Many adults are put off when youngsters pose scientific questions. Children ask why the sun is yellow, or what a dream is, or how deep you can dig a hole, or when is the world’s birthday, or why we have toes. Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation or ridicule, or quickly move on to something else. Why adults should pretend to omniscience before a five-year-old, I can’t for the life of me understand. What’s wrong with admitting that you don’t know? Children soon recognize that somehow this kind of question annoys many adults. A few more experiences like this, and another child has been lost to science.
There are many better responses. If we have an idea of the answer, we could try to explain. If we don’t, we could go to the encyclopedia or the library. Or we might say to the child: “I don’t know the answer. Maybe no one knows. Maybe when you grow up, you’ll be the first to find out.”
The Quest For A Better Bubble
When a flimsy useless bubble-wand actually inspires a bit of problem solving and prototyping to create a new improved design solution.
If you don’t like it, then make a better one.
Rather than giving up on a cheap toy, Mr Six went in search of a better idea and we couldn’t help but notice the result from the shouts of excitement.
Now everyone want’s the better one, so Mr Four makes one too.
There will always be an even better bubble. It’s just a matter of who takes the opportunity to discover it.
The Balloon And The Vacuum
While vacuuming Mr-Four was playing with his balloon. What was a simple morning switched into excitement of discovery… I turned around to find him wide eyed looking up at his balloon which wasn’t coming back down. It had been caught in the updraft of the vertical vacuum exhaust and continued to dance around up in air. What followed was just a few mintutes of disbelief and giggles watching as the balloon stayed afloat until Miss-One came along and put her head over the nice warm air which caused the balloon to drop down, overheat and pop!
A random, spontaneous and enjoyable science encounter during play - a fun experience that is always followed by many curious questions. Moments like these always appear when we least expect them.
At least we’ve both just discovered something to make vacuuming more fun.
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.
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.
…each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered for himself, that child is kept from inventing it and, consequently, from understanding it completely.
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!
You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.
Do Our Children Have Enough Time To Play?
We’re all just so busy these days. Rushed and scheduled activities and planned entertainment for the children are common nowadays. But we also need to consider the importance of giving our children time to just explore and play. Time to discover, to develop ideas to move beyond boredom into exploration mode.
Discovery Through Play
A great example is how a 5yr old who initially appeared bored, quietly sitting under a tree at the edge of a lake, went on to create this beautiful raft which is constructed with a bundle of sticks and soft pumice stones. Items that were scattered across the beach others may not have even noticed. With enough time- half an hour, he sat down and ‘played’ or ‘experimented’ with them until he discovered he could ‘drill’ holes through the pumice with sticks. It was with this combination of simple and limited available materials that further inspired him to build his ‘discovery’ into a raft.
No one disturbed him from his intense concentration until the exciting stage of seeing if it would work- he had a captive audience. Testing it was a big part of the evaluation of the building materials and the design. The pumice to his surprise, floated wonderfully and the resulting raft provided much pride and accomplishment on his part. So much so, that he raced into the water after it fully clothed to retrieve it.
We were so close to rushing off to make it home in time for dinner, but this experience was well worth getting home late for…
Design Thinking Skills
The above scenario describes a child exhibiting very similar skills as a designer using the design process to innovate. A designer builds prototypes to evaluate an idea. Simple, quick mock-ups, communicating the way it works, how it looks, feels and the experience. Testing, getting feedback, evaluating, refining, are all part of the design process.
Do we underestimate what children are learning during play time?
How can we schedule ‘free time’ into our busy lives?