Sunday, June 11, 2006

Speed Stack Mania

I help run the Suzuki Valhalla Institute, a week-long summer music workshop for Suzuki families. Last summer I came up with two fun optional activities for families to participate in during their spare time. One was a sort of community treasure hunt, the other a collaborative art & ideas project that took shape in the lounge area during the week. I've been trying to come up with some different ideas for this year.

A couple of weeks ago I heard, on a parenting message board, about Speed Stacks. They're plastic cups (special ones, just the right size, and with holes in the bottom) that are used in sets of 12 to stack in a variety of pyramidal arrays. It's a wacky fad-like thing that has taken many school phys. ed. programs by storm, not so much in Canada, though it's apparently starting here too, but all over the US. I was hearing from parents how much their kids loved stacking, and how much fun it was. I wondered if it might be a kind of fun novelty activity to have available in the lounge area at the Suzuki Institute.

I bought four Speed Stack sets, one for each of my kids, to try them out. I am amazed. The kids, Erin and Sophie especially, have taken to them in a huge way. They have spent hours and hours a day with them. They took them to soccer yesterday and also showed them to some friends who were over for a visit, and they were completely taken with them as well.

For my kids learning to stack quickly and efficiently was an interesting lesson in learning styles. They were very aware of the different options for learning (verbal instructions read from the instruction booklet, enhanced by diagrams, visual guidance in the form of the accompanying DVD, and hands-on trial-and-error). Each of my kids preferred to start with one strategy, and they all found different paths to mastery. Temperament issues have been at the fore as well. Noah preferred to watch and then practice in private. Erin delved in with single-minded, almost obsessive repetitiveness. Sophie jumps in when there are two or more other kids working with cups and chatting and laughing. Teaching Fiona the 3-6-3 stack was a great exercise for the older kids in breaking things down into their simplest components and communicating and instructing in ways that allow for mastery.

Erin has been frustrated by how rusty her skills get after even a short break. After an hour of stacking, her time for the complete cycle is in the range of 15-17 seconds, but after lunch or the next morning, she's back to 24 seconds and has to work her way down again. So we've had some discussions about how physical skills usually require consistent daily work over a period of time to gel securely, and how warming up really is necessary to reach optimal efficiency. These are of course things she should understand from practicing violin and piano, but sport stacking makes it very easy to quantify and examine these effects in a tangible way.

Neurologically Sport Stacking has all sorts of things to recommend it. It involves hand-eye co-ordination and speedy reaction time, and the movements, when done 'correctly', cross the midline repeatedly in three dimensions, something which BrainGym research has shown improves learning. For a bunch of young string players who have to do a lot of learning and lateralized movements, these seem like worthy side benefits.

Mostly I was interested in the social aspect, the novelty and the fun. The cups seem to be winners on all three fronts. I had to play the heavy and get Sophie to put her cups away yesterday at soccer because the kids were all losing interest in the soccer game!

My kids are now talking about using their pooled allowance money to purchase a "stack mat" with a regulation timer.

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