So few people seem to realize that everything’s designed. And until we get some good people telling the story, that’s probably going to continue to be the case. So I’d love it if there was a consciousness in the public mind that mathematics and reading and writing is not enough — you also need to learn how to do design. Because everything is designed, and the way our world exists around us depends on how well it’s designed.
We’d like every kid in America to have an experience of design by the time they are twelve and have the opportunity to study it in high-school if they want to.
The new wave of educational technology will leverage our greatest natural resource: the curiosity inherent in every child.
“I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” ~Thomas Edison
Full Immersion - Play With Materials
Place a glossy bright plastic toy and a pile of wood in front of a young child and I’m sure they will initially choose to play with the colourful toy. But typically not for long…
My son received a box of kindling for his sixth birthday, by special request. He wouldn’t even know what most people buy it for, neither would he have cared. As long as he had plenty of nails, a kid sized hammer, a ‘work’ room, he was the happiest birthday kid ever, just to have material to build with. He could almost even carry the box on his own - I think the substantial weight of his gift made it feel so much more impressive too.
Materials Inspire And Challenge Creative Thinking
We live in a world with materials all around us, they are the substance of everything we see and touch. As humans we have a unique ability to make things out of materials, an ability to design, an inherent drive to take materials and make something out of them.
Inspiration - the ability to stimulate creative thinking has many sources. One of which is the inherent nature of materials. Observe a child playing with ordinary materials which are new and unknown to them - they challenge what it can be used for, what they can do with it, sparking innovative ideas through play.
Exploring The Attributes Of Materials
I try not to waste my time buying many toys because they never hold their interest for long. But provide the kids with plenty of random materials or other media and substances and they will play fully immersed for hours … play-dough, clay, sand, water, paint, feathers, blocks, mud, rice, fabrics, marbles, charcoal, pastels, chalk. Anything that lets them be the creator and gives them freedom to choose and decide.
Experiencing texture, noise, weight, density of different materials and how they combine, pour, blend, mix, stack are exciting opportunities for open ended play. Setting up a canvas with paint brush and paint can already be too prescriptive, but paint poured in a large tray with no brushes may encourage further exploration.
Think: new ways to play with ordinary materials, media and substances, elements, components and ingredients = an immersive creative exploration experience.
Experimenting with substances changing from fine powder to gluggy mixtures which can further develop into dry set solids. Combining elements such as glue and paper to form paper mache paste. Observing ingredient transformation from liquid state to dry baked cupcake state. Rough prototyping, constructing and modeling develops naturally when children are provided with a new unfamiliar material and no instructions.
I’ve always been fascinated by materials science and have many design books on materials but I still have plenty left to discover myself too. As a designer I’m also naturally a hoarder (there’s always another use for something, or this is too cool to throw away) with plenty of random offcuts and cool stuff like electroluminescent panels or honey-comb structured non-woven fabrics floating around.
I recently found my box of fabric and leather samples that were once referred to for designing a jet interior but have since been fashioned into hammock slings for mini action figures, flags, catapults, tiny houses, secret spy wrist bands and the like. I often hesitate before throwing something away. A burst backrest pillow containing many thousands of tiny polystyrene balls, (much to my hesitation) was thrilling for the kids to play with. After creating match-box-car crash pits during their play they also discovered static electricity when they couldn’t brush it off. I know they will always encounter these learning discoveries during play, so it’s always worth the huge mess factor.
Some old rice flour was apparently just like ‘snow’ when my three year old found some spilled outside and stated “yes! winter has arrived!” even though we never get snow here, it was as good as snow to him so he claimed the entire bag full of flour to play with. He made some fascinating discoveries - one of which was creating perfect ‘stamp prints of his toy animals much better than sand does because of its very fine powder form compressing into picture perfect molds. He loved the clapping action to generate a fine mist of flour that floated away.
Paint is so tactile, thick and creamy to apply, but I think mixing the paints in their pots is sometimes more fun then the act of painting itself. Creating swirling rainbows of colours - transformation as they blend.
We have a magnetic construction toy which contains many marble sized ball-bearings. Apart from the fun of making and exploring connections with magnets, my boys are still fascinated with the way reflections move across every surface in unison when the sphere’s are grouped together, the sound, the feeling of the cold metal against the skin and when it warms to your body temperature you can’t let it go - it becomes a part of you.
There are many innovative materials being created and combined with new technology for various applications all the time - Ceramic Cloth, Translucent Concrete, Stone Paper or Electronic Paper to name just a few. Designer’s are often developing these materials, or are utilising them in a new innovative product. Designer’s also rely on new materials as a source of inspiration.
It’s been science week for my six old, so we’ve tried out a few simple experiments at home. The first stop is always a bottle of vinegar and some baking soda. I walked away but observed quietly, waiting for his expression as he generously poured them together into a bowl. He was astounded at the resulting reaction, surprised, worried and panicked with excitement as it overflowed onto the bench. We then moved onto cornflour and water and I left him for a good half hour, while hearing his excited announcements of his discoveries with the way the liquid/solid behaved as he played with the non Newtonian fluid.
Learning first hand through play how materials and substances can change their state or create reactions when combined is both exciting and memorable. Discovery always leads to more explorative how, why and what if questions.
Play To Learn
Materials surround us, everything is made of something - natural, processed, or manufactured. Providing children with opportunities to play and experiment with raw unedited materials and substances allows them to think creatively and develop their own idea’s of what they can do with it, what is can be used for, what it can become or transform to, how it behaves when we interact with it or when elements combine.
Children are often motivated deeply during their enjoyable fully immersed play experience, which means they are also more likely to remember. Fun open exploration creates a very efficient way of learning and storing away knowledge. They don’t need to know every detailed fact about non Newtonian fluids right now, but they have gained new information through their own experience that will help build new connections in the future.
It’s great to know my children now think flour is not just for baking with. They have discovered what else it can be used for by exploring with their creative ‘child’s mind.’ We just sometimes need to remind ourselves that there are no set rules or answers about what materials are for - they are just waiting to be played with in new ways.
Time To Notice The Little Things
Avoiding The Rush
Imagine a child wandering along through a bustling village market, an environment replete with a layered richness of noise, smell, textures, colours, for all our senses to soak up and experience. Or picture the CBD where it appears people are all going somewhere in a hurry and not even noticing what, or who, is around them anymore- taking everything for granted.
If you watch a child in any environment it’s fascinating to observe what they notice, what stops them in their tracks. Often we hurry them along from an apparent dawdling state, but they are in fact taking it all in. They notice the little things. Kid’s listen, learn, observe, think and question. They use all their senses and in a different way to us. They don’t want to be hurried along like adults in their busy, rushed lives. They want to stop to explore, to absorb, to discover as they go. Mini researchers quietly in action. They are interested in what’s new to them- experiences they want to understand.
We in contrast are often preoccupied, not stopping to take it all in- instead meeting deadlines while sometimes missing the obvious- that a ‘child’s mind’ would otherwise see. I try to let my kids slow me down and focus on the little things that can actually mean so much and are so easily forgotten or overseen.
Observation Skills For Innovative Thinking
Innovative thinkers must notice what needs a solution- the problem, before they can attempt to solve something. An ability to slow down a little and observe even familiar things with a fresh ‘child like’ mind.
In an earlier video post, founder of IDEO David Kelley speaks about the power of a ‘Child’s Mind’ and elaborates on having a mind that notices things that can be improved. Observation skills are valuable if we are to be innovative thinkers, but actually allowing the time to observe is something else all together.
We want our kids to have time to discover- while they still have the freedom to. They crave unhurried experiences to practice these observation skills, helping to understand what is around them and where they are. I hope my kids will take every opportunity they can to explore their world.
Pearls Before Breakfast
Time-pressured means making priorities- we know we miss out on some things. I hope you find time to read this widely circulated article from the Washington Post, if you haven’t already- it’s fascinating. In the context of a ‘child’s mind’, I don’t think it’s even relevant who the musician was, It’s just a wonderful example of how children can remind us what we’re missing out on. So when will kids get to experience these things? Sooner or later they too will be just as busy as we are…
The following is a summary of the original article.
A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Three minutes went by, and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.
A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk.
A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.
The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.
Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?
One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?
How Can Childhood Play Inspire Future Innovators?
I wrote a bit about Biomimicry in an earlier post. There are so many discoveries and inspirations to be found in nature, just being in the great outdoors provides a limitless array of things for children to explore and experience.
I read an article recently regarding research findings about children spending less time outdoors. Whatever the reasons, it makes me think about how the digital age has pulled us inside to our screens too. We can access the world from our devices, but just how many innovations occur from what we find sitting inside on the internet compared to what we find outside in nature?
Discovery = Inspired Learning
My three year old found a butterfly at a nearby park that had completed it’s life cycle and was lying on the grass. He was sad to learn it had died, but that emotion soon turned to excitement to be able to hold it, to look at it more closely than usual when they flutter off in fright. He took it home and I left him outside to play with it.
After several minutes he exclaimed with disbelief that his butterfly was like a ‘dart’ or paper plane. I watched him as he stood at the top of the steps and let it go. The butterfly with wings still spread, gently glided along just as if it was alive. We shared our surprise, a discovery I had obviously never made myself. My son pointed out the way the butterfly floated or glided along because of it’s shape. In his words he spoke of it’s delicate fine form which resembled the folds of a paper plane and the motion of gliding.
He was recalling previous experiences- memories, and relating them, in a way categorising information in his mind for future use. I think of it like an ‘inspiration bank’ that he can draw on at any time, similar to a designer connecting knowledge in many innovative ways.
Natures Design Inspiring Innovative Solutions
This butterfly experience made me recall an experience from my childhood, a wonder of nature’s design- helicopter seeds. Seeds from the Maple tree. What can these seeds teach helicopter’s about flying?
These wonderful ‘whirlybirds’ as some called them, are just begging to be played with. Designed to spiral delicately and gracefully down from tree tops to grow, they are also terrific fun collecting up piles of them to throw- like the delight of launching a paper plane over and over again.
My six year old often invents his own versions of paper planes, trying out different designs he folds himself, when an adult is not available to help construct pre-designed ones. It’s fascinating to observe his process of evaluating his own designs, refining and re-testing. It’s obviously more rewarding for him to be creative than following the instructions in a book.
I’ve always been curious how the famous Wright brothers as children played, and if anything inspired their interest in flight. Interestingly, I’ve since discovered they referred to a ‘toy’ given to them by their father which mimicked an early helicopter design, made from paper, bamboo, cork, and a rubber band. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke and then built their own. In later years they pointed to their experience with this ‘toy’ as the initial spark of their interest in flying.
I wonder how many other famous innovators started out this way- inspired as a child during play?
Children spending time outdoors opens up so much for them to discover and a lot of which we take for granted. We can never underestimate the learnings children have when simply mucking about outside. I did get a laugh recently before Easter when my three year old shouted out in excitement that he had discovered what he thought was an early delivery of easter eggs but were in fact huge mushroom-like fungi… I have never seen such wide eyes before!
Drawing - A Tool To Communicate Thoughts And Ideas
Children learn creative thinking skills by working from their imagination, developing and thinking through complex ideas. Drawing or sketching helps the mind to organise and communicate thoughts and visualise ideas. Children often draw from imagination where they create or invent things, or from memory- telling stories from remembered experiences.
The Not So Perfect Drawing
There are many talented artists that can draw perfect portraits, but it’s another skill to be able to quickly visualise thoughts generating a visual brainstorm of ideas. This is exactly how designers work- exploring many concepts, being divergent in thought before focusing in on the selected concept to refine.
The board-game Pictionary encourages something similar, getting players to think and draw quickly on the spot- taking the fear of ‘the perfect drawing’ away instead focusing on a sketched communication process. The new highly addictive and top selling App Draw Something is the digital age version of Pictionary. It isn’t always about how perfect the drawing is. Many of us worry about the quality of our drawing and refrain from using this fundamental skill, but if someone understands what your communicating through your sketch then you’ve succeeded. Confidence grows the more you practice and create conversation around drawing.
Critical Thinking And Story-telling
Young children love to explore paint, crayons, felts, any media combination they explore with excitement. There are no reservations about how accurate their giraffe looks, they know the line-for-the-long-neck does well at communicating that. Pictures tell a thousand words, and that is exactly why drawing is such a good method of story-telling.
Children typically have no inhibitions about their drawing skills, but as they grow older they become more sensitive to being judged and fitting in. Keeping their confidence alive with plenty of opportunities to draw without pressure or criticism helps develop this skill into a natural ability.
At our house we have loose paper, felts, crayons, pens, pencils and simple stapled books of paper all over the house for the kids to freely access. My 6 yr old son is certainly not the best at refined drawing and colouring within lines compared to his classmates, probably the least tidy, but instead of perfecting his style and worrying about the messy scrawl he is very good at drawing elaborate ideas. He creates new inventions and stories which involve alot of critical thinking skills and a great deal of story-telling. It’s fascinating to see him go back and ‘extend’ his thinking and add to a drawing the next day with a new layer of complexity.
Because there is never any pressure to draw, or how to draw, our kids get right into it whenever they feel like it. Fully focused and absorbed into the activity I’m amazed at how their body language shows just how involved they are with their thoughts and drawing. Intense concentration, full body movements spread-eagle across the floor, I can see just how much they enjoy the experience of drawing.
Sometimes kids feel stuck with drawing. I try to refrain from drawing something for them when they need help, because then my drawing is the answer and they loose confidence with their own ability. Instead I spend time with them asking open questions rather than directions to help guide their thoughts.
The kids prefer not to use colouring books simply because they are adding colour to other peoples ideas and that to them is pretty boring stuff. They do enjoy using The Anti-Colouring Book (which I purchased for myself many years ago because I liked the approach) is full of fun open ended questions encouraging children to draw.
Being able to express ideas in a non-verbal way makes thoughts and ideas more compelling. It helps clarify problems and opportunities that discussion may not reveal.
Manufactured Play Vs. Free Play Opportunities
Last week I watched my children prove that they cannot be fooled with a man-made toy compared to a natural free play opportunity. We stopped at a park on the way home from school, something we don’t often do so they were excited with anticipation when we pulled up at a playground. All of two minutes on the play equipment, before they noticed something much, much more appealing… a pile of sand and another of smooth pebbles neatly poured in the adjacent carpark by the road, obviously for improving the sports ground nearby. My kids knew pleading was not necessary with me as they bounded over straight away to a much more exciting free-play-ground. I observed as a few other children begged their parents if they could join in too, and while I felt guilty for a fleeting moment of leading their children astray- I also knew it was doing everyone good. Concern about the messing-up-and-spreading pile of stones and proximity to the traffic turned into squeals of delight and laughter as parents relaxed and sat back smiling at the complete and utter enjoyment their kids were having. I think I counted twelve children by the time my kids moved on to roll down the steep grassy banks and then climb the trees.
Designing For Creative Play Experiences
The playground was eerily empty, a sign of a failed attempt of adults trying to instruct children’s play by the design of the equipment. I often see play equipment where designers were trying really hard to provide open play opportunities, but some are burdened by the more important need for safety and durability. Sometimes man-made toys are just not going to make the cut. Objects that do not dictate their specific use but allow kids to use it as they please, encouraging kids to imagine their own way of playing, provide the greatest opportunity for a creative growing experience.
Lego is a well known example of a toy that provides open ended play opportunities as would the Bilibo. A shell shaped object that allows children to decide how they play with it. The kids will never ask what it’s for, but the parents might. Children intuitively know they can use it for whatever they want it to be.
We will be visiting that park again, but now I know to park next to the grassy hill and climbing trees rather than just by the play equipment.
Building Empathy Through Dress-up And Role-play
Children don’t just want to watch or play with super heroes, they want to be their super heroes, they want to feel what it’s like to have the powers to do many things. They gain confidence through role-play.
My boys often pull out various random dress-up items, combining unusual pieces to become unique characters imagined by themselves, or maybe a widely known character from a storybook. When they play dress-up without my interruption they can play for hours on end…..
During their play children discover empathy and grow an understanding of the role- what their make-believe lives may be like, how heavy it is to wear a fireman’s hat, how important it feels to be a king on his throne.
As a designer, role playing is particularly useful for prototyping interactions between people, for example in a service context. Physically acting out what happens where users interact with products or services. Taking the role of the user and acting out their interactions with a design can prompt more intuitive responses and innovative solutions when refining the design.
Children learn what it feels like to explore various aspects of their own personalities. They are experimenting with emotions, tones, how they move their bodies. With such a strong imagination they have trouble differentiating make believe heroes from reality. The heroes may be their role models, they relate to them and are drawn to trying out how it feels to be their hero. They think they will be just like them once in costume.
When children dress-up without adult interference they are at their most creative. I often observe my kids choosing outfits that appeal in the moment and acting out spontaneous scenes created in their own minds. Imaginary play happens when they create pretend and make-believe scenarios.
Once children begin to explore the magical world of imitation and make-believe they are drawn to it. trying out how it feels, exploring a new place- where they can be anyone, anything and have new abilities and powers.
Role-play takes the act of just dressing up deeper into the creative mind. Children enjoy being creative, it helps them to make sense of the world.