Innovation Doesn’t Come in a Kit (8 Better Options)

There are all sorts of companies selling STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) kits and Maker kits these days, often as pricey subscription services.  They promise adventure! inspiration! empowerment! They claim to “teach” creativity and innovative thinking, as if such things can be prepackaged.

My kids didn’t like to do kits of any kind with a parent or without a parent. They didn’t like to do them alone or with friends, on a rainy day or when they were sick. They’d occasionally fiddle around with a kit I’d bought just to appease me, but a kit never lit the gleam that real investigation and real building does.

Why would it? You open the box, follow a set of instructions using pre-measured supplies and get the predicted outcome. Or, sometimes, don’t get it. Plus, there’s an extra layer of pressure involved because an adult paid for that kit and hopes their kids get the advertised benefits.

It’s entirely different when children seek out an interesting endeavor and, once they have the general concept, riff on the idea in new ways. That’s how my kids, left to their own devices, would build and create, referring to YouTube or books or Instructables or their dad for instruction as needed. Then, if inspired, they’d ramp it up, try something more challenging, until that lovely tantalizing hunger we call curiosity was sated, at least for the moment.

It’s not just my own children. When I led enrichment classes and summer camps for kids I brought in all sorts of supplies and issued open-ended challenges. I’d say, “Here’s some equipment, go ahead and make a movie” or I’d haul in boxes of junk and say, “You’ve got x number of days, go ahead and invent something.” They’d brainstorm, work hard to persuade other kids their own ideas were the best,  compromise, make mistakes, add or subtract ideas, get confused, get clarity, refer to how-to books, and somewhere along the way each project transformed into something greater than anyone had imagined. The kids grew to love what it meant and how it made them feel. They’d beg to continue when our sessions were up and once, when a summer program was ending, no one could agree who’d get to keep the articulated dragon they’d made as part of a larger project. They fashioned a cape out of a tarp and in a solemn ceremony, each child took a turn wearing the cape to hack off part of the dragon. They walked out that last day into the sunshine proudly carrying a snout, a leg, or brightly colored swath of scales.

Adults tend to cast a holy light around the value of following specific instructions. They insist it is important for small things, like every project ever, and for big things, like getting good grades and great test scores as if the future is a board game won by the right moves. (It’s not.) Kids have plenty of opportunities to follow step-by-step instructions, heck, life is full of unavoidably necessary rules everyone has to follow. Mutually agreed upon rules are a cornerstone of civilization.

Too much specific instruction may actually give kids too little experience with uncertain steps and ambiguous outcomes. To consider this further, let’s take a look at the difference between well-defined and ill-defined problems.

  • A jigsaw puzzle, multiplication problem, and Lego kit are well-defined problems. That means they have a goal solved by following exacting procedures to reach that goal, with no real ambiguity involved.
  • Starting a business, maintaining a relationship, and building with random Legos are ill-defined problems. That means there are many possible, equally plausible ways to reach goals that may not be initially clear-cut but tend to clarify as time goes on. Life’s biggest challenges (and satisfactions) tend to be ill-defined problems.

Speaking of Legos, let’s take a closer look at what science says about step-by-step directions as a means of fostering creativity and innovation, as so many kits say they do. There’s been a longstanding debate about whether kids get more out of building with a giant pile of random Lego pieces or building boxed Lego sets using instructions. Obviously there can be a place for building kits and free-building in every child’s life, but what if these two approaches lead to different outcomes?

Researchers compared people building Lego kits to those who free-built with Legos. They found, in several studies, that participants who’d built kits scored lower when asked to do projects immediately afterwards that required creativity, originality, divergent thinking, and abstractness. They also were more likely to avoid free-build Legos to choose well-defined problems. Those who’d been free-building were, in contrast, as adept at well-defined problems as ill-defined problems, and didn’t lean away from future ill-defined problems. Science writer Garth Sundem provides an excellent review of this research, including its limitations, and sums it up this way.

If you take these experiments at face value, the “better understanding” of this research is that the more we are confronted by and complete well-defined problems like Lego kits or word finds or color-in-the-lines pictures, the less we choose to engage in and the worse we are at solving ill-defined problems: create something beautiful, discover something meaningful, find someone to love.

Again, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for step-by-step instructions. Detailed, exacting instructions are vital to all sorts of endeavors from making pastry to launching satellites. And building Lego models certainly is not the route to any child’s ruination. These studies are simply more evidence that filling up a child’s free time with adult-designed instructional endeavors isn’t the best way to foster creativity or innovation, despite what companies selling kits might tell us.

 

Here are some cheap, easy, playful ways to raise Makers.

Emphasize loose parts play. Pretty much any free-form materials kids are able to lift, drag, climb on, line up, dig with, join together, pour, dump out, take apart, swing around, push, or otherwise use as they choose inspire wildly creative loose parts play. Outdoors that might be twigs, stones, pails, water, rope, sand, and pine cones. Indoors that might be pillows and blankets to build a fort, dress-up clothes and cardboard to make props, and  the freedom to use disparate items for divergent uses.

Save broken things for kids to take apart.  The more moving parts they can disassemble, the better. For safety: cut off any cords and plugs, avoid items with glass, remove blades and batteries. Insist on safety glasses, then get out pliers, screwdrivers, and other tools and let them get to work.  A glorious mess is likely. One way to contain it is to put the item in a shallow cardboard box. That way all the little bits and pieces won’t roll off on the floor indoors or the grass outdoors. My kids have taken apart old clocks, computers, a typewriter, cassette players, a lawn tractor, weed trimmers, and a number of toys (including a Furby that had been broken for years but spoke a few final creepy words as my sons and their friends reduced it to parts.)

Start inventing. Save cardboard boxes and cardboard tubes of all sizes, along with string, rubber bands, lids, paper clips, yogurt cups, straws, corks, plastic utensils, twist ties, and so on.  Kids can use them to build whatever they choose —- like a junk marble run or wall ball drop. We’ve had lots of fun when kids form teams, get equal amounts of this “junk” and try a  specific challenge, similar to the old TV series Junkyard Wars, such ainventing sorters that send pennies down one chute and dimes down another, bridges that hold weight, catapults that toss ping-pong balls, or building as inspiration leads.

Create your own board games. Amy from MamaScout suggests getting out cardboard suitable for a game board, paper to make cards, dice, a cast off spinner from an old game, and some tiny toys to serve as game pieces. Then get out of the way. As she says of her kids, “backing off is the important part, because their ideas for this game were so much more open-ended than I could understand. They were playing the game and playing in the world of the game at the same time.” Science documentary-maker Steven Johnson prefers more parent involvement. He advocates creating a board game in partnership with a child in an article titled “The Game Worlds We Make.” He writes,  “It’s one of those magical parent-child activities where the two of you occupy shared ground in terms of both comprehension and engagement. Even simple games present intellectually interesting puzzles for an adult brain in their design phase, and children are incredibly adept at picking up on the nuances of gameplay.”

Honor flow.  When we see kids deeply engaged, lets do our best to let them stay engaged whether they’re off in a make-believe world, building with blocks, drawing, or tinkering. Psychologish Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes what they’re doing in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. These are not “passive, receptive, relaxing times,” he writes. Instead they are times when “the body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Avoid interruptions! (Here’s more about fostering the state of flow for kids.)

Say yes. As I write in Getting Science on Everything, “We found keeping scientific curiosity alive isn’t hard.  It’s about an attitude of ‘yes.’ Projects that are messy, time-consuming, and have uncertain outcomes are a form of experimentation. They are real science in action. When a kid wants to know, they want to find out. Not later, not next week, right away. Finding out is engaging. It leads to ever-widening curiosity.” This starts in infancy, which we learned from the baby who wanted to play in driveway gravel and the baby who was afraid of the vacuum. It’s never to early to experiment!

Weave math explorations into everyday life. Investigate yourself, measure your world, make math toys, devise your own codes, and more. Here’s how.

Be an example. Take an active role in building, fixing, and finding out what you want to know in your own life. As you do, let your kids get involved as far as their interests lead them. Chances are if you’re designing a better closet shelf,  teaching your dog new tricks, rebuilding a carburetor, experimenting with bread making,  or learning to make chainmail, your kids will see firsthand what it takes to pursue a hands-on interest.

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Sidenote: There’s a lot of energy put into getting kids into STEM and STEAM fields. We need to rethink funding priorities so that these fields move ahead. Here’s research scientist Hope Jahren’s perspective, from her recent book Lab Girl.

“You may have heard that America doesn’t have enough scientists and is in danger of ‘falling behind’ … Tell this to an academic scientist and watch her laugh. For the last thirty years, the amount of the U.S. annual budget that goes to non-defense-related research has been frozen. From a purely budgetary perspective, we don’t have too few scientists, we’ve got far too many and we keep graduating more each year. America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it.”

Keeping Creativity Alive

dbz-obsessed.deviantart.com/art/Creation-19299077

dbz-obsessed.deviantart.com/art/Creation-19299077

“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.”—Henry David Thoreau

Imagination springs from nowhere and brings something new to the world—games, art, inventions, stories, solutions. Childhood is particularly identified with this state, perhaps because creativity in adults is considered to be a trait possessed only by the artistic few.

baleze.deviantart.com/art/Playing-with-Shadows-61984249

baleze.deviantart.com/art/Playing-with-Shadows-61984249

Nurturing creativity in all its forms recognizes that humans are by nature generative beings. We need to create. The best approach may be to get out of one another’s way and welcome creativity as a life force.

pixabay.com/en/image-painted-colorful-color-247789/

pixabay.com/en/image-painted-colorful-color-247789/

If we are familiar with the process that takes us from vision to expression, we have the tools to use creativity throughout our lives. When we welcome the exuberance young children demonstrate as they dance around the room, talk to invisible friends, sing in the bathtub, and play made-up games we validate the importance of imagination.

pixabay.com/en/males-art-drawing-creativity-fig-391346/

pixabay.com/en/males-art-drawing-creativity-fig-391346/

When we encourage teens to leave room in their schedules for music or game design or skateboarding or whatever calls to them, we honor their need for self-expression. Young people who are comfortable with creativity can apply the same innovative mindset to their adult lives.

raj133.deviantart.com/art/Creativity-128976659

raj133.deviantart.com/art/Creativity-128976659

Creativity is necessary when dealing with an architectural dilemma, new recipe, marketing campaign, environmental solution, or personal relationship. In fact, it’s essential.

waterpolo218.deviantart.com/art/no-creativity-346991145

waterpolo218.deviantart.com/art/no-creativity-346991145

Imagination and inspiration have fueled human progress throughout time. Creative powers have brought us marvels and continue to expand the boundaries. The energy underlying the creative act is life-sustaining and honors the work of others.

pixabay.com/en/users/johnhain-352999/

pixabay.com/en/users/johnhain-352999/

But there’s a caveat. Creativity isn’t always positive, visionaries aren’t always compassionate, and progress isn’t always beneficial. After all, a clever mind is required to craft a conspiracy as well as to negotiate a peace accord.

raj133.deviantart.com/art/Creativity4-128977034

raj133.deviantart.com/art/Creativity4-128977034

Creativity is a life force when it arises as a healing impulse, as a truth-telling impulse, as an impulse to approach mystery.

mrcool256.deviantart.com/art/Basking-in-Creativity-22613894

mrcool256.deviantart.com/art/Basking-in-Creativity-22613894

Tomorrow’s possibilities call out to our inventive, imaginative selves. Let’s answer.

flora-silve.deviantart.com/art/Terre-104561782

flora-silve.deviantart.com/art/Terre-104561782

Portions of this post were excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Evoking the State of Flow

state of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, rapt absorption, learning through flow, advance learning with flow,

CC by 2.0 Jonf728’s flickr photostream

Flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”   ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

My daughter spent much of this week with a deer skeleton she found in the woods.

As she searched the site she was thrilled to find most bones intact. My only involvement was providing toothbrushes and bleach to clean them.

Today she’s reassembling the skeleton in the driveway. She shows me how the back legs fit into the hip sockets, giving the deer power to leap and run while the front legs are mostly held on by bone and connective tissue.

She points out that the spine is somewhat similar to a human spine in the lower thoracic and upper lumbar regions, but very different where the large cervical vertebrae come in.

I know so little about this topic that I forget what she’s telling me while she speaks.

Handling the bones carefully, she faithfully reconstructs the skeleton. She’s so deeply engrossed in the project that she hasn’t come in for lunch or bothered to put on a jacket to ward off the chill.

Her interests are far different than mine, but I know what it’s like to be this captivated.

You know the feeling too. You become so absorbed in something that time scurries by without your notice. Your whole being is engrossed by the project. You feel invigorated.

Skiers call it becoming “one with the mountain.” Athletes call it being in the “zone.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed it the “state of flow.”

In this marvelous state the boundaries between you and your experience seem fluid, as if you are merging with what you’re doing. The more opportunities any of us have to immerse ourselves in activities we love, especially those that stretch us to our full capacities, the more capable and centered we feel in other areas of our lives.

Photo by Claire Weldon

Children, especially the youngest ones, slide into flow effortlessly. While playing they concentrate so fully that they lose sense of themselves, of time, even of discomfort. They’re inherently drawn to full-on engagement. As Csikszentmihalyi explains in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.

For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”

Kids demonstrate flow when they’re eagerly drawing, building, climbing, pretending, reading, exploring—-however rapt involvement captures them. Their intent focus makes a mockery of what is supposedly a child’s developmental handicap — a short attention span.

Flow truly puts a person in the moment. No wonder it can be hard for our kids when we call them away from what they’re doing to what we deem more important. No wonder they might be more enthusiastic about playing with Legos than taking part in a structured geometry lesson.

Imposing too many of our grown-up preoccupations on kids can teach them to block the experience of flow.

What do we need to remember about this state?

Flow is typically triggered:

  1. when a person’s abilities are stretched nearly to their limits
  2. during a self-chosen pursuit
  3. when they are looking to accomplish something worthwhile to them.

These characteristics are also the way we’re primed to learn from infancy on. It’s been called the Goldilocks Effect. This means we are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for us. Not too big a challenge, not too little, but something that sparks our interest and holds it close to the edge of our abilities, moving us toward greater mastery.

That’s pretty much the way science, art, and other major human endeavors happen too. Flow may indeed be our natural state.

Public domain by Cheryl Holt.

How do we encourage flow?

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some ways to allow more flow in your kids’ lives (and yours too!).

  • Foster a calm, relaxed environment.
  • Engage in what brings out delighted fascination. If you’re not sure what that is, fool around with something hands-on. Tinker, paint, write, sculpt with clay, take something apart, dance, experiment—-whatever feels enticing.
  • Let go of worry and pressure.
  • Welcome mistakes as well as challenges.
  • As much as possible, don’t interrupt.
  • Remember that flow isn’t really separate from play.

The outcome of flow?

  • Deepened learning and stronger confidence.
  • A drive toward complexity, luring us to increase challenges, broaden our range of abilities, even face anxiety and boredom as we access an ever more profound state of engagement. (As A Playful Path author Bernie DeKoven explains here.)
  • Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work tells us achieving the flow state regularly is a key component of happiness.

That’s vital, even if it means you end up with a deer skeleton in your driveway.

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning

Why Learning Must Be Hands-On

 

hands-on learning, hands-on education, hand and brain connection, direct learning,

images: morguefile

Children are drawn to explore the world through their senses. (We all are, at any age.) When they are fully involved, what they learn is entwined with the experience itself. A child’s whole being strains against the limitations of curricula meant only for eyes and ears, or that assigns closed-ended tasks.

A typical school or school-at-home lesson intended to teach a child about worms may have diagrams of a worm’s body to label and a few paragraphs about the importance of worms, followed by comprehension questions. If the child musters up enthusiasm to learn more about worms despite this lackluster approach, there’s no time to do so because directly after the science lesson the child must go on to the next subject. When education is approached in this disconnected manner, the brain doesn’t process the information in long-term storage very effectively. It has no context in the child’s experience and no connection to the child’s senses.

On the other hand, a child encountering a worm while helping in the garden gains body memories to associate with the experience. The heft of a shovel, sun on her face, fragrant soil on her knees, and the feel of a worm in her hands provide her with sensory detail. She also encodes the experience with emotion. Her father likes to read books about soil health and sometimes she looks at the pictures. When she asks about worms he answers the few questions she has. And when she is satisfied he doesn’t go on to give her more information than she can handle. Next time they go to the library or get online they may decide to find out more about worms. She may be inspired on her own to draw worms, save worms from the sidewalk after the next rain, or otherwise expand on that moment in the garden. She is much more likely to retain and build on what she has learned.

The difference between these two approaches is worlds apart. Separating children from meaningful participation, as in the first example, doesn’t simply impair comprehension. It changes the way learning takes place. The child is made a passive recipient of education designed by others. Then the excitement of learning is transformed into a duty.

Education that treats the brain apart from the body will ultimately fail. Our senses cannot be denied. They inform the mind and encode memory. We must see, hear, smell, touch and, yes, taste to form the kinds of complex associations that make up true understanding. We humans are direct hands-on learners.

Brain development and hand use are inextricably intertwined. When neurologist Frank R. Wilson interviewed high achievers to understand this connection, he found that people credit their success to attributes learned through hands-on activities.  In The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture Wilson writes:

I was completely unprepared for the frequency with which I heard the people whom I interviewed either dismiss or actively denounce the time they had spent in school. Most of my interview subjects, although I never asked them directly, said quite forcefully that they had clarified their own thinking and their lives as a result of what they were doing with their hands. Not only were most of them essentially self-taught, but a few had engineered their personally unique repertoire of skills and expertise in open retreat from painful experiences in a school system that had dictated the form and content of their education in order to prepare them for a life modeled on conventional norms of success.

Hands-on experience makes learning come alive. For example, principles of geometry and physics become apparent while children work together figuring out how to stack firewood. They develop multiple layers of competence as they solve tangible problems. Their bodies are flooded with sensation, locking learning into memory. Such experiences develop a stronger foundation for working with abstract postulates, theorems, and formulas later on. (Household responsibilities are actually a vital way to incorporate more hands-on experience, with amazing long-term benefits.)

When we’re engaged hands-on something greater can come into being. We gain a sense of effortlessness, of becoming one with the movement. Then it seems we’re longer working with things, but with material partners in a process of co-creation. Work and play are one, we are whole within it.

direct learning, hands-on learning, hand and brain connection,

image: morguefile

Portions of this article excerpted from Free Range Learning.

 

Global Village Construction Set

It’s possible to plant 50 trees in one afternoon.

To press 5,000 bricks from the dirt beneath your feet in one day.

To build an affordable tractor in six days.

It’s possible thanks to the members of Open Source Ecology (OSE). They aren’t armchair visionaries. These engineers, farmers, and developers are dedicated to making communities sustainable and self-reliant. They’re taking on scarcity and inequality with open source enthusiasm

OSE got its start when Marcin Jakubowski’s tractor broke.  Well, lets back up a little. After Jakubowski earned a PhD in the physics of fusion energy, he bought a farm in Missouri where he grew fruit trees and raised goats. One day his tractor broke. He didn’t have the hands-on experience to fix it himself. But he hauled out some can-do attitude along with his welder and torch. He realized a tractor is simply a box with wheels, each powered by hydraulic motors.  So he bolted together square steel tubing to make one from scratch. It worked.

This inspired him to look beyond pricey, commercially made machines. He began to come up with versions that were hardy, low-cost, and constructed out of locally sourced or repurposed materials. His posted designs generated lots of enthusiasm and input. Participants began showing up to help build prototypes on project days, becoming OSE collaborators.

The idea evolved. They considered what it takes to build independent, sustainable communities that support farming, construction, small manufacturing,  and power generation. They came up with a list of the 50 machines most important for modern life including a hay baler, bakery oven, laser cutter, drill press, solar concentrator, and truck.  Low cost, industrial strength, DIY versions of these machines became known as the Global Village Construction Set.  The motors, parts, and other fittings of these machines are designed to be interchangeable. All the 3D designs, schematics, and instructional videos are posted on the OSE Wiki.

On average, constructing these machines costs about eight times less than comparable machines made by industrial manufacturers. As Jakubowski explained in his recent TED talk, “Our goal is a repository of published design so clear, so complete, that a single burned DVD is effectively a civilization starter kit. ..The implications are significant: a greater distribution of the means of production, environmentally sound supply chains, and a newly relevant DIY Maker culture can hope to transcend artificial scarcity.”

So often hope seems abstract.  This is tangible hope, made of steel. It puts independence and equality in reach for people in both the developed and developing world.  Welding never seemed so inspiring.

Originally published at Wired.com