“Mom! We’ll never need to buy new clothes again!” My 8-year-old son nearly took the door off its hinges as he burst inside with his news. “We’ll make all of our clothes out of algae woven into fabric. These algae will be a continuously reproducing kind, which of course makes the fabric stronger. Each time you get a rip in your clothing, the algae will reproduce and there you have it; your clothes are instantly repaired!”
This is one of Elias’s more down to earth ideas. While the science might be shaky, his fearlessness to consider a seemingly impossible idea thrills me. This is learning as it should be—bold and unhindered by fear of negative consequences for wrong answers and out-of the-box thinking. In academic settings, where testing and grades have a strong presence, the value of curiosity and intellectual risk-taking can be overlooked.
“Mistakes” have led to countless important discoveries; Penicillin, pacemakers, X-rays and even chocolate chip cookies, to name just a few, are all examples of unintended outcomes of work that has changed society. Yet often, we unintentionally penalize or inhibit young innovators and creative types with the threat of bad grades and repeated talk of test scores.
Fearless learning is something I’m thinking about a lot these days. What can parents and educators do to create an atmosphere that supports and encourages fearless intellectual exploration?
This week, I’m to bringing this lesson home to my own kids. Together we’ve explored 3 wonderful books: Peter H. Reynold’s The Dot, Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg and Perfect Square by Michael Hall. Each of these, in their own colorful, creative way, explores the beauty and integrity of discoveries made in places where they are least expected. These stories encourage readers to look at “problems” through a creative lens and to figure out how to see in them their purpose, beauty and value.
In The Dot, a young girl fears she doesn’t have what it takes to make art and she protests a drawing class assignment by marking a sheet of paper with just one single dot. This dot is celebrated by a thoughtful teacher and the empowered little girl goes on to create fabulous dot-inspired art that inspires others.
Beautiful Oops is a fun read for kids and adults of all ages. Its lesson is invaluable; mistakes and experimentation lead to discovery and in this process lays the potential for great beauty as well. “Every spill has lots and lots of possibilities,” the author tells us.
Michael Hall’s Perfect Square is the story of a red square who was “perfectly happy with its four matching corners and four equal sides”, when a series of unexpected events begin to take place. The square is cut into pieces and poked full of holes. Adjusting, the square “turns itself into a fountain that babbled and giggled and clapped.” When, for some reason, the square is torn into scraps, it makes itself into a garden. Our protagonist, the square, goes on to have more adventures of this kind and he is able to adjust to and turn each of these moments into something of significance. I especially loved this story of adaptability and creative vision.
Each of my three children, ages 3, 6 and 8, loved these stories and immediately grasped their intended messages. These stories are perfect as they are merely reminding kids of truths they already know. Children come to us packaged as fearless learners. From their first baby steps, toddlers learn they must fall before they can run. If, as educators, we remain conscious of this mindset and help preserve it in all learners, we are laying a foundation for a future filled with bold artists and writers, ground-breaking scientists and thinkers and innovative leaders—all the while keeping learning fun!
Building on the theme found in the perfect square, I gave the boys a pile of paper origami squares and some scissors. I did not provide much in the way of instructions as I wanted to see what messages they’d gleaned from the story. “Here are some perfect squares,” I said. “What can you do with these?” Walden, my youngest guy, got it instantly. With a grin he started cutting. “My square is being turned into a family!” An orange family of 5 took shape nearly instantly. My older sons turned their squares into the heads of robots and of Frankenstein. Walden went on to make a prolific flower garden. This activity kept all three boys engaged for longer than I’d expected. Jo Jo, age 6, loves nothing more than an art lesson with no rules. He spoke animatedly about the irony of using origami paper for this project. “It’s funny that we are just cutting this paper up and making anything we want because origami is usually so strict and serious.”
As Walden tired of this activity, he asked for a bowl of water. “I want to see if my perfect square can float. And I want to see if it will turn into anything else in the water.” His science experiment sits on my window sill undisturbed where my young scientist checks on it many times each day, always reporting, in great detail, the changes he observes.
To have a bit more fun, that same day we experimented with our own “beautiful oops” activity. On index cards, I made a series of rips, folds, smudges, and paint splotches. Each of the boys were handed 5 cards and invited to turn these into something of interest. No instructions were required as they recognized instantly the purpose of this activity.
For a few minutes the cards I provided sufficed. In no time, however, the brothers were making cards for each other. I managed to get through washing an entire day’s worth of dirty dishes listening to their giggles and animated conversations as they worked through one another’s index cards. For those of you homeschooling several young children, this activity can appeal to a wide age range and is a lot of fun to do with siblings.
This project’s best moment came in a sun-soaked pumpkin patch on Saturday. Elias was hunting for the perfect pumpkin to turn into a jack- o- lantern. He is the kind of kid who walks past all the perfectly round, classic jack- o –lantern type pumpkins and is instead drawn to the most strangely shaped, speckled squash, which often time is not an actual pumpkin at all but rather some sort of unusual heirloom with a bruise on its front. (Choosing Christmas trees with this child is a beautiful nightmare!) This year, his squash came with a large “scar” across its front. “Look mom! It’s a beautiful oops. I’ll make this into something really good!” Perfect.
How do you teach your children fearlessness? What are the outcomes of your efforts? Share your ideas with us!
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