We only think when confronted with a problem

we only think when confronted with a problem :: tinkerlab.com

“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.

Teaching at the d.school

dschoolimage

In my life outside of TinkerLab, I work with museum teachers to learn and practice skills for engaging museum visitors (both children and adults) in meaningful discussions about works of art. One of the strategies I most enjoy using and teaching is called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). And today I had the great pleasure of facilitating a VTS session at Stanford’s d.school in a class called Creative Gym: A Design Thinking Skills Workshop. Don’t you just love the name of this course? The class, an experimental studio focused on honing design intuition and creative confidence, was founded by Grace Hawthorne and Charlotte Burgess-Auburn. Charlotte is Director of Community at the d.school and Grace is cofounder of Ready Made magazine. If you’ve ever read Ready Made, you’ll understand why I knew I would adore Grace before ever meeting her.

VTS is a research-based teaching method for looking at art “that improves critical thinking and language skills through discussions of visual images.” I guided the students through two looking activities, followed by a short discussion about how they could apply this strategy to other areas of their lives.  They came up with all sorts of interesting interpretations including how this approach of looking carefully at an artwork can help one suspend judgment, become more keenly aware of stereotypes, and become open to multiple points of view. Several museums such as the MFA Boston and DeYoung Museum have trained their floor staff and volunteers in VTS, and if you have the opportunity to participate in one of these lively discussions it’s definitely worth your time!  While this post isn’t specifically about children, I include it because it’s important to remember that if we expect our children to become creative and critical thinkers, we should remember to nourish and support our own creative spirit as well. Watch this video for a taste of what this conversation could look like.

As much fun as it was to lead this workshop, I am in love with the concept of this course and wish I had the time to take it myself!

Finding Nature with Kids

outdoor abacus

Outdoor Abacus. Tot Spot, Children’s Discovery Museum, Sausalito

Although I grew up in the culturally-rich and naturally-poor concrete jungle of Los Angeles, I had the good fortune of having a wild backyard at my imaginative disposal. On the hillside of our rough-and-tumble yard, my parents thoughtfully installed a playhouse filled with nooks and crannies for storing treasures and a magical trap door, hidden beneath a rug, where we could escape into a dirt patch next to an apple tree. We built forts in the overgrown bushes, picked apricots, pears, and plums from our trees, and generally invented our own little universe in the world behind our house.

In contrast, 100 yards beyond our front door lay a busy intersection, replete with a fire station, liquor store, abandoned hospital, and a bar that opened at 6 am and advertised “live girls and pool.” Until I was about eight, I actually thought they had a swimming pool in there, and imagined girls floating around on rafts just beyond the saloon doors. Sigh. Despite our less than pastoral location, having access to a backyard wonderland filled me with a love of nature that one wouldn’t expect in a city child.

Similarly, you may live in a less-than-ideal spot with few options to take your kids on nature walks or let them roam the neighboring creek, and it could be helpful to peek at an idealized utopia of nature-play to seek some inspiration for fostering creativity in the great outdoors.

Playing with Mud and Water

To get us started, in their article, Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environment: Returning to Nature (1), playground designer and early childhood experts Randy White and Vicki Stoecklin, found that when given the option of imagining their ideal outdoor play space, children would choose things like water, sand, and vegetation over jungle gyms and slides…a surprising observation in light of what most of our neighborhood parks actually look like. The reason? “Traditional playgrounds with fixed equipment do not offer children opportunities to play creatively (2) and promote competition rather than co­operation (3).” (Play Outside. Public Schools of North Carolina.). Slides and swings are no doubt fun, but children will bore more quickly of these closed-ended activities than they will of open-ended play spaces like sandboxes, forts, ponds, and climbing trees that allow for plentiful interpretations.

Playground designer, Randy White shares a comprehensive and workable list of things that children prefer in outdoor environments. I’ve found that some of these ideas can be implemented on a small-scale, and that inspiration can be found for even the most lacking of outdoor spaces.  These are also great things to look for when searching for playgrounds or preschools that foster creative growth through outdoor play.

Basic Components of Naturalized Play Environments (4):

  • Water
  • Plentiful indigenous vegetation, including trees, bushes, flowers and long grasses that children can explore and interact with
  • Animals, creatures in ponds, butterflies, bugs
  • Sand, and best if it can be mixed with water
  • Diversity of color, textures and materials
  • Ways to experience the changing seasons, wind, light, sounds and weather
  • Natural places to sit in, on, under, lean against, climb and provide shelter and shade
  • Different levels and nooks and crannies, places that offer socialization, privacy and views
  • Structures, equipment and materials that can be changed, actually, or in their imaginations, including plentiful loose parts

References:

(1) White, Randy and Vicki Stoecklin, Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environment: Returning to Nature. Early Childhood News magazine, March/April 1998.

(2) Walsh, P. (1993). Fixed equipment – a time for change. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 18(2), 23­29.

(3) Barbour, A. (1999). The impact of playground design on the play behaviors of children with differing levels of physical competence. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 14(1), 75­98.

(4) White, Randy. Young Children’s Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children’s Development & the Earth’s Future. Taproot, Fall/Winter 2006, Vol. 16, No. 2. The Coalition for Education in the Outdoors, Cortland, NY.

Resources

Play Outside: Recommended Resources for Outdoor Learning Environments. Inspiring quotes, articles, and research for parents and early childhood educators.

Outdoor Learning Environments. National Clearninghouse for Educational Facilities. A long, detailed list of articles, videos and research on outdoor learning spaces.

Wonderful Whiteboarding

n at stanford 2 erasing

If you’ve been following me, you probably know that I love introducing my daughter to a variety of media.  When I went on maternity leave a couple years ago, this little dry erase board came home from the office with me, and it’s now a spot where N can freely draw while we brew our morning coffee and heat up oatmeal. We also have the Ikea easel, which has a dry erase board on one side, and this moves freely between N’s bedroom and the living room.

Creative Connection

Dry erase drawing is great because it’s temporary, easily wipes up when a drawing is complete, and the pen moves across the smooth whiteboard surface in a fashion so different from markers.  Watching my daughter draw in this medium, I see that her ideas flow freely, one idea emerges into another, and when she’s done, a simple swipe of the eraser allows her to begin all over again.  It’s like brainstorming at the toddler level!  Plus, on a large scale, drawing on a white board is a lot like drawing on a wall — without the cleaning nightmare associated with all of that.

(Photo: Fast Company)

Related to this, my husband, Scott, happens to co-direct the Environments Collaborative (i.e. he designs the interior spaces) in the incredibly creative Stanford Institute of Design, where dry-erase boards hang freely in place of walls (see photo above). They even have an entire room (called the White Room – surprise, surprise!) dedicated to whiteboard-style brainstorming.  My daughter BEGS me to visit her dad at work, and while I know it’s because she has a huge heart for her dad’s affection, I assume that part of this longing must also have something to do with the endless supply of post-its and sea of whiteboards that stretch from one end of the building to the other.

Drawing at the d. School

Cleaning up our mess. so we’ll get invited back!

Making it happen

Drawing with dry-erase markers was introduced in our house when my daughter was about 18 months, but it didn’t really become a favorite activity until she was almost two and could easily open and close the markers and erase her markings without assistance.  While whiteboarding on a big canvas can be tons of fun, you don’t need wall-to-wall dry erase boards to make this happen.  In fact, just the other day I picked up a $2 board that’s about 12″ x 16″ in the school supply section of Target that will be perfect for dry-erasing on-the-go.  For the more ambitious-minded, there’s a company called IdeaPaint that sells a paint product that can turn virtually any surface into a whiteboard. Here’s a little inspiration from their website:

And finally, it will take a bit of hunting, but you can also find nontoxic dry-erase markers, such as these from Expo. Have fun drawing on this glassy surface, and please share your whiteboard drawing/brainstorming/creating/exploring tales!

Fairy Garden

garden side view full

After a loooooong day of visiting the doctor, driving 90 miles to San Francisco for an expedited passport, a trip to the garden store, and an active playdate with friends, we treated ourselves to a relaxing evening of Fairy Garden Planting. Because, ya know, that’s what some people do after a marathon day. We just got it started and our Fairy Garden will no doubt go through multiple iterations, but I think we’re off to a pretty good start and I wanted to share the results.

At the garden store, my daughter and I spent a lot of time discussing the need to choose small-scale plants, and we worked together to select moss and mini cacti to fill in our tub.  And when we finally got home last night, the enthusiasm for setting the garden up had mounted to such a level that bedtime was delayed by almost an hour!

The Moss — sooooo pretty.  I love this stuff.

Getting Ready to Plant — It’s all about the knee pads.

A Magical View

Completed Fairy Garden

But why?

Imaginative play holds an enormous place in the lives of toddlers and preschoolers, and it seemed like a great idea to bring dollhouse-style play outdoors. For today, we had fun designing and building the garden (a worthy goal in and of itself), and my long-term hope is that my daughter and her friends will find themselves immersed in the magical miniature garden for countless hours of play.  After we set the little garden up, it occurred to me that we could easily extend the garden into other areas of our yard, giving our fairies loads of places to hide and play.

The scale of this garden naturally lends itself to planters and tiny containers, and the Fairy Garden is also a fabulous route to go if you want to set up a gardening experience for your child and you’re short on outdoor space.

Fairy Garden Resources

I’m not sure where I first got the idea to make a fairy garden, but I’ve since found a TON of creative people who’ve made and documented their magical wonderlands for all to enjoy.  Here are some of my favorites:

The Magic Onions: How to make a Fairy Garden:  Fabulous photos of an inspiring oak barrel garden.

Martha Stewart and Julie Andrews make an Indoor Fairyland (Text and 19 minute Video):  This is not a hands-on garden, but seeing Martha and Julie work side-by-side is a pretty rare treat.

Flickr Group: Miniature Backyard Fairy Gardens: Holy cow, there’s a Flickr group dedicated to this very concept.  Loads of ideas here.