The Story of Story Wall

by Emily Vallowe


Story Wall started with petroglyphs and ended with soup.  I think that means that I did something right.

The idea for Story Wall grew out of my curiosity about how scholars interpret ancient rock engravings.  How could anyone in the year 2013 possibly understand the intent of an artist who lived and died thousands of years ago?  Navigating the swampy roads of intent and interpretation is, of course, a tricky business in any artistic medium no matter what the distance between the artist and the audience.  As an English major, I have spent so much time traipsing through bogs of ambiguous text that the ideas of interpretation and intent are probably never far below the surface of my conscious thoughts.  However, this question of petroglyphs threw the intent-interpretation relationship into my mind in a new and exciting way, and I wanted to explore it.

Oral storytelling was another source of inspiration for this project.  I could tell you that once this petroglyph question entered my head, I got the idea to explore it through storytelling, but that wouldn’t be quite the truth.  The truth is that if the museum was going to let me do a project, that project was going to involve stories…because there’s nothing else I could have done.  A side effect of being a writer is that you develop crazy notions about stories being the fibers of the universe, which leaves little room for other interests (such as finding a job that does not involve creating more universe fibers).  Yet, thinking about petroglyphs put me in a mindset of ancient things, and I found myself pondering one of the oldest forms of storytelling that grew out of cultures all over the world: the spoken tale.  In a world in which so many of our current modes of storytelling — film, television, and video games — combine multiple media, I wanted to get back to basics and focus on the power of a single human voice.

So those were my grand ideas.  Transforming them into something that could function as a drop-in workshop at a children’s museum was where things got tricky.

My original idea was to have kids draw pictures of whatever they wanted, post their drawings on a wall, and then interpret any number of drawings on the wall to tell a story.  However, after discussing and prototyping this idea with the museum’s education team and my fellow interns, it was clear the workshop needed a bit more structure.  The first step in building this structure was to challenge museum visitors to tell a story by using only five drawings from the wall.  Next, I needed to create some prompt cards that visitors could use as inspiration for their drawings, a task which proved to be more challenging than I had expected.


Because the drawings were meant to serve as inspiration for stories, I figured that the prompt cards for these drawings should contain the building blocks of a narrative.  I therefore started brainstorming with the concepts of character, setting, and plot in the back of my mind.  My first draft of prompt cards contained topics such as “a school for pirates” and “a picnic for astronauts.”  These prompts were problematic for several reasons.  For starters, they were difficult to classify.  Did the school for pirates belong under the setting or the character category — or did the action taking place there make it a plot element?  While worrying whether classifying the prompts as one thing or another would limit visitors’ creativity, I realized a much bigger problem with these prompts: they were already limiting visitors’ creativity because they were too close-ended.  Visitors might have different interpretations of what a school for pirates might look like, but they would all be drawing pictures of schools and pirates.

For subsequent drafts of prompt cards I focused on narrative archetypes and tried to write about these archetypes in the most open-ended way possible.  For example, the prompt card that started out as “a new superhero” became “a hero,” then “someone brave,” and then “a brave character” out of concern that the word “someone” might lead visitors to only draw humans.  The “a school for pirates” and “a picnic for astronauts” prompts became the setting cards “a place to learn” and “a place to eat.”  I simplified my plot cards to things such as “a journey,” “a prediction,” and “a mix-up” and relabeled them “action cards.”  After realizing that it might be awkward and challenging to draw an action, I decided that these cards could provide inspiration when visitors began brainstorming their oral narratives.  Finally, I wanted a “stuff” category that would include important narrative elements such as magical objects and food.  A coworker suggested that I call this category “artifacts,” and this label had the added benefit of sounding super cool.


With my prompt cards finished, I was ready to try out my workshop with the museum’s visitors.  However, even minutes before the workshop was about to start, I had no idea what was going to happen.  I worried that an activity that had started out lacking structure had become over-structured, and I wondered how kids would respond to the procedure of, “First choose a prompt card from one of these three categories, then draw a picture, then post it on the wall, then choose four other pictures from the wall, then pick another prompt card, and then tell a story. Oh, and let us record it.”  At that point, there was nothing I could do but wait and see.

Kids of course reacted to the workshop in ways that I never could have predicted.  I recorded two amazing stories, but each young storyteller created about ten drawings and then used only his drawings to tell a story.  The rest of the participants added drawings to the wall but were not interested in using other people’s drawings to create a narrative.

Not sure what to make of this information, I spent the next two weeks wondering how to revise the workshop.  The best I could come up with was to rethink the workshop’s physical logistics and reconsider how I would introduce its different steps.  Yet, with less than forty-eight hours before the second iteration of Story Wall was scheduled to start, I had a sudden idea: what if, rather than choosing four drawings from the wall, visitors picked four surprise drawings out of a hat?!  I snagged the black plastic cauldron that was sitting in the corner of the Innovation Lab and decided to test out this idea.


The cauldron turned out to be just what my project needed.  Picking surprise drawings out of a pot was more fun and less intimidating than trying to choose drawings off a wall covered in other people’s artwork.  Having the pictures be a surprise also created a richer creative exercise by adding constraints and by challenging visitors to connect seemingly unrelated images. The cauldron also provided the element of collaboration that I had hoped to include in my project, as most visitors were happy to add their drawings to the pot after they had told their stories.  This new method of collaboration provided so much inspiration that visitors had no trouble coming up with narratives; I never even used my action cards!


If I could do this project over from the beginning, I would probably name it Story Soup because that plastic pot was the spice and substance that I needed to hold this project together.  In the end, the wall became the least important element of Story Wall.  And that’s okay.  Like a story, Story Wall went through many drafts and revisions, and I had to keep chipping away at it until I dug out its core.  I hope that the online gallery of drawings and stories will encourage people to reflect on how different folks can interpret the same image in multiple ways, and I am thrilled that visitors had so much fun participating in this creative challenge.

Thus ends the story of Story Wall.  Remain calm!  More stories await you at


Critter Creation Workshop

by Emma Freedcritter creation poster

At the Children’s Creativity Museum, visitors are given many opportunities to be designers and storytellers. In the Animation Studio, children create their own characters to animate in imagined scenarios; in the Innovation Lab, they design homes for flowers, ways to breathe in outer space, and Tyrannosaurus Rex dentures. For my first solo workshop as a Creative Fellow, I wanted to give children a chance to be character designers, combining my personal interests in toys and character design with my desire to create storytelling tools for children.

IMG_1287I came to the museum with a struggle; I was interested in pursuing a career designing toys and media for children, but was frustrated with the idea of “selling” to kids. Why should I be the creator, and children mere consumers? The material culture of childhood is, in many ways, shaped and imposed on children by adults. While toys function as story props for children engaging in narrative fantasy play, over-determined toys are actually influencing the stories and robbing kids of character design opportunities.

IMG_1370Children have a strong grasp of character, as they have been exposed to dozens of archetypes in fairytales and children’s literature and television programming from a young age. Character traits across media, (such as film, animation, and computer games), are presented visually, audibly (through voice acting) and physically, something that is often exaggerated when marketed to children. Toys such as dolls and figures often come with inherent personality traits that kids intuitively pick up on; slanted eyebrows with a smile evoke mischievousness, soft flowery colors evoke sweetness, and a muscular build with bold, primary colors evoke a heroic personality. Physical design elements of a toy character therefore influence the narrative in children’s fantasy play, and toys are becoming increasingly authored: “Toys today are a mass medium, a channel where stories get published in parallel to film, comics or computer games…(there is) a cross-breeding between the stories inscribed in toys and the stories invented by children during play” [1].  Although a toy with a strong personality can inspire and prompt fantasy play, there is a risk that a toy’s narrative is so determined that it dampens creativity. 


The point is that adults interpose themselves in questions of character by conceiving, designing and making choices for children. This idea of determinism in toy design is something that CCM’s educational philosophy actually addresses; at CCM, the idea of “20% inspiration” is essentially a way of avoiding under or over-determined design. Providing just the right amount more than a blank canvas can unlock creative potential in children.


With the goal for my workshop clear, (to give children a chance to design their own toys), I had the following three things to work out; 1) What is my 20% inspiration? 2) What materials and tools can I use so that children can do a maximum of the designing and making, independently from adult assistance? 3) How can I formalize character creation?

critter creation final 12-4

The answer to the first question came easily. What better inspiration for character design than the museum’s own Creativity Critters? As for materials, I chose based on safety and universality; using felt, yarn, and craft fluff to create plushies meant that kids of all ages could safely participate and I could avoid the gender bias that comes with dolls.

critter creation instructions

Finally, for the question of formalizing character design, I thought back to my scriptwriting class in college. My professor would constantly remind the class, “You must know your characters, inside and out!”, and catch students off guard by asking what their protagonist’s favorite fruit might be, how many siblings he or she had, or what his or her pajamas looked like.

I realized that it didn’t really matter what character traits kids were asked to come up with, as long as they were encouraged to think about the individual personality of the critter they created. I designed a name tag that kids could fill out when they finished making their plushies, asking for the critter’s name, current mood, habitat, favorite food and hobbies.

name card 1 - critter_MG_1896

I had the workshop set up so that kids would draw and cutout a shape on two layers of a felt of their choosing, which they would then sew along the edges and stuff with fluff. (The really young kids could select a prepared plush to decorate). Kids could then decorate their plush shape with googley eyes, yarn, fluff or felt cutouts, and then take their critters to the photo booth area where they’d fill out the name tag.


After five months at the Children’s Creativity Museum, I have come to expect being blown away by kids’ reactions to workshops. I was thrilled with how enthusiastically they responded when prompted to come up with names for their critters, how patient even the young ones were with this tricky new sewing skill, and, of course, with their remarkable ability to cover anything and everything with googley eyes.


Although at the end of the day it was just a simple craft project, I accomplished my goal to provide children with tools for character design. A few days after my workshop, Hugo, (a regular visitor at CCM), brought in plush characters that he made on his own at home using the sewing technique he learned at the workshop. Mission accomplished!

Lessons learned:

  • Never underestimate a child’s creativity
  • 20% inspiration is enough
  • You always, always need more googley eyes

[1]  A. Harvard and S. Lovind “Psst”-ipatory Design: Involving artists, technologists, students and children in the design of narrative toys. Participation and Design: Inquiring Into the Politics, Contexts and Practices of Collaborative Design Work 2002. Proceedings of the Participatory Design Conference, Malmo. 2002

Raising Stations (Part 2)

At the Children’s Creativity Museum (, we are helping shape the next generation of innovators, inventors, tinkerers, storytellers and artists- the leaders of the 21st Century.

At CCM, we don’t teach children a subject. Through art and technology, we teach them how to learn, to be confident in their creativity, to collaborate and communicate with one another. To do our job right, we have to stay up to date with cutting edge technology. We want to be able to expose ALL children to state of the art equipment in addition to our state of the art teaching. We need to modernize our Animation Studio and we need YOUR help!

In our Animation Studio, it can be a challenge to keep up with current technology, while also addressing the various needs of our visitors.

There are many details of our older Animation Stations that hinder the creative process of our visitors:

• Exposed wires, which can lead to tech problems

• No angle options with cameras

• Dependent on natural lighting

• Unstable backgrounds

• Tables take up a lot of space, are stationary, and are too high for our younger visitors

It’s heartbreaking to watch a child work for hours on a clay animation movie, only to see it lost when he or she accidentally kicks a wire.

Fortunately, our new Animation Station prototype has addressed all of these problems. The prototype has been on the museum floor for nearly 5 months now and the visitors and staff love it! The design features include:

No exposed wires.  All wires are contained inside of the station with only one access door, keeping it safer from kicks and pulls.

Formica top – Durable and easy to clean.  Children could take a hammer to it and it won’t dent or chip.

Keyboard drawer can support 150 lbs– Just in case!

LED lighting – Low energy lighting that will last and has very low heat output (children can’t burn themselves on the light).  The lighting can be used to light the stage if needed in case of low lighting due to decreased natural lighting (cloudy day, late afternoon, etc).  Also, clay characters will be easier to see.

Portable – Everything is attached to and contained in each station with only one power plug coming out of the back.  This way the station can be unplugged and moved with a dolly to any space in the museum, allowing MORE children to access it.

• Smaller –  The station is smaller so that it can be easily used by our target audience for clay animation (6-12 years old), but also accessible for adults.

Backdrops – Backdrops can easily slide in and out so visitors can change scenes.  It also allows them to incorporate their background without it falling over.

Durable Materials – The station is made of a lightweight cabinet wood.  This makes it affordable, durable and easily transportable.

We Need Your Help!

Our prototype can currently host 4-5 kids at a time. Our goal is to upgrade all of our Animation Stations so that we can offer more children and families the opportunity to create together.

We need your support to help us reach our goal. If you’d like to make a donation please click here.


Thank you for your support and stay tuned for updates!

Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Children’s Creativity Museum

by Lauren Kennedy
(Video by Eli Africa)

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Children’s Creativity Museum invited Yerba Buena Garden visitors to share their dreams with us, just as Dr. King did on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The dreams we saw and heard that day included everything from a private candy island, a pair of wings to fly to a grandmother and a college degree at their ideal university. Although the dreamers we met that day may have been all different, they were the same in the way that they inspired us with the the ingenuity of their creativity and limitless thinking. Although MLK Day comes around only once a year, these dreamers made us realize that it is always the time to dream.

Our educator Eli Africa recorded these dreamers sharing their hopes and visions for the future and compiled this video in tribute to Dr. King and all those who see inspiration in the face of adversity.

Becoming a Creative Fellow

by Tomas Durkin

“Creative Fellows work closely with the Education and Exhibit Departments to drive innovation concepts, prototype new exhibits and programs, and gain experience in the fields of museum education, informal learning and design thinking…Creative Fellows have the opportunity to develop their skills as artists, educators, designers, and non-profit administrators through a combination of project-based learning and hands-on experience facilitating the Children’s Creativity Museum’s programs.”


In October of 2011, I discovered an intriguing program known as the Creativity Fellowship at The Children’s Creativity Museum.  I had been living in San Francisco for about a year and a half, and was starting to feel a disconnect between my studies for my MFA and my recently chosen career path of developing museum exhibits.  My creative drive was also beginning to wean.  Between being a perfectionist and a procrastinator, I was constantly sabotaging myself.  It seemed every project I worked on was completed in the early morning hours before it was due, or I would convince myself that if I just turned a project in late, I could make it even better.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had worked on something that wasn’t assigned to me by a professor.  I was looking for something more than just work-experience.  I needed something to change my life, not just to add on to it.

The last time I had felt a creative high was working on an exhibit for the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, CA.  The exhibit was an interdisciplinary collaboration between electrical engineering, music, and visual art students at UCSD.  We designed, constructed, and implemented an interactive kiosk that let visitors listen and see how different guitar effect pedals created their signature sounds.  I realized that I wanted to pursue a career working with museums and their exhibits.  This experience also led me to recognize that I am the most creative and productive in a collaborative environment, especially one where people bring a wide range of experiences to the table.  Not only does working with others offer you new perspectives that you wouldn’t otherwise consider, it also gives you a group of people that you don’t want to let down.  It’s much easier to give up on yourself when you’re the only person affected by that decision.

Unfortunately, my first application didn’t get a response.  The museum was in the middle of a rebrand at the time and my paperwork was probably lost amongst the commotion of renovating the museum.  I still felt incredibly drawn to this mysterious Creativity Fellowship and reapplied again in November.  This time I was asked to come in for an interview.  My persistence paid off and Ben Grossman-Kahn, the Education and Innovation Manager at the time, thought I would be a perfect fit.  I started training in January 2012 with the newly-hired Education Interns.  Fellows are thrown in head-first into all aspects of the museum, and I hit the ground running at full speed.  Within my first month, I was trained to lead all of the different field trip experiences.  I had experience working as a water sports instructor for 10 years, but informal education was never something that I had ever envisioned myself pursuing as a career path.  However, as I began to learn about the museum’s educational philosophies and the “Pillars of Creativity,” I discovered that I was a developing a tool set to not only help children overcome their creative speed bumps, but to help overcome my own creative mental blocks as well.

Imagination Starters and 20% Inspiration is one of the museum’s philosophies that first struck a chord with me both as an artist and as an exhibit designer.  One of the hardest things for anyone to do is to create something from a blank slate.  A blank, white piece of paper can be one of the most intimidating moments for an artist or a writer.  Everyday we glean inspiration from the world around us, which in turn helps influence our imagination and our decision making.  So why should we ignore or even repress the power of inspiration while we’re being creative?  We don’t live in a vacuum, so why should we be creative in one?  Here at CCM, we strive to provide inspiration in all of our exhibit spaces.  From building castles and forts in Imagination Lab to the various Mystery Box prompts, we want visitors to be inspired to create at every turn.  We never want there to be a question of “What do we here?”

One of my first projects as a Creative Fellow was to develop and facilitate a Rube Goldberg Workshop with a fellow intern to be held over Spring Break.  For those who are unfamiliar, a Rube Goldberg Machine is a deliberately-complicated device that accomplishes an extremely simple task.  Over the course of this project, I learned about the concept of “Failing Forward” first hand.  Our idea was that kids would help us make a combination of domino and marble runs that would travel all around our Birthday Party Room.  Instead of having everyone work on the same part of the of project at once, we divided the room into sections and assigned different parts of the run to different groups and visitors.  We then later connected the different sections together.  The problem was that enthusiastic visitors were so fascinated with the dominos and marble runs that they just kept knocking them over and giggling ecstatically at the result.  In the end, we spent so much time getting the marbles and dominos to work together, that our Rube Goldberg Machine never actually accomplished a task other than giving our unofficial mascot Aha a high five with a domino.  However, the process of watching kids create these intricate and innovative ideas was one of the most meaningful moments I’ve had here at CCM.  Some might even call this a “light bulb moment.”  It didn’t matter that our machine didn’t actually accomplish a task.  In fact, it never mattered.  What did matter was the process and the collaboration, not the end product.  Little did I know it then, but this was the beginning of my journey towards becoming an educator.

My largest undertaking as a fellow was to develop a brand new field trip for CCM called Video Game Design.  Using a software program called Scratch, students would learn the basics of programming by creating a Pacman-esque video game.  Using colored bricks as metaphors, Scratch teaches fundamental programming concepts such as user input, coordinate planes, conditional loops, and variables in a fun and easy-to-understand way.  Scratch is also completely free, and available on all platforms.  This meant that students could continue and expand upon what they learned with us, using the same tool set, and at no additional cost to them.  After overcoming my initial grumpiness that programming was not this easy when I was a kid, I very quickly realized the potential of being able to teach kids programming without forcing them to suffer through the meticulous task of typing code.  We were currently using Scratch at the museum on a very rudimentary level, but we were far from utilizing its full potential as a teaching tool.  After researching through various curricula and sample programs online, I developed a 2-hour field trip where I introduced students to as many concepts of programming as possible.  Even though students were learning under the premise of creating a video game, the thought-process and vocabulary that they were developing is relevant to a much wider range of potential applications.  This was my first real experience developing curriculum and I began to take on not only the day-to-day roles of being an educator, but the mindset as well.  When I first discovered the Fellowship, and even after my first couple weeks, I never expected that I would be spending so much time teaching.  I definitely did not expect to enjoy it as much I did and as I currently do.

I was hired as a full-time educator in October of 2012.  Being a teacher is not something I’ve actively pursued up to this point in my life or even seriously considered.  But on the other hand, I honestly can not see myself being anywhere else.  Never have I felt so much drive and purpose as I do right here, right now.  Being hired as a Creative Fellow will forever be one of the watershed moments of my life.  Even after a year, I still feel an incredible magnetism towards this place.  It’s difficult for me to describe in words the magic that is created within our oddly-shaped walls.  It is far easier to explain why it happens.  The answer is simply the people.  The staff, city guides, interns, and volunteers are what make this place so special.  Without them, none of this magic would happen.  Even when I was just hired as a Fellow, I could have a professional conversation with our Managers and Directors and not be disregarded as just a temporary employee.  And it’s not just that they’re good at their jobs, each and every person who works here possesses an endearing personality.  My co workers have ended up being a network of close friends that I never knew I had.  We are all incredibly dedicated to both our individual and our collaborative endeavours.  New ideas are encouraged, support is always around the corner, and creativity is simply everywhere.


Raising Stations

by Heather Roesner

IMG_1604clay station

“There is a way to do it better-find it” – Thomas Edison

The Children’s Creativity Museum (CCM) is a place that not only encourages creativity and collaboration with their visitors, but also their employees, interns, volunteers, and anyone else passing through their doors.  I’ve even watched as parents, inspired by our mission to build creative confidence, proudly display their own work or leave with their own creations in hand.  In a time when much of the professional world is filled with bosses, companies and organizations telling you exactly what to do and how to do it, it is inspiring to enter into the world at CCM, where individuality and creativity are encouraged. Here everyone’s ideas are valued and incorporated.  It is not just our mission, it is our culture to inspire creativity, encourage collaboration, and support communication.

I started at CCM as a part-time intern and thought that through fulfilling the internship I would gain experience for my future career. I wasn’t prepared for just how valuable the experience would be. It is hard not to be inspired in an atmosphere that encourages creative problem solving and original thought, especially when your opinion is valued all the way to upper management.

I am now a full-time educator, running educational programming and teaching design thinking to students and teachers. About 6 months ago, I decided to tackle my own creative design challenge. Our animation stations were falling apart and were hazardous to the success of children’s creativity. The problem was clear and I was full of ideas on how to fix it.  With the design thinking process in mind I embarked on an ambitious project to redesign the animation filming stations.  Little did I know the challenges I was about to face, how hard it would be to work within the constraints and how I would watch my deadline come and go with a prototype I had yet to deliver.

Empowered by the museum’s mission, I was brimming with creative confidence.  With a mockup of collaborative ideas I called the one designer and engineer I knew best, my father, who would support my ambitious goal to help this museum fulfill its mission and launch it into the future. I was determined to deliver CCM their first prototype of a new animation station that was not only functional for the daily visitors, but also for educational programming.  I was going to build this vision and I was going to do it all within my limitations of little time and very little money.

Something that gets tossed around on a daily basis here at CCM is “design thinking,” which is a creative process for problem solving. There are no judgments early on so that fear of failure is eliminated and the generation of ideas is maximized, which then leads to prototyping.  It is a process broken into five steps (empathy, define, ideate, prototype, and test) that encourages thinking outside of the box and leads to creative solutions.

I began this design process already a step ahead.  I had empathy. I had been using the animation station for the last several months, struggling with its less-than-perfect design to lead groups of 30+ students through clay animation classes. I observed as children and parents encountered the flaws in the design – wires were pulled out of the camera, power cords unplugged, cameras and stages bumped, network failures.   Anyone that has ever worked with children knows that one of the most heartbreaking things is to tell them that something they have created, put work and thought into has been lost or destroyed.

I asked my dad to come to the museum so he could see firsthand what an animation station was and how it was used.  During his visit he was able to see the problems encountered on a daily basis.  Armed with our insights and clear that the problem was within the design of the animation stations, we were ready to move directly into brainstorming a new design.

“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” – Dr. Linus Pauling


I spent two months going over designs, scanning and emailing with my dad, and showing coworkers the iterations during the progress of the design to get their input.  I drove all over the bay area researching cameras and mounts, trying to explain my vision to fabricators, retailers and experts across a variety of fields. In this moment I learned how easy it is to have an idea and how hard it can be to execute it.  After hair pulling meetings and hearing more ideas and viewpoints than I ever could’ve imagined, I finally found parts I could afford and a design most people agreed with. It was time to start building!


I needed to build this animation station prototype, a design that I had been toying over for months, but how would I do it when I was still working within the constraints of a very tiny budget and limited time.  My weekends for the next month (along with my designer/engineer dad) were consumed with visits to hardware stores, lumber yards, fabricators and even his personal tool shed.  I needed materials that would be durable and I needed them cheap.  After carrying my calculator through countless stores, my dad suggested that it might be time to turn to a fabricator and ask for help.  That’s when a meeting with a local wood products store in Northern California changed everything.  I came in to the meeting fueled with passion to express my idea with the hope that maybe Jeff, the owner, would have a suggestion or be able to point me in another direction.  Instead, he looked at our design and agreed to build the first prototype.  Using scrap materials, Jeff built our animation station within our budget.  Over the next several weeks my dad and I worked to install all of the pieces of the station, fastening all of the various pieces I had collected.  Finally, a month and a half over my deadline, I had a prototype to deliver!  It wasn’t perfect and I could already see the flaws, but it was the start to a new future for the museum.  I couldn’t wait to deliver it and show the museum, not what I built, but what was possible with a lot of thought and determination.

Over the summer the prototype was put to the test and used by groups of children of all ages, families, and staff.  The flaws I saw in the beginning played out to be real problems and improvements needed in the design.  That’s the beauty of a prototype, I was able to take all of our ideas and put them to the test.  I witnessed as some features of the prototype were praised, while others received mediocre reviews, and other aspects failed completely.  And now it is with all of those observations and feedback from visitors and staff that I am back to the drawing board.

I am determined to see this project through to the end.  Not only because I want to see its completion, but also and more importantly because I believe in what it will enable.  Students from all over Northern California come to CCM to build their creative confidence and are given the freedom to express themselves.  Clay animation brings to life lessons in photosynthesis and astronomy, promotes reading comprehension in the works of Robinson Crusoe and Harry Potter, and brings to life historical tales such as Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  Children are inspired to create with a medium that is inviting and playful in an atmosphere where failures are embraced as learning opportunities and constraints inspire creativity.

I am proud to be a part of CCM, where our philosophy of “having the freedom and courage to fail/take creative risks and the knowledge that all of the ideas you create have value” takes the forefront. Through our culture and mission, I developed my own creative confidence. I was able to take a creative risk and I hope to be able to inspire our visitors to do the same.

The Positive Power of Play

By Emmy Brockman


“Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.” -O. Fred Donaldson (Pulitzer nominated author, and renowned play researcher)

Last week, at Children’s Creativity Museum, I observed the following scene: A boy – 3.75 years old by his own account – and his mother are building with large soft blocks. I will call the boy Alex. “It’s fort building time!” announces Alex.

“ What kind of fort are we building?”
“ A no more alligator fort!”

Alex runs to the puppet area and comes back carrying two alligator puppets and one dragon puppet. He hands the dragon to his mom. “This fort is not for you!” he tells the dragon. Knock knock knock on the fort. “Is it dragon time?” asks the dragon. A 20-month-old girl then approaches (I’ll call her Kelly), and mimics the dragon, knocking on the fort. Kelly smiles and Alex joins her in knocking. The dragon pokes its nose in the fort and asks, “Is it dragon time now?” Alex pushes the nose away, pushing Kelly down in the process. Kelly’s eyes flit anxiously in the direction of her father for a moment, then she giggles. Kelly carefully regains her feet and Alex models block stacking, explaining, “we are making our fort safe from all dragons”. Kelly holds the block close and slowly practices balancing it on the pile.

What are Alex and Kelly doing? They are conquering dragons. They are using creative problem solving. They are refining their fine and gross motor skills. They are socializing. They are learning about balance, architecture, and math. The are teaching, learning, and sharing. They are exploring new materials. Simply put, they are playing.

Play has many forms and many definitions. I enjoy the following definition, written in 1896 by education philosopher Carlotta Lombroso. “Play is for the child an occupation as serious, as important, as study is for the adult; play is his means of development and he needs to play, just as the silkworm needs continually to eat leaves”. This quote leaves you with the sense that play is essential for a child’s very survival. In fact, in 1948 the United Nations certified this sentiment by declaring play an inalienable right of children. For centuries countless philosophers, educators, researchers, parents, and children have confirmed the value of play.

I am lucky. The task of convincing you that play is important is already done for me. Simply regard any of the following resources for proof:

In fact, a mere Google search of “play-based learning” will turn up countless resources on the educational, social, and developmental value of play, from “How play-based learning can lead to more successful kids” to “Want to get your kids into college? Let them play”.

With all this available research, why then is play-based learning threatened? Ironically, explaining why play-based education is in decline is far more challenging than finding research and advocacy supporting play. An article I recently read entitled LET THE CHILDREN PLAY: Nature’s Answer to Early Learning attempts to explain the decline of play. Some of the reasons cited in the article include:

  • The more classes, teams, and lessons children participate in, the less time there is for free play. The article notices “an increased focus on structured educational and recreational activities, leaving little time for participation in open-ended, self initiated free play.
  • Children learn by taking risks, testing their abilities, and “failing forward” – as we say at the museum. Modern concerns about safety have manifested in formulaic and sterile play spaces.  With this trend, “children find themselves in carefully constructed outdoor playgrounds that limit challenge in the name of safety.”
  • The outdoors is a place of wonder, exploration and discovery. As our world becomes increasingly developed there are fewer wild places left for children to explore. Simply put, “access to outdoor play opportunities in natural environments in neighborhoods is vanishing.
  • Testable skills such as literacy and numeracy are become a greater focus, even in preschool programs. As a result, “the scope of the learning that unfolds naturally in play is limited.”

Boy with Legos

We’ve established that play is important. We’ve also established that play-based learning is in decline.  So, what is the next step? We, as educators, parents, and advocates must stand up for play. Below are some research-based, CCM-tested, suggestions for promoting play.

1. Prepare an environment that promotes play

  • Space: Different spaces encourage different types of play. Large open spaces encourage valuable running and rough and tumble play, while contained spaces encourage equally valuable focused and dramatic play. A mix of these two spaces is ideal.
  • Time: children need long stretches of uninterrupted play. 30 to 50 minutes (at least) are recommended for preschool and kindergarten students.
  • Materials: different ages demand different developmentally appropriate materials, but there is one constant: simplicity rules. A plastic car has a single intended purpose, but a cardboard box can be a million things.

2. Know when to step in and when to step back

  • Step back and let play unfold – Play should be child-directed. Enjoy watching the imagination, creativity, and innovation of children.  Let the play of children inspire you.
  • Step in to engage – if you notice children are unoccupied, bored, or timid step in and initiate play. Ideally this play grow to include other students and you can fade back out.
  • Step in to add challenge – play is an important time to practice and gain competence, but it is also a time to try new things. If play remains static step in and propose a challenge. To remain open-ended this challenge should always take the form of a question. i.e. what would happen if…. I wonder what… could you try…

3. Be playful yourself

  • Laugh! – Play is fun, and children pick up on your reflection of that fun. Laugh! Be silly! The fun need not stop with the children.
  • Play along – Have you heard of the zone of proximal development? Children’s play is advanced by those around them. Provide that next step by modeling it!

Do you have other tools to promote play? Thoughts on the decline of play? Other comments? Questions? Please let me know.

To bookend with an applicable quote:
“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.” – Joseph Chilton Pearce