I teach an exploratory class for middle school students in robotics. The students rotate between robotics and some other electives during each quarter of the year, and there are no grades - just an opportunity to learn something interesting while doing. I like the no grades part, particularly because assessing progress in robotics is quite hard to do. My usual model is saying you get x points for doing the bare minimum (a D) and then incremental increases in the grade for doing progressively more challenging tasks.
It works, but I really like getting the opportunity to not have to do it. There are so many things you could measure to assess the students in their building and programming skills, but in my experience, the students don't tend to explore or tinker as much in that situation.
There weren't any instructions to do this - he just started putting things together, liked what he had created, and continued building it today.
I had to stop myself for a moment because teacher Evan started to come out and remind him to stay on task and contribute toward his team's solution to the challenge. Thankfully robotics Evan intervened and let it happen.
This is an exploratory class. It's supposed to expose the students to new situations that might interest them later on. Why in the world would I stop the exact sort of thinking and exploring the class was designed to provoke? It also turned out that this student, along with the other two in the group, were all taking turns in the programming and building so that each would have a chance to play in this way. In spite of their taking time to free build, this group actually solved the three challenges before the rest in the class.
It connects to a great TED talk on doodling by Sunni Brown. One idea from her talk was that doodling contributes to "creative problem solving and deep information processing." I think that these students (and all of us that 'play' with building toys like LEGO) are engaging in a similar process by free building. The connections students are making in figuring out how the tools work through play are not easy to measure. This is a horrible reason not to provide them time to do so. I do think there is an interesting connection between the tendency of these students to play and their ability to figure out the subtler parts of the class challenges.
After all, as David Wees pointed out, giving explicit step-by-step instructions on how to use creative tools like LEGO takes the creativity (and much of the fun) out of it. There has to be time to experiment and learn by doing how the tools work together, and that's exactly what this student was doing.
My final reaction during the class today was that I told them all that I wanted to take a picture of every off-topic LEGO design they create. Document it all. If it's cool enough to engage you for the time it takes to create it, I want a gallery of those designs to celebrate them.
The sad part? This made some of them stop. I can't win!