Category Archives: Imagine

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.

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!

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

Imagination Starters

-By Ben Grossman-Kahn

If you’ve ever been handed a blank sheet of paper and told to “draw something creative” you know how hard it can be to generate ideas out of thin air.  As they say in the design world, innovation is a process, not an event. Without any sort of prompt or direction, the possibilities of that blank page are limitless- you could draw a new solar powered flying car, or an underwater monkey kingdom, or… you get the idea.  For some people, this problem is compounded by a fear that the moment they touch their pen to the pristine white page, they are ruining it with their scribbles.

During my years as a teacher and summer camp director, I saw the “blank page” problem rise again and again, and not just with art.  When children enter a new environment or space, they look for cues that help them figure out where to go/what to do, and the fear of getting this wrong and looking foolish can be paralyzing.  For that reason, whenever we set up a classroom we would always pre-set the games, puzzles and blocks on the floor, removing them from boxes and laying them out in an inviting manner.  With blocks, we would spread them across the floor and build some half-finished structures that invited kids to add on to them.  With murals and artwork, we would always draw several images and lines that showed kids that yes, it was ok to scribble on the paper.

The concept that people are more likely to engage with an activity if they feel like it has been started for them was validated in a UCLA Business school study conducted by Professors Joseph C. Nunes and Xavier Drèze.  The study looked at two car wash businesses who gave away customer loyalty cards.  Car wash #1 gave away a card that required 10 car washes to earn a free wash, but pre-stamped the first two.  Car wash #2 gave out a card which required 8 stamps to earn a free car wash, and did not pre-stamp the cards.  After tracking the customer redemption rate, the professors found that the cards that had been pre-stamped showed a 34% return rate over a 19% rate from the 8 stamp cards.  Although these cards required the exact same number of purchases, the pre-stamped cards gave customers a sense of ‘endowed progress’- the feeling that they were already on the road to achieving their goal, rather than starting from scratch.

At Children’s Creativity Museum, we have taken this concept of endowed progress and made it one of our Pillars of Creativity, calling it “Imagination Starters/ 20% Inspiration”.  A few examples of how this is employed include:

Person, Place, Problem prompt cards.  Even for the best writers, storytelling is frequently a challenge.  We have observed that families who come to our animation studio often struggle to come up with stories they want to tell.  To help get them started, we offer a deck of “Person, Place, problem” cards which they can draw at random to generate a story prompt.  Examples might include “A penguin, in outer space, being chased by an evil twin” or “A chicken, under the ocean, looking for his lunch”.

            Creative Challenges:  During our Creative studio workshops, rather then giving participants materials with a totally open ended goal, we typically offer a box of randomized challenges to get them started.  Most recently, we ran a Mystery Box challenge that asked kids to draw a random card from a “Challenge Deck”.  Kids could select an easy, medium or hard challenge, and the cards asked them to create “The world’s fastest race car” or “An amusement park ride from the future”  using only the materials we provided in a small box.

By constraining the materials as well as giving prompts via the challenge, we typically see a much higher engagement and participation rate.  Even more interesting, once kids complete that first challenge, they begin to see themselves as a “Super Designer” and build their creative confidence. (We support this by handing out badges after each challenge with different rankings- Design Agent, Design Ninja, Design Expert).

Wander Monster:  We have been totally inspired by Pratt Insitute instructor Robb Kimmel, who sends his son to school every day with a ‘Wandermonster’ prompt- the paper includes a half written story and half finished drawing. At lunch, his son opens the prompt and completes the text and photo with his own imagination.  This is a marvelous example of sparking the imagination through both prompts and a creative challenge, and is a concept that can be applied to a wide range of mediums.  At CCM, we have embraced this approach and created similar prompts (Complete a story+ add to the image/code) using Photoshop, Scratch programming, and iStopmotion.  We also empower participants by asking them to create their own creative prompt for someone else, thus allowing them to participate as both a designer as well as instructor.

By providing these imagination starters, we are not only modeling potential interactions and uses of different media tools, we are also giving kids a launch pad for their creativity.  Just as with any form of scaffolding, these prompts are designed to be slowly removed as children start learning to generate their own prompts and challenges.

The best part? What we often see is children becoming empowered to create their own challenges to give to peers, developing a “By kids, for kids” community of creative thinkers and doers.

Have a great example of an Imagination starter you’ve used? Please share with us!  Leave a comment below or email us at with your ideas and we’ll share them in a future post. 

Taking Creative Risks and Failing Forward

By Ben Grossman-Kahn

One of our favorite mantras within the Education department is “Failing forward”. This phrase captures a key creativity lesson- most of us don’t have perfect ideas the first time around. In fact, what we frequently find is that the best ideas come out of our ‘spectacular failures’. James Dyson, the billionaire inventor of the Dyson vacuum, famously spent over ten years and developed 5126 prototypes before achieving financial success with his Cyclone vacuum. Since then, he has gone on to found the Dyson Foundation to encourage design and engineering education. He describes the power of failure below

“…The foundation encourages kids to fail. Or rather, not be afraid to fail: to experiment, test ideas and make something new. Students need an alternative to read-and-repeat. They need to use their heads and hands to identify problems and go about solving them. Taking things apart and developing new ways to do things. Not to be mistaken for playtime, it’s how children develop critical thinking skills and the practical knowledge for how things work. And it’s fun. “

– James Dyson “In Praise of Failure” (Wired UK)

This summer, we ran a workshop for teachers called “Camp WooHoo” that introduced the growth mindset theory made famous by Carol Dweck. During the workshops, we encouraged teachers to explore their own comfort with taking various types of risks- social, professional, artistic. During the debriefings, many teachers expressed the discomfort they felt when they were pressured to produce a perfectly drawn picture, or to follow instructions perfectly. Others talked about the importance of having time to make mistakes and explore the programs they were working with.

As we talked about how these same pressures might be felt by students in a classroom, it became clear that all too often we put these expectations of perfection on activities and assignments. When leading a writers workshop, for example, are you making it clear to students that early drafts are an opportunity to try out different plot ideas and take creative risks? When you introduce a new program or digital tool to students, are you giving them time to play and explore in an open ended fashion before expecting them to complete assignments using those new tools? Woodside Priory, a private secondary school, has made a school wide commitment to “Fail Forward Fridays” once a month, where teachers, students and administrators try out new curriculum, furniture arrangements or lesson plans. Just as valuable as the experiments themselves are the debrief discussions and lessons learned that emerge from these days- we would argue that there is a key distinction between merely failing and ‘failing forward’.

Share your strategies for encouraging risk taking and failing forward in the comments below, then check out these amazing videos of creative legends discussing failure.

A paperclip or a robot’s fingernail?

In honor of the new school year, we thought we’d offer a tip to spark some creativity in the classroom.

Are you trying to figure out what topics to study, what books to read, or what projects to give your class? Instead of giving the topics, why not let them decide themselves with a brainstorming session?

Start with a prompt such as “If you could only study one thing for a year, what would it be”, “What are you an expert at”, or “What would you like to be an expert at”.

Some important things to remember:

  1. No criticism or debate. Make sure students know that NO idea is a BAD idea and all ideas should be respected. Even if a student thinks it is ridiculous or impossible, it goes on the list.
  2. Emphasize quantity over quality. The goal is to have as many ideas as possible. Wild and crazy ideas are encouraged.
  3. Encourage students to build off of others ideas. Copying is OKAY in a brainstorming session.
  4. This is a team activity and everyone should participate.

If you feel that they might be hesitant at first, start with a warm-up brainstorming session, something that’s fun and crazy, to get students used to the possible excitement in a brainstorm. Find an item in your classroom and prompt the students with something like “100 uses for a paper clip”. You might get answers such as “holding paper together”, but participate with some crazy ideas like a robot fingernail or an ant maze.

We’ll leave you with a quote by Thomas Edison, “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”