Webster dictionary defines ingenuity as “skill or cleverness in devising or combining,”  while Oxford describes it as “the ability to invent things or solve problems in clever new ways.”  When speaking with children about the word ingenuity, one adventurous student replied, “Maybe it means a new engine.”  And in a way, she is correct.  Ingenuity is like a new engine: it is revved up and ready to go.

This week, I’ve been forced to relax and reflect at home due to a classic head cold. I have not sneezed this much in a long time!  Wandering my small space, I began to think up interesting brews that might make me feel better.  I am a tea drinker, so I like to experiment: mint tea with lemon and honey, black tea with orange and cardamom, green tea with ginger, lemon, and honey, chai tea with extra cinnamon and cider, the list goes on and on.  I sip cup after cup and feel warm and comforted. 

As dinnertime rolled around, I realized I needed more sustenance than tea, so I started thinking about soup.  I didn’t look in my many cookbooks – No!  That would be too ordinary, too mundane, too reliable.  I decided to invent some soup recipes.  I needed strong flavors that would clear up my sinuses.  First, I made a hardy chicken tortilla soup, full of tomatoes and a bit of jalapeños.  The next day, I made a miso broth filled with onions, garlic , ginger, lemon, and snow peas.  It smelled so good, that I kept sticking my face over the pot to breathe in the aromatic steam. Then, I thought back to my Italian roots and made a vegetable-based soup filled with pureed basil and garlic, potatoes, and chickpeas.  The smell of basil always reminds me of my Grandpa Tony.  He was a consummate gardener and grower of basil.  The soups were all wonderful.  I loved creating them from scratch without any compass.  I just let my mind flow and combine the tastes I love.

Feeling a bit better from my soup consumption, one afternoon I took a short stroll around my neighborhood. It was a warm September day – blue skies with a bit of a breeze to let us know fall is surely on its way.  Suddenly, I became aware of wild movement.  I look across the street and a girl, about eleven or twelve-years-old with long dark hair, is sitting at the top of her driveway on a red stool with wheels.  The stool resembles an office chair without a back.  In her hand is a large push broom.  The girl propels herself down the inclined driveway, using the broom as a kind of oar or rudder.  She is whirling and twirling down the drive.  She leans back on the stool and is giggling with delight.  She uses the broom to steer herself back uphill and does the whole swirling motion again and again. I move quickly on. I don’t want her to see me because I don’t want to interrupt her joy. 

As I walk away, I smile to myself.  Witnessing that type of ingenious joy reminds me of when I was eleven and twelve.  My friends and I loved creating games out of things we found in our yards and around our neighborhood.  One time, we made a hammock of old woven rope.  It was a wonderfully intricate invention.  When I hopped in, it enveloped me rolled me around and out onto the ground while still keeping hold of my left foot.  I lay on the ground writhing in laughter. My friends had to rescue me, and that was all part of the experiment.  Another time,  I found an old skateboard with chipped wheels.  I was adamant that it was still useful.  I hopped on it down a steep hill with an old hockey stick for balance.  Thank goodness for that hockey stick.  The skateboard hit a stone and abruptly stopped, and I had to use the stick to break my fall.  Even when my inventions failed, I was not deterred.  I loved the process of experimentation.  I loved thinking up new possibilities.

As I walked back to my home, I saw my young neighbor again.  She was still in the process of creating her red stool ballet.  Her body was staying back and forth in a curlicue fashion.  She was pure poetry in motion. Maybe she was inventing a new Olympic game: a cross between luge and curling or skateboarding and polo. Or maybe she was just having fun!

Embracing the Process

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.