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.

Materials Challenge: CD’s + Paint Pens

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This month has been crazy busy, but a few days ago I was actually able to wrap my head around a creative project ahead of time and set this table up *the night before.* Gasp. Do you ever do this? It’s been a while since I have, and I always feel like I’ve embraced my inner-preschool teacher when it happens. Anyway, I look at this sort of project as a provocation: The materials relate to my children’s interests and abilities, are intriguing and suggestive, but there’s no expected outcome. 

Here’s what I used: old CD’s, colorful paper tape, glue bottles, stickers, paint pens, washable markers, + scissors.

The fun thing is that almost as soon as my kids woke up, they were engaged. Intrigued, excited, and full of ideas.

N, my 3-year old, picked out the paint pens and started drawing on the CD’s. After a bit of complaining that they dried up, she learned how to press the tip up and down until the ink flowed freely.

My one-year old is turning into one of her sister’s groupies, and wants to do everything her older sibling does. No paint pens for her, though, so I handed her the washable markers. Thank goodness, because she managed to pull the carefully secured table cloth up and draw all over the table in the 30 seconds I turned my back. Lesson learned!

While the final product isn’t much to look at, the process speaks loud and clear and I can’t wait to do this again.

Do you ever set up provocations? How do they go?

If you’re interested in provocations, you might be interested in the Reggio-Emilia approach to teaching. In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia (Early Childhood Education Series)is about art studios in Reggio schools, and looks fabulous resource.

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