I embrace mistakes. I do. Really. I don’t mind making mistakes. I always think of creative ways to fix them. I’m not sure how I developed this mindset. Maybe it has something to do with being the youngest in my family. I was always making mistakes and being reprimanded for them, so early on I decided to make them into a game – How can I change that problem into something positive? How can I make that ink blot an artistic design? How can I take that hole in my jeans and make it into an embroidered masterpiece? How can I take what you think is wrong and make it right? I will prove to you that indeed it is not a mistake, a problem, or an obstacle. I will prove to you that It is an opportunity. It will be a success not a defeat.
Come to think about it, maybe my tenacious mindset could just be called stubbornness, but it has kept me in good stead. On the last day of school, I received a text from a former colleague and dear friend who wrote, I admire your perseverance and steadfastness. Maybe that’s what it is. But whatever it is, I think of it and call it “The Work Around.” And I teach this to children. No matter what problem you face, what obstacle you encounter, there is ALWAYS a work around. There is always some way you can solve a problem and improve your situation. You just have to keep curious and be willing to play with your stumbling block. Toss it around a bit, roll it down the hill, bounce it into the bushes. Don’t be afraid. Create something new.
I had a chance to practice what I preach during these last few weeks of school. I was told that the school’s Wonder Lab had to be dismantled so that it could become the Computer Science & Engineering classroom. I had worked on designing and developing the Wonder Lab concept for the last five years. The Wonder Lab had been an old art room, which I was allowed to renovate. It was a beautiful space filled with all kinds of materials with which students could freely use, explore and create. They could make dolls, cars, tree houses, restaurants, skateboards, complicated marble runs, and anything else they could imagine. And they did. The space was loud and messy at times. Those were the times that I looked around and smiled because I knew the kids were engineers of their own learning. It was a true play space. No adult was telling the kids what to do or think or design. When I first explained the concept to the children, I thought they might be hesitant, but I was mistaken. From the first day, the kids ran to the materials with visions already in their heads. They began constructing immediately, and only asked my advice when they needed a particular item or help with the hot glue gun. Thanks to the Wonder Lab, I have become a master hot glue gunner!
I tried to explain the importance of cultivating creativity and free play in childhood to administrators and colleagues. Over the years, I’ve noticed that little kids are exuberant and willing to take risks, while the older students begin judging themselves and limit their possibilities. The Wonder Lab started to remedy that. We were just beginning. But I couldn’t convince them, and I started to dismantle the room glue stick by glue stick, egg carton by egg carton. However, before it was completely shut down, our 4th graders commandeered the space, creating PBL projects on the importance of play. They made cars, games, a club house, play dough, and dozens of fidgets. As I watched them, I realized I couldn’t just let the space slip through our hands. This space was necessary. It was important not just to me, but to the children. They needed to have this kind of space, and I had to think of a work around.
For a couple of days, I sulked, ate chocolate cake, and consumed an entire bag of popcorn in one sitting. I tossed my stumbling block in the air. It fell on my head with a thud a couple of times, and then something happened. There is a space in between the Wonder Lab and my office. It is a small open lobby where I had to temporarily store all the Wonder Lab materials. I looked at it and imagined it clear of clutter. It would make a great wonder space for a small group! I would just need to store the materials in another part of the building. This could become a cozy creative space, a Wonder Studio of sorts. When I shared my idea with a colleague, she looked at me with a smile and shook her head. I asked her, “Do you think it won’t work?” She said, “No, I think it’s a great idea. I’m just amazed by the way you don’t give up. You are always thinking of another way to do things.” I told her that I had a lot of disappointments in my life, and the work around was my way of dealing with them. I almost let this disruption defeat me, and then I thought of the kids. I couldn’t just let the space go because the kids definitely, absolutely, unequivocally need to play!
One of my 4th grade students is extremely creative. She is a dreamer and constant tinkerer. Last year, she attempted to make a life-sized model of a bison. A bison? Yes, a bison. Her class was studying Native American culture, and Simone became intrigued by bison. I found a huge refrigerator box and she started to shape and construct the bison. Then COVID struck and the bison was abandoned. We talked about making a smaller, more portable version, but the Wonder Lab had been closed most of the year due to COVID restrictions. During the last month of school, I gave the 4th graders time to construct projects centering on play. Simone asked for another big box. I found one, and she immediately began making what she calls “A Fidget House.” It is a small house with a duct tape wrapped roof and an opening strung with colorful beads you can play with. Looking back, Simone has had a rough year. COVID made her anxious and her attention to her school work has fluctuated. She has trouble sleeping and of course, trouble initiating and completing assignments. But when I watched her build that house, she had laser-focus. She had no trouble initiating or following-through. When problems arose with the construction of the house, it didn’t stop her. She thought of a work around. That is when I truly knew that I would not let Wonder Lab disappear. I had to find a way to keep it going because Simone and her schoolmates are in desperate need of a place to create, imagine, wonder, and play.
During the last week of school, I spoke with Simone privately. We talked about the obstacles she faced this year. We made a vision board of what she imagines in the future school year. As she filled in the board with possibility, an idea popped into my head. I asked Simone if she’d like to be captain of the Wonder Team. She turned to me quickly, eyes wide and smiling. Until that moment, we didn’t have a Wonder Team. We didn’t even have a Wonder Lab anymore, but I wanted Simone to know that I valued her ingenuity. She was a leader in creativity and curiosity. Together we would make it up and figure out the work arounds.
Books for Kids about the Possibilities in Mistakes
Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg
Crazy Hair Day by Barney Saltzberg
Even Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker
Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae
Ish by Peter Reynolds
Mary Had a Little Lab by Sue Fliess
Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be by Charlotte Foltz Jones
One by Kathryn Otoshi
Only One You by Linda Kranz
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty
The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
The Day Roy Riegels Ran the Wrong Way by Dan Gutman and Kerry Talbott
The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett
The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubenstein
The Lumberjack’s Beard by Duncan Beedie
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
The Quilt Maker’s Journey by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken
Was That on Purpose of by Accident? By Janelle Fenwick
Zero by Kathryn Otoshi
Play is the work of children. It is very serious stuff.
– Bob Keeshan, AKA Captain Kangaroo