During the last two weeks, I have had the good fortune to get back into the Wonder Studio with students. The Wonder Studio is a little swathe of space formerly the lobby of an old Victorian building that houses some of my school’s classrooms and offices. I created the space to give children a place to craft and have agency over their own imaginations. I gather junk, art and craft materials, and recyclables, and then stand back to see what the girls do with them. Wonder Studio is not a class, though the girls have begged it to be. Studio time is granted two days a week during recess on the days that I don’t have meetings at lunchtime.
This spring, I invited the 5th graders to come back into the Wonder Studio. They love to make messes. Today, they sang the “Clean-up Song” to me that they learned in Pre-K. They sang so sweetly and earnestly, however they didn’t quite clean everything up. Some of them tried to skip out without cleaning brushes or throwing away paper scraps. I get it. I was twelve once. I was, I assure you – and I too loved to make messes, create, build, and imagine. And I still do.
Last week, while Laila was working on yet another new project, I observed aloud that she often created things and then abandoned them. She looked up at me grinning.
“I know,” she said, “I love the process.”
I laughed and agreed. Then I asked her if I could dismantle her massive seashell sculpture so others could use the shells. She gave me her permission. As I worked ungluing the shells, Laila started looking around the room at my materials. She often finds things I didn’t know I had. Soon, Laila held up a small pink plastic bowl, which was serving as a container for someone else’s small project. I looked at her skeptically.
“They won’t mind. It’s not part of the project.” Laila promised. “Here,” she said as she held up a small box, “They can use this.” And off Laila went with bowl in hand to create her next project.
The other girls in the group spend time making bracelets, sewing patchwork pillows, decorating small boxes, or making little rooms decorated with paint, glue, and cotton balls. Everyone is quiet and very intentional in their constructing. I do not offer advice unless asked, and I help with construction only when the student needs assistance. I keep my distance and my humor. Wonder Studio time is actually my time to relax and let joy come to me. It always does, and it’s worth the mess and the cajoling to clean up.
Laila got out her favorite tool, the hot glue gun and began to adhere things to the small plastic bowl. She found that the plastic forks did not stay on properly and then peeled them off. Next, Laila took some fat pink yarn and began to wind it onto the bottom of the bowl. She wanted to use counting bears from the math lab closet, but I told her that we couldn’t use math materials. She frowned and began hunting for a replacement. She found small wooden objects: an alligator, a bear, a snail, a leaf, and a heart. As I watched this process, I was fascinated by how quick she worked and how undaunted she was when she encountered failure. In fact, Laila didn’t think of it as failure, she was enjoying the challenge. Laila would just try something new if the first thing she thought of didn’t work. At one point, I asked her what she was making.
With a smile, she turned and said, “A centerpiece for your desk!”
I laughed and said, “Laila – when I’m old and in the retirement home I hope you will stop by and show me photos of all the sculptures you have on exhibit all over the world.”
“I will,” Laila said cheerfully and got back to work. When it was time to clean up, she was reluctant. I put the bowl in my office and told her that it would be waiting for her when she returned to the Wonder Studio.
Today, Laila finished her project. She put a wooden pedestal in the center of the bowl and turned it over. Then she glued the pedestal to a jar lid and turned it upside down. She came over and handed it to me.
“The centerpiece for my desk?” I asked, taking it carefully into my hands.
“A lamp for your desk,” Lalia replied.
I laughed, “Of course, a lamp. It looks just like a lamp. I am going to put it by pink teapot. Thank you.”
And with that, Laila turned back into the Wonder Studio and started another project, this time with beads. She took hot glue and put it at the end of some string. “This way, I don’t have to make a knot,” she said.
Human imagination continues to surprise me. After forty-two years of teaching. I’m still not sure how to teach this kind of ingenuity. The only thing I do know is to make space and step out of the way. I know that I have to be quiet and listen. My students always show me the way. They know what they need. They know when they are stuck. They know how to change their circumstances and make something new. The process is the learning, and they are totally engaged and in the flow of creating. The key is to embrace the process.