Get your pupils ready to learn with Rombi

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Focused: By using the Rombi puzzle blocks pupils are able to ready themselves for their day's learning (all images: Access 1st)

The innovative wooden blocks of the Rombi puzzle help to sharpen minds and alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety – thus getting pupils ready to learn. Emma Lee-Potter discovers an innovation 20 years in the making...

When Penny Georgiou began working with dyslexic students two decades ago she never imagined she would go on to create an innovative new teaching and learning aid for children aged seven and up.

The Rombi puzzle is a set of 16 or 36 wooden cubes and comes with a series of exercise sheets showing users how to construct complex patterns with the blocks.

Suitable for all ages, the blocks can be used in mainstream primary and secondary schools, special schools, at home and in the workplace. The aim is that using the blocks in the classroom will help to sharpen minds and alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety – thus getting pupils ready to learn.

“They optimise spatial awareness and perceptual functioning, improving pupils’ physical and mental coordination,” explained Ms Georgiou, who is a psychoanalyst and director of Access 1st, a London-based Disabled Student Allowance assessment centre.

“They aid focus and help pupils to relax, promoting wellbeing and lesson readiness. They also support cognitive functions, memory, attention and the organisation of ideas.”

The Rombi story began in the late 1990s when Ms Georgiou was an admissions manager at Middlesex University. She was asked to set up the university’s dyslexia support service – co-ordinating support, developing policy according to students’ needs and placing dyslexic and dyspraxic students with one-to-one specialist tutors.

“Things went so well in many directions but I gradually realised that there was a trick we were missing,” she said. “Even with good tutors, students’ anxiety levels were high, their organisation of ideas was poor and many of them were forgetting what they had been taught from one week to the next.”

After attending a series of conferences Ms Georgiou had what she calls her “lightbulb moment”. She realised that many of the students she worked with struggled with the concept of spatial awareness. This is a complex cognitive skill – the ability to see and understand two or more objects in relation to each other and to oneself. The skill comes naturally to most children but some youngsters have difficulty with it.

When Ms Georgiou talked to students with dyspraxia and/or dyslexia, for instance, some told her how they often bumped into lamp-posts and doorways, while others struggled with distinguishing right from left and vice-versa.

Ms Georgiou also came to the conclusion that structured hand play is integral to children’s development and their learning how to put ideas into practice. With this in mind, she hit on the idea of the Rombi blocks as a way to help people of all ages improve their spatial awareness.

She began the project by commissioning a designer to create the blocks. He designed a box of small wooden rhomboid blocks with turquoise geometric shapes on them – triangles, quarter moons and vertical and horizontal lines. He also produced a series of pattern sheets for users to follow, with 54 patterns in the small set and 60 patterns in the big set. Patterns sheets are also available via download and can be used by teaching staff to create user-friendly classroom resources.

“The construction of Rombi prioritises spatial awareness as a basic component of perception,” she explained.

“This is as vital for effective learning and problem-solving as it is for physical dexterity. Perceptual (spatial) organisation determines how the mind coordinates cognitive functions, memory, attention, organisation of ideas, fine motor skills (hand-eye operations) and gross motor skills (walking or playing ball). Cultivating this mental and physical dexterity is vital for propagating the fertile ground through which our desires and aims flourish.

Ms Georgiou launched the Rombi puzzle (the name is inspired by a rhombus, a flat shape with four equal straight sides) in 2018 and schools are already using it.

She recommends that teachers initially work one-to-one with pupils, but as children grow in confidence they can work on their own. She also believes that teachers themselves find Rombi useful as a means to improve their wellbeing and lessen stress levels.

“In the process of structured hand play, the fingers and hands close around the blocks and children get tactile information about a point, a line, a plane and a solid – the four basic tenets of tangible geometry,” she said.

“If you’re a teacher watching individual children engage with it you can begin to see what each of them struggles with. Teachers can make Rombi part of their weekly practice. A lot of classroom behaviour issues will reduce because it de-escalates anxiety, reduces conflict and the children are able to express themselves in organised ways that demonstrate their intelligence.”

The pedagogical theories behind the Rombi puzzle are Ms Georgiou’s own, based on her more than 20 years of experience in specialist education.

“If you are doing a puzzle your mind’s ability to structure and organise larger and larger amounts of information without strain and drain increases,” she said. “There is a structural clarity that you develop. Essentially what I’m saying is that the blocks introduce the consistency of geometry so our minds have access to using the tools of geometry to put ideas into practice.”

Even though the Rombi is still fairly new, Ms Georgiou has already had positive feedback from users.

“One tutor told me she had given it to an autistic student who was in the second year of a foundation degree and had failed exams in January,” she said. “He had panic attacks every day and wasn’t expecting to go into his third year. Initially he thought he wouldn’t be able to do it but, once shown, he did the first puzzle in six minutes and after that he continued to do it incessantly. In June, he passed his exams with 56 and 72 per cent respectively.

“I’ve also seen that when people use Rombi for the first time and the mind has access to a physical experience through the hands, they develop organisation skills that they didn’t have before.

“A teaching assistant was working with a little girl who was generally in disarray, always forgetting her glasses and dropping things. Using these principles, the teaching assistant took her blocks to school and the little girl chose a puzzle to do. At the end of the class the teacher asked the teaching assistant: ‘What did you do with her?!’

“It was the first time the pupil had been able to sit still and receive a lesson and after that she went from strength to strength. I later learned that she’d had a diagnosis of mild autism.”

The testimonials on the Rombi website bear witness to its success too. One user said: “I was working with a student who was a school refuser with a range of extreme and complex emotional needs. I would see her for four hours in a local library with a brief to help her access core curriculum education – English, maths and science. It was apparent to me after a period of observation and evaluation that she had a latent ability significantly above the apparent and obvious.

“The difficulty from my point of view was to enable her to find a pathway through the emotional cloud that obscured her potential and discover the confidence to realise it. I introduced her to Rombi and within the week she was patiently setting her own challenges and demonstrating a level of concentration I had never witnessed before. This then established a pattern for each session, hugely improving her confidence and concentration.”

Ms Georgiou uses the Rombi blocks herself and says that she has seen the benefit too.

“I’m a capable person and I do everything on the basis of hard work, but using the blocks makes it possible to extend my horizons. I find that they help to reduce strain and I’m better able to conclude projects and move on to new ideas.

“I know that this is a small intervention but it’s one that has large effects. Personally, I think every teacher should have a Rombi on their desk. I know it works. In fact, it has worked beyond my expectations and its potential is amazing.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer.

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This article has been published by SecEd with sponsorship from Access 1st. It has been written and produced to a brief agreed in advance with Access 1st.


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