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

we only think when confronted with a problem

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. Genève.

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.

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  1. We’ve taken the challenge and I’ve just given the boys loads of egg cartons, empty boxes, cars and odd socks rolled into balls (don’t ask!) and just let them play. The playroom is now a complete mess with half bashed boxes, but they are having an awful lot of fun!

    • Congratulations Hannah! Thankfully I didn’t say it would be neat. I won’t ask about the sock rolls since I’ve been there myself — not sock balls exactly, but kids come up with some awesome/crazy ideas. Thanks for circling back to share your experience.

  2. Love these ideas. Eiya loves baking soda and vinegar. The other day I gave her more flour and she made a smoothie consistency…thanks goodness Costco sell a big bag of flour and baking soda! Eiya is a dumper too. I would love to try the air dry clay. If you do it inside, how you prevent water from dripping on the floor? When I gave Eiya some leftover clay from Christmas, she fill the whole container with water. 🙂 the felt/wood idea is it like an Andy Goldsworthy exploration with nature elements?

    We did pumpkins with thumb tacks, screws and nails the other day and Eiya really enjoying it. Have you try that before?

    • Sheau, you’re giving me one more reason to join Costco! I tagged along with a friend recently and spent sooooo much money, but it was all well worth it. As for the clay, there are a couple ways you can go about it. If the objective is to play with water + clay, or watery clay, go ahead and place the materials in a large under-the-bed style tub to contain the mess. If the objective is to build with clay (bowls, towers, animals, etc.), give Eiya a small bowl of water (like, tiny) with the suggestion that the water is there to help her attach pieces of clay together and to smooth drying clay. The second scenario is more about how to build with clay and requires a little bit more facilitation upfront, but once Eiya sees you demonstrate the technique, she should be good to go on her own.

  3. this is a great idea! my 5 yr old son likes to do things his own way…i shouldn’t be surprised, beacuse i am that way too 🙂 and he always surprises me with his creativity, so this will be fun! and i will definitely try it with my little one also :)!

    • As my mom likes to say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! I’d love to hear how this goes for you and your son. Please keep me posted!

  4. That is a great quote and totally true. I recently was introduce to this concept through my child’s preschool. The art area is set-up for child led creativity rather then adult directed. I have been in the process of reorganizing my own studio space and have intentionally placed certain supplies for my child to access when we are in there together. I have noticed how much more focused she is on her art work, when she has the urge to create and can make decisions on materials she would like to use on her own. I think it’s a great process for discovery. Great article!

  5. John Dewey quote – “We only think when confronted with a problem.” is very accurate. And I can confirm this by my own example. When I need to write an essay, I don’t know what to do. Because that’s a big problem for me. But then I found her solution. This is https://tooly.io/overpopulation/ service. A great service where you can find essays on any topic. Here I found an essay on overpopulation. All of them are very high quality and professionally written. I recommend.

  6. “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself” – John Dewey
    This quote explains the main John Dewey’s philosophy.

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