Category Archives: Educational Philosophy

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

Take a Break and Observe!

by Jill Slagter

“The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”  -William Morris

Have you ever tried to walk somewhere with a two year old? I bet you never realized how many flowers were in bloom or how many little slopes were on the sidewalk until a child stopped to check out each one of them. Young children are constantly observing. The environment is still so new and thrilling to them while we as adults have become habituated in this world and often don’t stop to pay attention to the details.

I have been reading “On Intelligence” by John Hawkins, where he spends a lot of time describing how the brain works. The basic premise is that the human brain is a memory-prediction system. The brain stores experiences, relates them to other experiences and uses the memories of all these experiences to make predictions. As we get older, we stop truly observing. Our brain has gotten so competent at predicting that there’s no need to observe every detail. The problem is that being able to observe and make connections that aren’t always predictable is what leads to creativity.

As the famous psychologist Piaget describes, children are natural observers and like little scientists. They make observations, form a hypothesis, test their hypothesis and adapt as necessary. This is how they learn. We’re often in a hurry to get somewhere, but one of the best ways to help children learn is to try to stop rushing and let them observe. If you can encourage children to continue observing and find the joy in really paying attention, they could become adults who do not only see the current patterns but are also able to create new patterns.

A few suggestions to help encourage observation:

1. Leave twenty minutes earlier so that it’s okay to stop and smell some flowers for a few minutes. Instead of hurrying them along, ask questions such as “Did you notice…” or “I wonder why…”. Make sure not to give the answer away. Children start losing their natural curiosity when we start telling them how things work instead of allowing them to discover things on their own.

2. Get some interesting observation tools in the house such as prisms, magnifying glasses or mirrors.  Or, put together a sensory tub or table and let them get messy. Check out one of our visitors participating in our Early Explorations in Science program. What will happen when she adds green?

3. Set up a nature table. When you go for walks, have children collect different items they find. This allows them to really observe nature and become aware of the different seasons of the year. Check out this beautiful table from Buggy and Buddy.

4. Get a sketch book for your child (and for yourself). Next time you’re out for a walk and you see a beautiful plant or an interesting insect, try drawing it. Don’t force it. Children are often just content observing, but once they get a little older, keeping a sketch book is a fun way to document their observations.

Keep in mind- It’s good for you too! Take a break from the hustle and bustle of life and just breathe.

The Creative Community Council by Tom Durkin


It happens to everyone.  Whether it’s a big essay, art project, or budget report, there’s work to do and we’ve got to get it done.  We get our cup of coffee ready (ALWAYS Step #1), review our notes and brainstorms if we have any, complete any other prerequisite procrastination rituals, and sit down ready to make magic happen.  Buzzing with anticipation, we reach into our mind expecting it to pop like a water balloon filled with pure brilliance.  But no pop comes.  Our ocean of ideas is drier than the Sahara.  Perhaps we’re not quite as prophetic as we thought.  Even after coffees #2 and #3, still nothing.  Our optimism fades to anxiety or worse.  Whether you’re a stockbroker, journalist, artist, or student, the blank canvas can be one of the most intimidating things to face.  And we face it all the time.  Sometimes thoughts flow seamlessly from mind to canvas, but more often than not we hit a road block along the way.

Image        Image

The best way to stimulate a difficult task or stagnant project is to ask for a fresh perspective.  We all come from different social, cultural, and economical backgrounds and, as a result, we all see the world a little differently.  As a result, we also solve problems differently.  My oldest friend and I have known each other since kindergarten and we’ve always worked well on projects together.  We attended the same schools together all the way through community college, but even after I went on to UCSD, I still would occasionally call him for help.  Our ideas were usually different, but they often complemented each other.  In my opinion, this is the greatest strength of the Creative Community Council.  The CCC is a group of individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds working together to bring The Children’s Creativity Museum and its education philosophy to communities in the Bay Area that wouldn’t otherwise have access.  The Council realizes that if the goal is to outreach to different communities, than representatives of those communities absolutely must be involved from the beginning.  It also realizes that the C.I.T.Y. Teens have an important first-hand role in facilitating the museum’s exhibits during its busiest days.  Who better than them to inform us on what the museum is actually like on the floor?   Instead of a committee of uninvolved people hypothesizing about what the museum needs or what the target community needs, the CCC comprises itself of members who are directly involved with the museum and these communities on a day-to-day basis.  They take this wealth of experience and direct it towards the different speed bumps that the museum faces in outreaching to and engaging with different communities.  This task would be far too great for one person, no matter how talented.  Luckily, the Council is many talented individuals working together.  During the Council’s afternoon meetings, members constantly bounce ideas back and forth.  The emphasis is always on discussion, never monologues or presentations.  When the Council finds solutions that they’re happy with, they present those ideas to the rest of the museum staff for even more feedback.  Everyone’s ideas are equally listened to, which makes participating in the council as inspiring as it is refreshing.


When you’re surrounded by something everyday, bigger social implications and even clever metaphors can sneak their way into your brain.  That being said, we see a lot of Angry Birds here at the museum.  Now, I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Angry Birds.  Yes, I have the app on my phone and occasionally play it, but the craze surrounding the game is a bit lost on me.  For whatever reason, kids are absolutely obsessed with this game and have helped drive it to become the best selling app of all time.  The Birds are also one of the most popular characters to make in our Animation Studio.  One of the most entertaining parts of playing Angry Birds is getting to use the different kinds of birds.  One bird is a straight shooter, one drops an egg bomb, one flies like a boomerang, etc.  We learn how to use these birds individually level by level, but without a doubt the best levels in the entire game are the ones where we get all the birds.  We get all the cool moves and powers at our disposal, but we have to think strategically about how and when to use them.  After taking the above picture of a visitor’s clay rendition of the entire Angry Birds cast, it struck me.  The CCC are the museum’s cast of Angry Birds.  The Council isn’t a single trick up the museum’s sleeve, it’s a whole collection of tricks and powers, experiences and backgrounds.  Just as we break down the pig’s obstacles and strategically assign our birds to take it down, the Council helps to identify the museum’s outreach needs and assigns the best combinations of members to create solutions.  The Council broke down the museum’s core group of visitors into different age brackets, and collaboratively conceptualized different strategies that would be best tailored for each group.  The potency and variety of proposed community engagement strategies that the Council created speaks to the special blend of people working together towards a common goal.  We all may wish we were all-in-one super heroes, autonomous entities that can solve business and creative problems without ever needing assistance.  However, the sooner we all realize that we’re not “The Mighty Eagle” bird and call the rest of the gang for help, the better off we’ll be.

The Praise Problem: A Case for Saying “Goodbye” to “Good Job”

By Emmy Brockman

Good job, you’ve come to the CCM education blog! I like how you clicked all the way here! You did an awesome job navigating! You made it!

How does this praise make you feel? Personally, I find such saccharine statements condescending. Receiving unwarranted praise makes me feel like a small child. I suppose this makes sense, because this is exactly the type of praise we often heap upon children. When enthusiastic praise is encountered in the adult world it is laughable.  For example, a two year old I babysit says, “good job! You did it!” every time I pee in a public restroom. Inevitably, this elicits chuckles from the adjacent stalls. I agree the situation is humorous and absurd, but this young child is merely parroting back what she hears every day.

It was only two years ago that I was shown just how parasitic our “good job” culture is. Prior to this I was your standard praise pusher, and still struggle to find constructive ways to comment on the actions of children. In this post I will discuss the problems with praise as chronicled in several books and articles, issue a call to consciousness about the language we use with children, and finally offer some time tested “good job” alternatives. It should be briefly noted that I approach this topic as the museum’s Early Childhood Specialist, however, I consider these points important at all stages of development and education.

The problems with praise have been discussed in several excellent written works. Alfie Kohn, noted education scholar and author of “Punished by Rewards,” wrote an article for Parents magazine in 2000 entitled, “Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job!”. He posits that over praise can serve to: 1. Manipulate children, 2. Create praise junkies, 3. Steal a child’s pleasure, 4. Cause children to lose interest, and 5. Reduce achievement. Before we bring the hammer of doom and gloom down on praise, an important disclaimer must be issued. In the words of Mr. Kohn, “the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves. Praise, however, is a different story entirely.” Praise, particularly the odious specter of “good job,” is indirect, automatic, and meaningless. Take a child going down a slide for example. I witness this action everyday, and as the child comes squealing down the slide my impulse is to applaud them and issue a smiley “good job!” What purpose, however, do these words serve? The child is accomplishing something well within her ability, having great fun doing it, and she does not require approval or interjection. Isn’t it preferable for a child to feel a personal sense of achievement rather than an external affirmation of “goodness?” The more articles I read about the plague of praise (I recommend these two: Kohn and Dionna) the more I feel like a candy-coated criminal. This is why I have undertaken the challenge of eliminating “good job,” and other such empty vessels of praise, from my vocabulary. I invite and entreat all of you to join me in this challenge.

Adjusting to a “good job”-less world is a challenge, and it can feel like you’re failing to support children. Kids, however, do not need praise. What kids do need, according to Mr. Kohn, is, “unconditional support, love with no strings attached. That’s not just different from praise – it’s the opposite of praise. ‘Good job!’ is conditional. It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgement and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us.” So, if we agree to collectively vanquish “good job”, with what do we fill its ample void?  Below you’ll find several ideas, culled from personal experience, talks with educators, and other blog posts, articles, and books:

  • State what you see
    • I noticed…you used a lot of brown color, you spun around on just one foot, your play dough sculpture feels sharp, you’ve been jumping for more than a minute, etc.”
  • Ask questions
    •  “I wonder…if this square block would fit in your tower?”
    • Can you tell me about…your creation? Your dance? Your song?”
    • Did you notice…the red and blue are mixing together? You climbed higher than my head?”
    • “Do you have a favorite part of your creation?”
    • “What was challenging about this project?”
  • Say simply “you did it!”
    • The accomplishment is the reward. Children should be proud of themselves, not of our approval.
  • Focus on the action
    • “You’ve been working really hard on that drawing”
    • Wow! It seems like you’ve been really practicing…”
    • “That’s not easy
  • Engender empathy
    • Instead of “Good job sharing!” try, “Look at Max, he seems pretty happy to be playing with your truck.”
  • Say “thank you”
    • Not only is “thank you” what we often really mean (“thank you for helping me clean up” rather than “good job cleaning up”) but children mimic the language they hear adults use and “thank you” is a powerful phrase to have on heavy rotation.
  • Remain silent
    • By stepping back we allow greater independent exploration and creativity. This is reward enough.

Do you have other alternatives to good job? Particular techniques you’ve found successful? Other relevant articles? A counter-argument? Please join the conversation.

YOU Are Creative, But You May Not Know It Yet

Written by Education Intern, Alicia Bucks

“Every child is an artist.  The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up” -Picasso.

Somewhere along the way to adulthood, be it through regimented school curriculums or the pressures of our economic system, many people lose the belief that they are creatively talented.  An article published recently by Psychology Today, entitled Creative Thinkering: Resurrecting your natural creativity through inspiring techniques and practical examples describes twelve aspects of creative thinking that for the most part go untaught.  The article is written by Michael Michalko, an expert in the field of inventive thinking.  The first, and arguably most important, of these twelve aspects of creative thinking that often go ignored is: YOU ARE CREATIVE!   This means that there is no intrinsic difference between a renowned artist and a person who does not pursue any creative endeavors.  The difference lies within people’s beliefs about themselves.  Michalko explains that all people are born with the ability to be creative, spontaneous thinkers, but as they form their self-identity they either choose to believe they are creative individuals or believe they are simply uncreative, as if there was some sort of special essence these “creative types” have that they must be lacking.  The expression of this self-identity leads people to either pursue creative projects, and therefore develop their creative thinking skills, or to write them off completely.  Michalko explains, “the reality is that believing you are not creative excuses you from trying or attempting anything new.  When someone tells you that they are not creative, you are talking to someone who has no interest and will make no effort to be a creative thinker.”   This sort of denial of a person’s own creative ability can easily turn into a lifelong self-administered stifling of one of the most beautiful aspects of being human, the ability to create.  The wonderful thing about the Children’s Creativity Museum is that it gives visitors the opportunity and encourages them to realize that they are creative, even if they have lived their whole lives denying their abilities and depriving themselves of the fulfillment creative endeavors often bring.  Through CCM’s education philosophy of “Imagine, Create, Share,” visitors of all ages are able to bring their sometimes forgotten creative sides to life.

Children and adults alike who enter the doors of Children’s Creativity Museum become instantly immersed in CCM’s education Philosophy, which is encapsulated in a design process referred to as, “Imagine, Create, Share.”  This process is a great way of easing people into creative endeavors without any of the pressure often associated with making art.  In each of the numerous interactive exhibits at the museum, from the Animation Studio, to the Innovation Lab, to the Music Studio, and beyond, visitors are encouraged to Imagine, Create, and Share in ways that conventional schooling and workplaces often ignore.  Visitors Imagine, maybe for the first time in years.  They are given the opportunity to try out something new, observe the creations of others, get inspired, and let their imagination run wild.  — Simply put, play!  Being not only allowed, but encouraged to do this can reawaken the creativity that so often lies dormant in people who believe themselves to be uncreative.

Once visitors are drawn in to one of the numerous activities available at CCM through Imagination, Educators facilitate an environment where everyone feels free to let their creative juices start flowing.  A big part of the creative process at CCM has to do with imparting Creative Confidence in visitors, and is one of the major goals of Educators at CCM.  This means instilling in people the freedom and courage to take risk without fear of failure, judgement, constraints, or a need for “perfection.”  It is confidence in the knowledge that every idea you create has value.  CCM challenges visitors to discover new materials and tools, see things in new ways, make connections, take risks, and collaborate with each other in order to create something new and exciting.

The Creative process at CCM is also facilitated by Imagination Starters, which are provided in many of the exhibit spaces.  Imagination Starters consist of 20% inspiration, in the form of a prompt, question, or challenge that visitors will provide the other 80% to in order to have a complete product.  This makes getting started on a creative project much more approachable than being confronted with a blank page and a pencil.  For example, in the Music Studio, fill-in lyric sheets (similar to Mad-Libs) help visitors to write their own songs which they can later create music for and perform in front of a green-screen.  Similarly, the Mystery Box Challenge gives people a box full of random objects which must be transformed into a new creation based on a prompt, such as, “build a space suit for a shark.”  These Imagination Starters are a great way to get creative juices flowing and make being creative less intimidating to people who have told themselves they are incapable.

Once a visitor of CCM has Imagined new possibilities and transformed some of those ideas into tangible Creations, they are encouraged to Share their masterpieces with others.  Every visitor receives validation of their ideas, positive feedback, and ideas for building upon what they have done to make another great project in the future.  Whenever possible, visitor creations are displayed in miniature film festivals, frames on the museum’s walls, on CCM’s website, and in take-home formats, such as a DVD copy or emailed link to their project.  This sharing of visitors’ ideas is an important way to make each person feel validated in their creative abilities and confidant to make something else in the future.

By the end of a day spent at Children’s Creativity Museum visitors will come to accept that they are in fact extremely creative.  Sometimes they might just need a little guidance, in the form of CCM’s supportive environment to help them realize it.  Being allowed and encouraged to Imagine, Confidently Create, Share with others, and to be given the first 20% to get started can go a very long way in reviving a creative spark that has almost gone out.  We hope that you will pay a visit to CCM and learn that YOU are creative too!

Defining Creative Confidence

Defining Creative Confidence

-By Ben Grossman-Kahn

Creative Confidence is a term that gets tossed around a lot at our museum. David Kelley, of IDEO fame, mentions the term frequently, and building creative confidence is one of the guiding objectives of the Stanford d.School.  We have adopted this mantra and integrated it into our educational approach and design process of “Imagine, Create, Share”, and until recently have felt pretty confident that we were imparting the skills and coaching needed to be creatively confident.

However, during a recent education team meeting, one of our interns asked what exactly we meant by creative confidence, pointing out that it was hard to measure unless we knew what such confidence actually looks like.

This prompted some deep soul searching among the Education team and prompted us to utilize the backwards design approach.  We began by trying to define the enduring understandings we want to impart and asked ourselves, how do we define creative confidence, how do we make sure we are teaching it, and how might we recognize it when we see it?  Falling back on our own design process, we began with interviews to understand how others interpreted this phrase, and asked our office staff, interns and high school CITY Guides “What would be your definition of having creative confidence?”  Some of the responses were:

“Knowing that your creative contributions and ideas are valuable”

“Creative confidence can be obtained when you try something you’ve never done and learn something new about yourself from that attempt”

“The confidence to put yourself out on a limb”

“Knowing that you don’t have to find the one right answer”

“Knowing there there is not a single right answer to a problem, and feeling empowered to create and test out multiple solutions.”

“Not being afraid of your imagination.”

“Being able to create anything and feel happy about it.  Not hesitating to build whatever comes to mind”.

“The confidence to trust your instincts and share your ideas with a group”

As designers, we took these statements and looked for patterns and themes that we could synthesize into one clear statement.  Two themes that recurred were the confidence to share your ideas with others and the knowledge that there is always something that can be learned from creating or expressing an idea, even if it doesn’t turn out the way you imagined it would.  With these in mind, we crafted the following definition

Creative Confidence:  Having the freedom and courage to fail/take creative risks and the knowledge that all of the ideas you create have value.

Once we had defined this statement, we were able to pull back and look at our programs and the way we facilitate them and ask ourselves whether we were truly imparting this knowledge and confidence to our visitors.  The question we asked ourselves was “When and how are we explicitly letting our visitors know that it is ok to take creative risks and try new things? What are we doing that would let them know that their ideas have value?”  The results? We realized that we encourage creative confidence in very subtle ways that don’t always resonate with visitors.  We have educational signage with “creative tips” which encourage visitors to experiment with different tools or build a castle out of foam blocks,but a recent observation showed that few visitors seem to engage with these prompts.  With regards to validating the value of what our visitors create we are doing slightly better, with our Creativity Stories project that celebrates the stories behind projects, but once again the percentage of visitors who interact with this experience is smaller than we’d like.

After much internal discussion, we realized that the single best way for us to communicate these values to our visitors is through our facilitation and personal interactions with visitors.  We conducted another brainstorm, this time with our high school City Guides, to develop things we could do or say to inspire this confidence.   Here are 3 concrete tips to try at home:

There is no wrong way to approach a project:  Everyone has a different process for tackling creative projects- some start with sketches or a brainstorm, while others observe their environment for cues and inspiration.  Some may find it helpful to develop a process that can be repeated while for others, finding inspiration might take a different path every time.  We often develop mental blocks or construct artificial rules and constraints for ourselves, such as assuming that we can only use the materials we are given (a cardboard box for example) or that we can only use the materials as they were originally intended (i.e selling the box for $2 to buy new materials would be ‘cheating’).  The next time you find yourself or a child asking questions that begin with “Am I allowed to..” or “Can I do…”  affirm that the answer is always YES.

Take pictures and document/celebrate the process:  There has long been a sense that only the best works of art or creations are worthy of being framed, hung on the mantle or displayed for all to see.  How often have you walked into a room to see a display of blurry photos, or a smudged painting left half- finished?  However, the story behind those beautiful objects lies within those very same ‘mistakes’, and should be celebrated as well.  The Reggio Emilia school system does an incredible job of documenting conversations and artwork from their 3-5 year old students, and displaying these documents prominently on the walls.  This display and celebration of the thought process and artwork of children is an incredibly empowering model and one that we strive to emulate.  The responses we get from kids when we ask if we can take pictures of their prototypes and creations to share with other kids on Facebook and our blog is priceless- huge smiles, a surge in confidence and a feeling that their work is special and worth celebrating, no matter what it looks like.

At the end of a project, ask what you’ve learned and how you could do things differently the next time.  There has been a lot of talk in the business world recently about the importance and power of failure.  One of the key ideas that has emerged from this discussion is the idea of “Failing Forward”, or using lessons learned from an experience to drive forward your next iteration.  There is a huge difference between blindly accepting failure and plowing forward and actively reflecting after each project on what worked, what didn’t work and what you would do differently the next time.  A recent school group was working on a claymation movie- unfortunately their computer crashed three times during the filming process.  By the third time around, the students knew exactly how to get started without any support and were much more sophisticated in their approach.  Had they not been forced to pause and reflect on their process in between reboots, their final product would have been much more choppy and confusing.  At the end of each project, leave time to debrief on “I liked..”  “I wish..” and “What if…”.  By capturing these lessons learned, you are calling out the fact that all of the ideas created had value in that they offered valuable lessons and learnings for future projects.

With that in mind, we now end our daily meetings with one very important question for all of our staff:

“What did you do today that would explicitly let a visitor know it is ok to take creative risks and that the idea/project they created has value?”

How do you or your organization define creative confidence? How do you foster it?  Share with us! (And know that all ideas you share are valuable and will teach us something new)

This is not a blog post. It’s a…

By Jill Slagter

Have you ever given a child the box that a new refrigerator came in or even just a plain old empty box? What did that box turn into? When I was young, I have a clear memory of my older sister pushing me around in that box/fort/truck/plane for hours.  However, I can’t remember a thing about the refrigerator.

We often start our meetings and brainstorming sessions in our education department with a creative warm-up and one of those warm-ups is called “This is not a…”. Any random object is passed around and we take turns saying things such as  “This is not a marker, it’s chapstick for an alien.” Or, “No, this is not chapstick for an alien, it’s a lightsaber for a mouse”. And so on.

This game is used to get our creative juices flowing, but it also reminds me that when you let your imagination take over, as children often do, there are a million different ways to see the world. When engaging with children, I always try to remember that they may see a world completely different from the one I see, and letting that imagination go wild does wonders for a child. Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician specializing in Adolescent Medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, reported last year in The American Academy of Pediatrics, that child-driven play contributes to “cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being”. It has been shown to help children develop empathy, self-confidence and creativity, among a multitude of other beneficial traits. (

Boxes turned into a space station at CCM

As an educator at a children’s museum, I get to see child-driven imaginative play almost everyday. And, when I just ask questions and encourage children to create meaning for the objects they play with, I’ve been rewarded in many ways, including getting to eat a big plate of clay eggs, meeting a monster that can shrink people and crawling through a tunnel in a princess castle. Had I looked at those objects with my “grown-up” vision on, I may have just seen a big hunk of playdoh, a strange looking blob character, and a big mess of foam noodles and blocks to clean up.

A powerful example of the meaning children embed into objects can be seen in this story of Queen Critical. You may think these just look like paper people, but you’ll never believe the story the child has created about these characters. And all we had to do was ask.

Recently, I was playing with my friend’s 3-year old daughter and bought her a puzzle made out of blocks. Instead of putting the puzzle together as the box describes, she started building the highest tower she could build. My initial reaction was to show her how to do the puzzle, but then I realized, “Why can’t this be a game where we build the highest tower we can?”. Allowing her to play the game as she sees it and encouraging her, instead of trying to correct her, helps her realize that there is value in her ideas, which is a big part in developing what we at CCM call “creative confidence”.

Here are 3 easy strategies you can try at home to foster child-driven play:

1. Engage children in the fantasy world they are creating:

When you see imaginative play happening with your child or among a group of children, ask a few simple questions to help you understand the world they have created.  Try to include yourself in the questions so that they know you are a part of this fantasy.  Questions like “What are WE doing here?”, “What are WE going to do?”  and “What should WE do next?” not only empower children to take charge, but show them that you understand the immediacy and urgency of the (imaginary) situation. Follow along, support them, and resist the temptation to take the lead.

2. Provide open-ended materials and objects that lend themselves to creative use/interpretation (true toys):

Find some unique props to stimulate dramatic play and set up a situation. There are lots of open-ended children’s toys that work for this such as dollhouses, wooden trains, blocks, or castles, but don’t be afraid to use what you have lying around as well such old clothes for dress up, big boxes, blankets, etc.

I have a drawer full of little plastic animals at home. I’ve seen those animals talk, hide, fight, swim, fly, raise families, and even disappear during magic shows.

3.  Read!

Nothing inspires imagination and stimulates scenarios for play like hearing stories. Show your child the cover of the book and ask what they think it might be about. When reading to your child or a group of children, ask questions such as “What do you think will happen next?” and “Why do you think that?”. You can also occasionally try to read a book aloud without showing your child the pictures. Let them just listen and imagine the characters or have them draw a picture of what they think the main character looks like.

Finally, for a little inspiration check out a book I like.

Not a Box by Antoinette Portis