“Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.”

-Kevin Kelly, Futurist and Author of What Technology Wants

squeezing paint

We had a big pile of CD cases, just waiting to be repurposed into…something! BioColors paints are known for their plasticity (they don’t crack like tempera), and I thought it we could have some fun squeezing them into the cases, sealing up the holes, swirling the paint around, and then maybe peeling the paint out. That’s where my idea began, anyway. But this isn’t about me.

squeezing paint

N loves to squeeze stuff, and enjoyed pouring paint onto the plastic jewel cases.

swirly paint

We worked with limited palettes to avoid that big mushy mix of brown that comes when all the beautiful colors get mixed together.

paint with sequins

N asked for “just red and white, because it makes pink,” and also wanted to add some sequins to the mix. Pretty.

We put about five of these painted jewel cases up to dry, and then N revisited them the next day — on her own accord — with fresh ideas in mind.

Like grown-ups, children need time for their thoughts to muddle together, brew, and then emerge into something bigger. It’s important to keep in mind that good ideas have long incubation periods (see Steven Johnson’s TED Talk, below) and we shouldn’t expect kids to come up with big ideas on the spot —  these things often take time to grow. And to properly give children opportunities to innovate, it’s helpful to present them with open-ended activities that can blossom beyond an initial plan.

If you’ve been following along, you may remember N’s growing interest in pitched roofs from when we made Gumdrop Sculptures and created a cardboard Pitched Roof for a water-flow experiment. The next day…


She opened a case, spotted the pitched roof connection, and said she wanted to make a house. I recently noticed that she’s had a hankering for building things, but this blew me away and was a far cry from where we started the day before. She needed some structural assistance from her handyman/contractor/dad, who was happy to cut tape and generally hold things together. Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked a lot about the teamwork involved in building structures, and it seemed that she enjoyed the real-world connection with her own team of workers holding up windows and such.

roof attached

She then requested some siding material, which her handyman cut to her specifications. And thank goodness, or else the squirrels might come in! As my daughter approaches her third birthday, it’s amazing to see her mind take on more complicated tasks and ideas, and I look forward to seeing further down the path of discovery through her eyes.


Author Seth Godin created this loooong list called Where do ideas come from? It’s brilliant and easy-t0-read.

Author Steven Johnson talks about how ideas are networks in his TED Talk: Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson writes about the importance of open innovation platforms in The Genius of the Tinkerer in the Wall Street Journal.

This post is linked to We Play, ABC and 123, Tot Tuesday

What do you think it takes to grow a big idea?


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  1. what a great discussion. and once again N’s project has got me thinking and smiling.
    your references are such a treat to your posts. I often follow them and see what journey they take me on. Seth’s list was too obvious for me to enjoy (ideas don’t come from watching tv.) but that could be because I read the inspiring article by Steven first. Tinkering. tinkering……???? my dad is a nonstop tinkerer, and he has failed to create any genius moment, but I see why. According to Steven, isolation kills the idea. I struggle with this myself. I isolate myself in my tiny small world and in my tiny artist studio. This again is why cafe shops energized artistic endeavors. ……. so much to think and say.
    thank you rachelle for making me think on a day my brain has once again been taken over by a biological mess up. xo

    • i’m so glad to hear this inspired you — you do the same for me time and time again. i have also wondered about what moves a tinkerer from the studio or garage to bigger and better things, and steven does make a good point about gathering in groups vs. isolation. his talk is so compelling. i’m sorry to hear you’re having a rotten day — hope it gets better soon.

  2. You are such a nice Mommy letting her squeeze from the bottle! I might have to consider moving Little M’s paints into travel shampoo containers so she can do a little squeezing herself. As it is. . .I know for a fact she would use the entire bottle=) The idea of creative expression blossoming over time was really well put. Thank you for the reminder.

    • that’s funny. i had some little travel-size bottles sitting on the sidelines for that very reason, but she was incredibly judicious. i couldn’t believe it, but i think it’s partially because we’ve done so much squeezing of things over the past year or so, and she’s gotten the squeeze crazies out of her system. famous last words, i know!

  3. it’s almost like she made her own custom, swirly, lovely magna-tiles! (minus the magnet part) beautiful post! great reminders.

    • oh yeah, they are like magna tiles — the connection didn’t occur to me. i have about 300 more of these cases lying around, maybe we can figure out a way to fuse them with magnets and save a fortune!

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