Jumbo Foam Building Blocks

Part of Exhibition: Building Curiosity- Making a new museum

Case Study

of an Exhibit

by Dave Stroud

Published on May 16, 2014, Modified on May 17, 2014

  • Museum: Museum of Natural Curiosity atTthanksgiving Point Focus: Other

  • People who worked on this: Blake Wigdahl, Dave Stroud, George Pechmann, Nina Santos, Trent Bowman

  • My role: I conceived of the idea with Blake Wigdahl, devised a fence for the band saw, and assigned the actual fabrication to junior developer Nina Santos - she was willing to complete this really messy job!

  • Description and goals

    Five hundred identical jumbo foam blocks cut from 4 inch thick rigid foam insulation are the sole components of what surely ranks among the most engaging exhibits I have had the pleasure of developing. Guests often build for longer than 20 minutes (some much longer!) and through observation, share ideas and techniques with one another. And the fact that it cost under $1000.00 and was assembled by my part time staff just makes it that much better.

    Guests of our temporary gallery build with the the giant blocks. Obvious structure and rules to the play emerge. Time lapse cameras reveal a steady stream of guest activity- often playing in parallel, and sometimes cooperatively. Simple structures, complex structures, arches, bridges, steps, structures families can get inside! The variety of structures is delightful. Some guests and groups proudly leave intact structures behind.

    Construction is periodically punctuated with a crash like a bowling alley in an earthquake. This demolishion is an important part of the activity stream, and announces the return of previously claimed blocks back into active play. There are many periods where all structures are down and play ends.

    Intergenerational activity flows naturally from this exhibit. One reason is simply that tall structures need tall participants. But it is fascinating to watch a very young child begin a structure, and how older players are “sucked in.” Whole families can work/play together, just as our mission statement intends.

    This exhibit is not particularly attractive when it is stored in stacks, it simply does not look like anything, however it is captivating when in active use. I think the identical blocks are a beautiful feature of this exhibit, and that this constraint encourages more of the type of play intended, but i also encourage experimentation. I consider 4" foam itegral to the design. Big structures come quickly from big blocks!

    It is worth noting there is not a single explanatory graphic in this exhibit. Guests simply confront the blocks and either begin playing, learning, copying from, and building upon one another’s ideas in the the thirty foot by thirty foot zone (30′ × 30′), or they don’t.

    The jumbo blocks were developed largely as an inexpensive, large exhibit for an extremely temporary show in the temporary gallery in the new Museum of Natural Curiosity in Lehi Utah, but they have quickly proven to be one of the most powerful exhibits i have participated in developing. It is fantastic to watch such a simple idea and materials hold its own in the sea of competing expensive and elaborate exhibits. It may also be that the exhibit is more successful due to this juxtaposition.

    Hold times of 20 minutes or more are common and this is likely due to the transactive nature of the exhibit. We currently have over 2,000 guests daily, which i am certain influences activity, and I look forward with interest to seeing if/how fewer users affects use.

    I am happy to have finally developed an exhibit which I feel is a true contribution to the transactive genre. (i will bet i am actually not first though…)

    i encourage you to try the Jumbo Foam Blocks exhibit for yourself! Here is how we made them:
    the aspect ratio of the blocks is: 1 × 2 × 4
    the dimensions are: 4″ × 8″ × 16″
    there approximately 500 blocks

    the 4" foam is 3m Foamular 260 and was purchased in 4′ × 8′ sheets from Home Depot

    260 is the densest, but longest lasting foam

    While numerous ways could be devised to cut the blocks, I simply created a fixture for the band saw and we ripped the material. The fixture consisted an eight inch fence combined with a partial sheet set as a runout table.

    It turns out this is a stock item, but you may need to contact Home Depot’s local warehouse directly… it is always a PIA to do anything out of the ordinary with HD, but stick it out, the blocks are worth it!!

    blocks wear quickly, somewhat messily – based on user traffic and style- may be considered consumable (current traffic about 2,000 guests in museum/day. i assume wear will decrease as traffic declines after opening. my original goal was to create an exhibit for a five week run)

    Many thanks to Paul Tatter, Karen Wilikinson, and Mike Petrich, for turning me on to this way of thinking about exhibits (and stuff in general) and my many other museum friends for helping me learn notice ideas as they come along. Thanks also to my staff Nina Santos, Trent Bowman, George Pechmann and Collin Walsh for all your hard work on this and other ideas, and of course my bosses Mike Washburn and Blake Wigdahl – particularly for letting me spend some money on a crazy untested idea!

  • Exhibit Opened: May 2014

  • Location: Lehi , UT, United States

  • Estimated Cost: Less than $5,000 (US)

Latest Comments (3)

Nice and Simple

by Eric Siegel - August 13, 2014

Amazing it took people like David Rockwell and David Stroud to remind us the building with blocks is awesome. We have had the rockwell blocks at NYSCI for a long time, we helped Rockwell prototype, and they are a nice, if slightly upscale and significantly more expensive, variation on this theme. Two things that are good about Rockwell’s blocks is that they are made for outdoors which is very cool, and that they have interesting and subtly provocative shapes. They also last for about a year of pretty heavy use before they start to disintegrate. Not sure exactly what they are made of.

Thanks so much for posting this Dave!

Flame Retardant

by Jason jay Stevens - August 13, 2014

“blocks wear quickly, somewhat messily”
Insulation foam is made of styrene treated with a bromide flame retardant. This chemical is regarded persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic, and, like BPA, has become a chemical of concern for various regulatory agencies around the world.
And it’s in everything! A lot of our furniture and a lot of stuff made for babies–from toys to linens–has it. So right now it’s legal and we’re all extensively exposed.
There are higher density styrene foams you can get from industrial suppliers (imagination playground sets use a high density foam they say is biodegradable–there are styrenes in nature afterall). Colors aren’t a standard option, particular tooling is necessary to get clean cuts, plus the only thing more expensive to ship than foam is air. So the drawback is $.
I have memories from preschool of playing with cardboard boxes decorated to look like bricks. That was a long time ago!

Krazy Kat

by Jason jay Stevens - August 14, 2014

Loaves of stale corn bread…the perfect alternative!

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