…If you want to make a big change, get all the kids thinking of themselves as a creative person. They’re just going to have that openness that will allow them to come up with new and different ideas that they can choose. When we talk about having ideas, we talk about fluency and flexibility. Fluency means you can quickly come up with lots of ideas like in brainstorming, but flexibility means that they’re different one from the next. So you have lots of ideas and they’re unique ideas. That’s going to help you make a better decision.
I don’t care if that’s about something in your personal life or whether it’s your job of curing cancer, having a better variety of ideas is going to make better decisions.
Shaping the Future
If our children are our future, how are we going to equip them with the skills to create solutions to the long term problems we face? We can all contribute to make the future we want while inspiring our children to make a difference too through observing our own actions.
Just Because Something Isn’t Possible Now, Doesn’t Mean It’s Impossible
Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi who helped popularise Zen Buddhism was quoted “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
Children dream up the wildest ideas. I try to refrain from telling my kids that it can’t work or it won’t happen, or it doesn’t exist. Their imaginary world full of creative thinking and crazy ideas is a place much desired by many.
Imagination - A World Where Anything Is Possible
A pair of painted-on ‘super-action-shoes’ are the latest rage in our house. “They are a lot faster because they are not heavy and I have better grip with my toes.” My six-year-old is so convinced they are superior to shoes and bare feet that his younger brother requested a pair too. Those super-action-shoes helped them climb trees higher too and of course they are much more fun to put on than regular shoes.
While driving one day an excited voice announced “My windmill is making you go faster.” Positioning a toy windmill out the car window it generates visible motion, to him, comparable to generating energy to speed up the car? Like a propellor my three-year-old is convinced when it spins the car goes faster, not when the car drives faster the windmill spins faster as more air is pushed through it.
If he doesn’t have his windmill with him he uses his out-stretched arm like a gliding wing, helping us to fly along. Their facial expressions are almost as convincing and just priceless with that look of sheer excitement and fresh discovery all rolled into one.
Sometimes ideas flow from possible explanations, answers or suggestions to a question such as those contrails from a jet’s exhaust in summer - “Maybe that’s the edge of the sky?” Thoughts and ideas generated in this way provide a great launching pad into imagining the many things it could be. You can always follow up with some research to actually find out more, or maybe not! Does everything have, or really need, an answer? It’s the curiousity that keeps the imagination firing.
My hungry three-year-old asked me how they got the food in the recipe book while he sat staring at a glossy realistic photo of something delicious he was drooling for. I asked him if he knew how, he took a sniff of the photo “they smell so yummy, they must have squashed the food flat in some very heavy books.” Just like the food-press of flower-presses and with such a powerfully convincing imagination he could even smell the food in the photo.
Age and Experience: Growing A Judgemental Mindset
The way children think - their creative ideas, that free thinking - comes with an open mind, a fresh imagination, a new life with limited experiences, not having the specific knowledge or ability to combine factual answers to make sense of things. Kids are not hindered by the constraints of reality, recognising or understanding something is not possible. To them, everything is potentially possible. Children have no inhibitions, they are more open to criticism, sharing their ideas and taking on board new ideas.
Having preconceived judgements can restrict the flow of ideas. As young children grow older they tend to become more self conscious of their creativity, feeling judged and instead prefer to conform to just fit in and be accepted. Too often success becomes focused on knowing what is wanted, not what is interesting. Just because something isn’t possible now, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
As renowned entrepreneur, designer and visionary David Kelley from IDEO says; “everything you need to know you learn it in kindergarten because that’s when you had innate confidence in your own creative power”.
A child’s mind is an innovative mind- children don’t know what they don’t know, vs the limitations of age and experience.
Children’s ability to use their imagination, to think and generate creative ideas so efficiently, is an inherent skill they embody with such innocent passion. It’s often a long-lost skill much desired upon by any adult.
You don’t always need age, expertise or knowledge to be the most creative person in the room.
Project Play Experience - Nurturing A Child’s Interests
Young children are often excited to extend their play, developing focus through continued exploration and discovery. How can we nurture this desire? One way is knowing when and how to guide free play into project play mode.
I recognise a cluster of ‘related play’ and think of it like a focused ‘mini-project’ based on a child’s specific play interest. By extending and supporting a child’s interest in their free play activity and exploring an idea or interest a bit deeper in the form of a project, their play can shift into longer periods of motivated focused play, where they learn it is possible to discover even more.
A free play activity may be over and done with, named, dated, and retired to the wall or stored away. But what happens when they build on and continue to extend these activities? What if they keep projects accesssible for further exploration? When young kids realise they can dive deeper into their play- introducing them to various tools, techniques, resources, technology, it opens up many new exciting opportunities for learning through play.
Generating a tangible or digital ‘journal’ by collating creations and play experiences, means children can bring everything together in a digestible format. Play becomes more real and relevant, new connections are formed, they observe their own progress, creations are shared and their creative confidence grows. It’s about having something to talk about and continue to build on from - it’s taking play a little bit deeper where children still have control to lead the way in their exploration.
Creating To Actuate Play
Children have many interests, problems and all those never ending questions that can be guided into ‘action thinking’. They love to explore topics of interest through play. Children want to engage in more ‘doing’ stuff, ‘creating’ stuff, ‘action’ play.
This is not the work they have to do for school, but are things they want to explore. Hands-on fun projects that they can engage in after school, kindy and work hours. A three-year-old may need guidance, but a six-year-old is happy initiating and evolving a ‘play project’ on their own once they get the hang of it.
For children this is real work in the real world - play that has meaning and purpose.
As well as basic skills, many design thinking skills are involved - imaginative exploration, ideation, drawing, prototyping or build-to-think, creation, story-telling and active problem solving. Design thinking is an approach or set of methods and tools that also focuses on developing creative confidence. Children are inherently good at making use of the designer’s toolkit. When kids shift into ‘explore’, ‘make’ and ‘do’ mode, their creativity soars. Anything they ‘make’ will foster their imagination and give them belief in their creative skills. They feel more creative - especially when play using one’s imagination is central.
Creativity if practiced, can become a long term habit for children.
The Train Play Project
A simple example: My three-year-old has developed a keen interest in trains like many kids his age do. He always talks about various aspects of trains but often goes back to the obvious and easy play with his train-set. A little of my observation and guidance with new tools and resources to trigger exploring train related activities helps him progress further along his fascinating play journey. Some of his project play included the following:
Create/Modify/Design: While playing with his train set he built numerous versions and complained about the tracks not always meeting male to female, his solution was to ‘hack’ or ‘adjust’ the train-set track piece to have it work as ‘he’ wanted it to. He wanted to be the creator not let the train set dictate his play. I’m glad I was there to witness the much desired modification. With a little effort we changed the connector piece.
Research/Learn: He wanted to know if all trains look like his train-set, so I set him up to watch some videos of trains on YouTube to find out. He discovered in the process how trains work. What makes them move. The mechanics of the train workings fascinated him and opened up a while new area he could not experience with just his little train-set.
Role-Play/Imagination: With a cardboard box, as kids do - he designed a few controls and acted out a trip to the city as the driver with his passengers, with a train sounds song on repeat in the background. A child’s imagination is so powerful you can see it’s just like the real thing to them. Totally absorbed in play. He wouldn’t hop out unless the train sounds stopped, as if the box was actually moving. It took me a while to notice I had to stop the music so he could get out urgently for nature’s calling.
Observation/Experience: We went for a train ride across the city- absorbing every tiny detail - learning about train directions, tickets, maps, journey details. Utterly mesmerised with the entire experience, he spoke with the train conductor and waved out to the driver. A passenger even helped him step up onto the train when he paused noticing the gap between platform and train. He formed new connections during the experience and there were many things he observed that we take for granted.
Drawing/Mapping: After a train ride he was fresh with a new experience and excited to draw what he observed and experienced. He talked about what he discovered by drawing a visual explanation to communicate with me. He was drawing to think about all the parts of a train, what made the noise, where it may have came from and designed the train how he experienced it to be. When we initially set out for our trip, he wanted to know where and how far the train station was from our house, so we drew a map together and he modified the train map to include his observations of what we passed by.
Story-telling/Sharing: He was excited to tell his brother and friends about his train trip so he told me a ‘story’ which we documented about his experience so he could recall and share the events with others.
Design/Build/Problem-Solve: We had some timber offcuts which he was improvising with as a train and carriages. He asked how we could connect them like a train but keep them removable too. I gave him a box full of bits and pieces to sort through to find something that may work for it. A screw-eyelet and a blind-bracket he selected and tried out were great solutions. I assisted with some wheels and a few nails, but he found the parts from our build space and even painted it.
Project Book: Rather than let each piece of the clustered ‘play experience’ float around and get lost, we collected all his play work together in his very own simple little stapled paper book. Something tangible with contents he had created, experiences to talk about. He can pick it up and share with others, tell stories about the photo’s, he can modify his drawings, re-build his train, new experiences to add. His project book continues to inspire and motivate him to explore more through play. It is his own and he’s proud of what he’s done. Most importantly- the project is never complete.
It’s Not About How They Do It, But About Having Time To Do It
All of this ‘train project play’ was spread over a week or two. He focused on different aspects at his own pace and I was asked to help at times. If a parent has a certain viewpoint, there is always the other parent with a different viewpoint, or a sibling, the internet to research or even a teacher to ask. He even took his project book to share at kindy for ‘show and tell’ prompting the kids to all share their experiences together. My six year old often comes home with contributions from his friends during class.
These are play projects that resonate with kids because they select them. They control their learning experiences. When kids ‘do’ and ‘make’ they feel more creative, its hugely empowering to have results to be proud of.
Some projects are light and quick over in just an hour, others resonate deeply and kids may be more interested in continuing their exploration over days or weeks. Some need a little guidance others need no inturruption. It doesn’t matter how they do it, they just love creating tangible results, and always at their own pace in their own time.
We all want to see our children develop their own interests, motivation and passion in life. Young children often just need someone to notice when they want to dive deeper in play, a little guidance, but most of all - plenty of free time to develop their own play interests.
“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.
Tinkering, Deconstruction And Discovery
I’m remembering my childhood like it was just yesterday… when I find my son’s bunk bed wobbly and discover that he has an allen key under his pillow to unscrew the framing and to take apart his sisters highchair. I’m not sure how many kids sneak screwdrivers and allen keys to bed at night, but just as long as the house doesn’t collapse I think it’s ok…
We all did it- tinkering and taking things apart as a kid. Wondering how things work. I have fond memories of taking apart a large heavy old transistor radio that once lived in the basement. About 9yrs old, I sat with newspaper laid out on my bedroom floor with a few simple tools and screw by screw took apart casings, right down to dissecting the internal components, all pieces carefully and individually removed. I enjoyed the fine detail work, driven by fascination of what was inside to make it work.
With many pieces on the floor I had discovered what was hiding inside- not exactly knowing how it worked, but I had made some learning progress on my own already. Fast-forward many years later and not surprisingly my interest in creative and technical things lead me to a career as an industrial designer, working for big innovation think-tanks such as IDEO, working alongside all sorts of creative minds, mechanical and electrical engineers to name a few, gaining even a few of my own patents… and so my fascination with ‘design thinking’ and ‘stuff’ continues…
Motivated To Learn How Things Work
I was not at all surprised when my son asked for his own tools to take apart an old phone he found. One thing lead to another and he now has a full box of electronics which he spends hours on just like I did.
But he has taken it a few steps further and built miniature cities of circuit boards and what he calls ‘robot’s’ by connecting internal components and has even tried searching on the internet about how some things work or what he could make with those components. His curiosity spark has been engaged.
He now looks at a DVD player and tells me how the drawer mechanism works because he enjoyed the motion of the internal parts once he could manipulate them from the inside. He kept button pads and showed me how they connected to circuit boards. He laid out the layers that made up an LCD screen. In his own way he was seeing how things connect and how they are built.
Discovery = Learning
Tinkering is hands-on-learning. Sure I could give my son all the answers, tell him what all the parts are called and what they are for, or buy a book to explain it, but I let him ask and discover this on his own which is much more fun than coming from me. Stepping back a little lets him look for what he wants to know and when he’s motivated to, he can refer to the internet or the classic ‘how stuff works’ books to find out more. He know’s the resources for finding out more are right at his finger-tips.
Modern Technology, The Digital Age And The Future
If anyone has tried taking apart an iphone or ipad, these are insanely difficult. How are modern electronics changing the way our kids learn through tinkering? Will their focus turn to hacking rather than just deconstructing the physical product? Will tinkering like we used to know it, become tinkering of software, re-programing and all things digital? Does having access to all the information on the internet give our kids so many more opportunities to explore?
It’s sometimes hard as parents to understand why, but kids will destruct their toys, pushing the limits of what a toy can do, take things apart, mess up computers and explore digital interfaces- it’s all effective self-learning. That’s got to be why the kids are so good at setting the clock on all the electronics that their parents can’t set- children are innately more confident and motivated through tinkering to discover how things work.
Fostering innovative minds is about letting kids tinker to discover how something works and maybe even trying to improve on it, re-build it another way or even fix it. Taking things apart is the learning and does not require one to have to try to memorise and reassemble it like a puzzle- unless of course repair is a fun challenge too.
Repair Is Recycling
I personally get great satisfaction from fixing things. Anything. I want to try to fix it if I can. It’s practically a daily task for me and the kids know to come to me if something needs repair and they can’t do it. There are also lots of books out there for resalvaging components for reuse if it’s beyond repair.
There is also the concern about making things last longer. Repair, fixing, and reusing. Reducing the impact on our environment of increasing landfill with toxic electronics. The lifespan of our electronics are getting shorter. People don’t know how to repair them. Repair is recycling. An incredible initiative called ifixit are creating a repair manual for everything. yes everything! It’s well worth taking a look at their site and getting addicted to it.
My son posted me a letter a while ago and it contained deconstructed and decapitated lego men, carefully organised into groups of which body parts belong together and taped to paper encompassed by circles so I could reassemble them with ease. He obviously assumed that would be fun for me to do…
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.