2020 Winter Block Champion – Lael Arango and the Great Explorations Children’s Museum STEAM Team


Imagination Playground is proud to introduce you to our Winter 2020 Block Champion, Lael Arango and the STEAM Team of Great Explorations Children’s Museum.  We congratulate them for their creative solutions in addressing the needs of schools, and helping to overcome museum access barriers for families and groups in the area.  In 2015 an outreach program was created to support the community by taking the museum experience out to where the need is greatest. In 2019 alone they took part in over 140 events, impacting more than 19,000 participants at schools, neighborhoods and communities throughout the Tampa Bay region. Lael and the STEAM team appreciate how much the kids LOVE Imagination Playground at these events, and express how rewarding it is when they see the children create and play together.

Here’s more from Lael Arango, Director of Creative Learning for Great Explorations Children’s Museum:

Tell us a little bit about your organization, and your role in your organization.

Great Explorations is an AAM-accredited children’s museum serving families of children aged 0-10. We’ve been around since the late 1980s and value our role as a community resource and a place for all children and families in the area.

I’m the Director of Creative Learning, which means that I support our gallery, field trip, outreach and school programming teams to develop and deliver content that is memorable, unique and engaging and that aligns with state and national standards as well as with our mission to stimulate learning through creativity, play and exploration.

How long have you had the Big Blue Blocks?

We have had the Blue Blocks for about six years.

What was the decision making process to bring the Blocks to your organization?

We were looking for an activation that involved loose-parts play, appealed to visitors of all ages and was flexible enough to fit into our ever-changing floor plan.

Tell us a little bit about how you use the Blocks in your programs to support your mission.

We use Blue Blocks in so many ways! They usually sit right inside the entrance to the museum and even without specific, facilitated programming they support our mission. Specifically, though, we use them:

  • with our onsite preschool for gross motor activities like climbing, balancing, and whatever their little bodies can come up with (they make seesaws, train tracks, motorcycles, and more!) *with science activities like slinky ramps and making models.
  • with math activities like measuring and symmetry 
  • with art explorations of things like negative space and shadows or scale (using small blocks and big blocks)
  • with creative challenges like creating machines to do certain tasks or building shelters for different environments. 
  • with team building activities with our staff, our board and with other non-profit teams. Our favorite is a small group design and build relay in which each round of building relies only on verbal communication OR moving the blocks together without speaking. The end result is supposed to be something that tells a story or makes a statement. Then the small groups travel to the other groups to interpret their builds. It’s not only a great communication and collaboration exercise, it’s fast-paced, thought-provoking and FUN!
  • with an annual adult fundraiser called the Ex Games – we build a wall of sorts and put cards on the different levels. Participants use nerf guns to play giant blackjack, knocking down cards to get as close to 21 as they can without going over
  • at community events we use the blocks outside to encourage outdoor play, imagination and safe risk-taking. For themed events we provide prompts like building an igloo, a mode of transportation or even a tiny house!
  • during a monthly program for adults with memory loss we put small blocks on each table and for free “fidgeting” time and also provide prompts like, “build a pumpkin,”  “build a flower,” or “design a firework.”
  • we use the Small Blue Blocks at marketing/tabling events to represent the museum’s mission and philosophy as well as to show one of our exhibits on a really small scale!
  • we take the Smalls to almost every community event we go to. We use them with other unique building materials to encourage design thinking
  • and more!
What is your favorite thing about the big Blue Blocks?

I think the Blue Blocks represent the museum more than most other exhibits we have – they are different every time you visit, they are appropriate for all ages and you will often see a crawler, a preschooler, a 4th grader and adults all playing with them either together or in parallel, they are dynamic throughout the day as different visitors start projects and others join in or take over an abandoned structure and turn it into something completely different. They are open-ended and intuitive, requiring 0 instruction or facilitation, but they are also great for facilitated experiences. To me, the blocks encapsulate our mission and philosophy of learning beautifully.

“This picture is my all-time favorite. It’s a model of the water cycle created by a group of 4th grade students at a science festival.”
-Lael Arango
What is the biggest challenge with the Big Blue Blocks?

The biggest challenges are logistical things like rotating them through deep cleaning so we don’t have to take the whole set off the gallery floor at one time. Or getting our traveling set on and off the trailer at different community event set ups (they are big and can be cumbersome if you can’t park near the set up site). We are also challenged when kids or adults use them as weapons either literally by hitting others or throwing them, or figuratively by building guns and swords and pretending to shoot them or fight with them. Honestly that’s a challenge with almost any interactives we have and our top-notch gallery team does a great job of redirecting those behaviors.

What would you tell someone that was considering buying the Blocks?

They are a great investment with unlimited uses in a museum or other educational or recreational setting. Try to get somewhere to see them in action. They only come to life when you see people using them!

Is there anything else you want to share about yourself or the Blocks? 

Just as the Blocks inspire creativity, flexible thinking and collaboration in visitors who play with them, they also inspire the same in the staff. We are constantly coming up with new ways to use them with constituents of all ages! Don’t bog down in worry about cleaning them or keeping kids safe on them. They are easy to clean and kids need to take the measured risks that the blocks allow for. They are a very easy activation to have and they provide rich, robust experiences beyond imagination. They are magical!