Collecting Memorable Play Experiences
Children play to learn but they are also playing for fun. How much of childhood play do we remember later in life and what type of play creates the best memories? How do these experiences contribute to who we become?
It’s not just about open-ended play opportunities to nurture creativity, but also about letting children hold onto their ‘favourites’ that allow play to evolve and grow with them. Maybe even sparking deeper creative connections later in life.
Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.
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.
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.
Seeing With Your Imagination
One of the oldest and best ways to see with your imagination, to use your ‘beginner’s mind’, is to look up at the clouds and imagine what we see.
The Limit Is Only Your Imagination
We all remember the experience of lying on a grassy hill as a child, gazing up into the sky for hours watching as clouds drift by, morphing and expanding like slow motion animations creating different shapes and forms- cloud-animals, dancing fairies, expressive faces, sailing pirate ships, an elephant wearing a hat, upside down trains with carriages full of treasure, swimming frogs, racing mice… the limit is only your imagination.
I found myself once again enjoying the experience of this childhood memory with my boys, who were so excited by the endless supply of funny animals that they would jump up to get a better look at the whole sky to see which clouds were coming next. They literally couldn’t wait to use their imagination. It was even more entertaining watching the gradual change as the elephant’s hat turned into a magic wand, or the boat exploding into many little baby boats, stories unfolding right in front of us.
Story Book In The Sky
Like the old psychologist’s ink blotch test we see in cloud shapes what’s already in our imaginations. Like a story book in the sky, fairy tale cities with layers of fanciful towering castles, climbing, stretching, clouds like rolling hills, growing and shrinking, shredding, merging with others, creeping along the brilliant blue sky and eventually disappearing back into the atmosphere to begin over and over as new cloud shapes appear in a never ending ‘made by me’ imagination storybook.
Drawing On Clouds
Using our finger we outline our imagined shapes in the sky, drawing with giant arm gestures our one-of-a-kind creatures. I stumbled upon a free web application called *Klowdz that allows us to experience something similar but actually ‘draw’ on the clouds and save or ‘collect’ what we imagined- maybe we can turn it into our very own storybook too.
I enjoyed experimenting with Klowdz, it’s a wonderfully creative application with never ending opportunities encouraging open creative based play. But nothing beats the joy of lying back in the long grass surrounded with the sound of cicadas and warmth of the sun, while taking in the world around us… I think this application is just perfect for the kids on rainy days stuck indoors playing with the clouds. Now if only I could just project the clouds onto the ceiling… the closest I got was discovering this artist’s wonderful installation.
*Klowdz is a web based application so you will need a compatible browser. Firefox 3.6+, Chrome 4+, Safari 4+ or 10.5+
Learning Without Teaching?
Can young children learn without parent-led teaching if most learning is incidental to the experience?
The brain is constantly looking to make connections between what is known and what is new. Constantly looking for new interesting things. So it seems creativity and play is the best place to begin life’s learning journey.
It’s obvious children are wired to learn. They have natural curiosity. But I think there certainly is the ability for adults to interfere with that natural creative instinct and potentially de-rail a child’s innate way of thinking, their passion and their desire to learn. I think we need to stop making learning like a chore. I believe if children are supported and encouraged to use their skills they begin life with, they have a much better chance at continuing on to be creative, innovative individuals throughout adult life.
Fun To Learn
With my children, learning is often the result of an interesting experience. Not always one that has been taught, repeated, practiced and tested. I think we can all relate to this. I remember events that were memorable, enjoyable and interesting. I tend to forget about those that were a bore. It’s actually quite easy to make things more fun, throw in a little more love and laughter and children may even learn better this way.
Curiosity = Interest = Attention = Learning
Curiosity creates interest and with interest there is often greater focus and attention to the now. When children are focused they are learning. They are interested. They are connecting and taking it all in.
Fail Often To Succeed Sooner (David Kelley, IDEO)
It’s sometimes hard to not correct a child who is learning, but mistakes and failures are part of their learning. It forms part of the experience of improving, evaluating and trying again. Mistakes lead to discovery. I try to let my children work it out themselves rather than showing them how, even if it it would be quicker and easier to step in.
Everyone Is Different
Not all children like to learn the same way. I can see how clearly different even my three are. We know boys and girls often like to learn differently from each other too. There seems no one right way to teach them, instead maybe we can set our children free and let them lead the way with their learning.
Critical Thinking Skills
We can help our children with ways to think, which is more important than telling them what to think. Play time is certainly not trivial, I think it’s vital to children’s development.
Children And New Experiences- Little Observational Research Experts
When a young child is experiencing something for the first time, they seem to be so deeply absorbed as they observe with open eyes and an open mind. I’m sure we could all slow down a little to experience life and really understand what is going on around us, instead of letting it fly by without noticing… What else might we be missing out on?
As a designer we use very similar skills during our design process. We call this human-centred observational research; gaining empathy to identify the unmet needs of the end user. The things that have been overlooked, that no-one else noticed. The inspiration for the ‘why-didn’t-I-think-of-that’ design solution.
Noticing The Little Things
The most famous question I hear from my children is “why?” Kids are so naturally inquisitive their curiosity leads the way. They have this deep desire to learn about the big wide world; to watch from a train, pick a flower, jump in puddles, explore, find the answer, observe people, listen to noises and study how a caterpillar crawls. They seem to want to understand how and why in every little detail. There is desire to try new things, to absorb their environment with open ears and eyes to learning. They are always the ones that notice the little things.
Learning About People
I’ve seen how my young child may watch someone closely with big wide eyes and a fixed stare, without feeling like they are invading someone else’s privacy. I can see they are learning everyone is different, people do things in different ways and maybe even how to relate to others and simply make that human connection.
Time To Experience
As my child sits on the train to watch the world race by they are taking it all in. What they see as well as the feeling, the whole experience. It’s something new, something exciting to add to their memory bank of life. They love new opportunities with time to listen, observe, learn and quietly absorb it all. Then I just have to find the time to answer all those questions…
Everyday there are new opportunities. My kids don’t need to look far to learn something new, to study something…. as little as the way grapes connect together on a stem and how easily you can pluck each and every one of them off. The resulting ‘skeleton’ is just as fascinating.
I’m trying to spend more time experiencing things with a fresh mind, from a new perspective rather than taking it for granted. I wonder what we could learn, what we may discover, just by using our beginner’s mind.