for one of his books and the closing of another, and I feel honored that my words have been used as bookends for this important point.
“In schools we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”
The basic assumption in schooling is that students are stupid and can be easily manipulated. The truth is that they are not. By the time they reach school age, they have already been deeply immersed in learning and have enough sense to distinguish between that which is contrived and wrongfully  presented in a game-like fashion, and relality. Some students are deeply engaged in playing the education game, and some are more resistant to it. But when ALL students are asked to do real things, like the creation of useful beauty, real, memorable and remarkable learning happens. It's why we need shop classes, music, the arts, laboratory science, physical education, hikes in the woods (along with serious classroom nature study), and to get kids out of the classroom doing real things.

The image used above is from Norm Brosterman's book, Inventing Kindergarten.

Make, fix, create, and incite others to learn likewise.


  1. I got to hear Buckminster Fuller back in 1970 or '71. He held a large group of people (including me) absolutely spellbound. In retrospect, it's interesting that he was invited to speak by the Art Department and not by the School of Architecture.

  2. I wish I had heard him speak. I did get to visit the only remaining remaining Dymaxion house at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. Fuller was pure genius.

  3. Please note that the photo of peas work you have here must be credited to me and my book, Inventing Kindergarten, or be removed.
    Norman Brosterman

  4. Norm, thank you for the reminder. I have made note in the blog.