All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved
for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed…
– John Ruskin
When I conceived of the Wonder Studio eight years ago, I thought of a space where students could go to create and play with craft and building materials. I wanted the kids to have freedom to think up an idea and create it. Their projects were not made by following directions. They were made by experimenting and tinkering; trying out an idea and changing it.
For the first six years, the space was called Wonder Lab, and it was housed in a large former art room where kids could build large projects with cardboard, wood, duct tape, hammers, nails, and paint. Then, two years ago, the Wonder Lab space was needed for a new Computer Science & Engineering (CS&E) Lab, so I quietly moved to the lobby area between the CS&E and my office. It was cozy with a fireplace and access to a circular porch. I dubbed it the Wonder Studio and continued to invite children to come and imagine, and they have. Their projects are smaller now, but their ideas continue to be big.
Sometimes, I think the children are not paying attention, that they don’t fully understand the importance of the Wonder Studio. And of course, I’ve been proven wrong. This week, a group of 5th graders were working on building a replica of their classrooms to present as a gift to their teachers on Teacher Appreciation Day. They have been working diligently to complete it for the past six weeks. As they began to decorate the structure, they wrapped muslin onto the walls of the classroom. They used Elmer’s glue and as a result the fabric bubbled and buckled. I wish they had consulted me beforehand, but they are an independent and tenacious lot. When they came to me for advice, we talked about their options. First, I thought of removing the fabric, but it was glued down so well, it would have destroyed the walls. Next, we tried smoothing it with our hands and some tongue depressors. Then, I tried pulling the fabric tighter and trimming off the excess. The girls were dismayed and dissatisfied. I told them that when the fabric dried, it might look better, and that when they attached the miniature bulletin boards and whiteboards, they would hide much of the buckling fabric.
The leader of the group was clearly disappointed. She said, “Oh it’s ugly now. Let’s give it to Mrs. Emery.”
I smiled, “Well, thank you very much. You are going to give me it because you think it’s ugly?”
Another girl piped up quickly,” No, Mrs. Emery, we’d give it to you because you are a creator, and you understand when thing don’t turn out perfectly. You love them anyway.”
I laughed and touched my heart, “That is the best thing I’ve heard in a long time. Thank you.”
Then we returned to work together to make the fabric smoother. They decided that they would indeed give the model to their teachers. I can’t wait to see how it finally turns out.
Never underestimate children! They truly appreciate this space in which to make mistakes. And I’m so glad I created it for them. I beam with pride knowing that they see me as being someone who accepts mistakes; someone who embraces ugly. I have always been that way. I don’t know why. Naturally shy with people, I am bold when crafting. I love challenging myself and trying new things. I’m okay if something turns out wobbly and uneven. That gives the object more character, more charm, more substance.
My favorite movie as a child was The Music Man. First of all, it was a musical, and as a kid I wished life was a musical, so we could all burst into song at any moment of the day, in good times and bad. Indeed, the world would be a better place if this were the case. The ending of The Music Man has remained in my memory, and its message took hold deep in my heart and mind. Professor Harold Hill was clearly a huckster, but he was also a dreamer. So when his music students (who could not read a note of music) come out to march in the town parade, they are seen by Professor Hill and the townspeople as being a brilliant, accomplished band. That scene formed my philosophy of education, which has sustained me for over 40 years: Give kids space and encouragement to create. Applaud both their accomplishments and their mistakes. With time, they will surely grow and do great things.