We only think when confronted with a problem

“We only think when confronted with a problem.” — John Dewey, American philosopher and educator

What do you think about this quote by John Dewey? 

I spend a lot of my time considering how to set the stage for open-ended discovery as a way to foster a child’s confidence and independence. If you caught my last post, Organizing a Self-serve Creativity Zone, you’ll see a thread here. Children who set up their own problems are invested in the process of learning and are motivated to see a project through completion.

If you were to put paint pots, blocks, or a basket of acorns in front of your child, what expectations would you have? Do you think you would have a specific outcome in mind or would you be curious to find out what he would make of these materials?

When I place materials on a table or in the garden as a learning invitation, or provocation, I can’t help but guess or imagine how my children might use them. Maybe that’s human nature.

The other day I invited my 4-year old to draw some pumpkins that I placed on the table. I imagined  that she might draw a round, orange image with a green stem on top. Instead she started with a round, orange pumpkin shape, and then added a pattern of orange circles, a grid of orange lines, a windy brown flower-covered tree trunk, and then she filled the rest of the page with Halloween stickers and polka dots. In all, she spent close to an hour working on this project. An hour.

If I instructed her to draw a pumpkin as I imagined it, you can guess how long that might have taken her.

So I try to get past any expectations I might have because my children always surprise me with their own clever interpretations that often extend far beyond the box of my adult mind. Not only that, but these invitations are fun for me because I get the chance to learn from my children and witness how they think about the world.

Today I challenge you to place some intriguing objects in front of your child as a provocation to explore, create, invent, and problem-solve. Be open to exploration, wonder, and curiosity. Pay attention to where their own thinking leads, as it might surprise you.

Maybe you already do this — yay! If so, I’d love to hear about how you set up successful provocations and what makes them work in your home or school.

Ideas for Provocations

  • An opened-up paper bag and a black marker (see above)
  • A jar of fresh flowers or colorful Autumn leaves, paper, markers or crayons to match the flowers/leaves
  • Multiple cups filled with vinegar, one cup filled with baking soda + a spoon (See Vinegar and Baking Soda)
  • A basket of toy cars, cut pieces of cardboard (that could become ramps or bridges), boxes
  • A couple sheets, kitchen clips (See How to Build a Simple Clip Fort)
  • A tall jar of water, assorted liquid watercolors in jars, pipettes
  • Large piece of paper covered with circles of multiple sizes, container of markers
  • Clay or Play Dough, small bowl of water, popsicle sticks (See Clay)
  • Piece of canvas, wood or felt; bowl of small stones, sea glass, or shells
  • Containers filled with different scrap paper, glue, large piece of paper (See Self-serve Valentines)
  • Child-friendly knife, whisk, mushrooms or other soft food, cutting board, bowl (See Cooking with Toddlers)

Silently step aside and observe. What does your child do with the materials? What problem is he trying to solve? You might want to step in periodically to help problem-solve or prompt further discover with open-ended questions.

How do you set up provocations and what makes them successful in your home or school? If this is new-to-you, I’d love to hear how what you think about this process for discovery.

Washi Tape and Found Paper Collage

                        “Above all, we are coming to understand that the arts incarnate the creativity of a free people. When the creative impulse cannot flourish, when it cannot freely select its methods and objects, when it is deprived of spontaneity, then society severs”   ~ John F. Kennedy

Do you set up open-ended prompts or invitations for art-making?

Making art, and in turn creative thinking, is rooted in discovery, experimentation, and the free exploration of materials. Projects that foster independent thinking focus on the processes of creation and experimentation rather than  the final product.

 Washi tape and found book collage. A Tinkerlab Art Invitation.

If you spend any time on Pinterest, you know that the internet is full of ideas for creating beautiful kids’ crafts, but I caution you that while these projects may deliver a tidy product, they may not have your child’s best interests in mind. Your best bet for fostering creative growth is to set up open-ended art-making invitations. Not only will your child’s imagination thrive, but you’ll have less to stress over and prepare for.

To get started, choose a few related materials, lay them out on your table, and see what your child (and maybe you!) can come up with.

Our most recent art invitation included these materials:

tape and paper collage

I placed the materials on the table and began by flipping through the book in search of interesting images. My 4-year old paid attention to my curiosity and jumped right in to share which images she wanted me to cut out for her.

tape and paper collage

We built a small collection of favorites. As she glued or taped, I cut. An added surprise is that we talked a little bit about the content of the images along the way (bird houses versus bird feeders, the most colorful birds we could think of — she insists it’s the Scarlet Macaw and I can’t really argue with that!).

tape and paper collage

Washi tape is one of my more recent art material splurges. If you don’t know about washi tape, it’s a decorative Japanese masking tape, It has a bit of a glossy sheen to it, it’s usually somewhat transparent, and it makes everything look adorable.

Before leaving on a recent trip we visited the art supply store for traveling supplies, and two packs of Washi tape begged for us to buy them. Washi is not cheap, but I’ve noticed that a little bit goes a long way. While my 23-month old could use miles of it in 5 seconds flat, my 4-year old used it sparingly.

The plaid rolls come in this set of three: Kikkerland Plaid Washi Masking Tape. I heard that Target carries an inexpensive brand of washi tape (I think the brand is Smash), but they were all out when I visited. Not surprised, really, since washi tape seems to be all the rage in the scrapbooking world at the moment, but I’ll an eye out for it on future trips.

tape and paper collage

The beauty of the art invitation for us parents is that they cut down on our stress. Aside from making sure that you have some materials to work with, these invitations don’t require a lot of fancy preparations or planning. On top of that, there is no expectation to create something with a specific outcome. Keep these words in mind for successful art making with kids: The Journey is the Destination.

More on Invitations

Do you set up art invitations? How does your child respond to them?

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