Sunday, March 30, 2014

Parenting Month 41: Creativity and play

Part of the Carnegie International 2014 exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh) was The Playground Project, which focused on using playgrounds as a means for kids to learn free, unorganized play. The contrast is where kids only do organized play or where the play opportunities available are constricting and force the children into a small set of narrow paths. In the U.S. two outcomes that are apparent is the decline in physical fitness and the inability of many to create their own entertainment and remain solely as consumers of entertainment instead of creators.

One dichotomy that I do not think is very useful is to view the choice as between directed activity and leave the child alone.  The first fails because the learner takes no initiative, the second fails because an ignorant learner is not able to know what goals should be targeted, much less how to get there.  And this happens to be known to be true in every creative field, noone learns creativity to any level of skill outside of guided learning. In music, photography, drawing, painting, writing, etc. the art is taught through imitation, understanding how existing works were created, mastery of techniques, then applying those techniques to create something new.

One thing we've started doing is learning to play with LEGO.  The Duplo blocks that are targeted at the 2-4 set are large blocks that are useful as stacking toys, but their size limits greatly the amount of detail possible and the range of possibilities.  My son uses them like dolls, there are a few combinations he uses for certain animals, and he can do things that are based on stacking bricks on top of each other, but this is not creative play (except in the sense that playing with dolls is indeed imaginative). The standard LEGO bricks are the same, left to his own devices he probably would never get past building with LEGO by building up layers.

When I mention that my son is starting to play with LEGO, one question I get is if he is using bricks or sets (with Duplo it is generally plain bricks, with LEGO it is currently sets), followed by a tirade about how they only use bricks and not sets.  The problem is that it is missing the point.  The question should be not how the bricks are purchased, but what do the builders learn how to do. If the only thing a builder learns to do is stack layers of bricks, then that is not learning construction skills.  But if they learn techniques that they can then apply in other places, then they have learned something.

The question on getting sets is not basic bricks versus sets, but what do you learn along the way and how can the pieces that you can get be reused. My wife has noticed that in the sets we have gotten so far, even the specialized pieces get used in very different ways that are almost unrecognisable from each other. Similarly, steps in the instructions that consist of stacking pieces on top of each other he can already follow on his own.  What is not as easy for him are all of the other techniques, the methods used to provide strength, or methods that allow for changing the direction of build, or those that generate the appearance of detail.

That is what the good sets and the good books do.  Provide examples of techniques quite beyond the obvious building up layers of bricks.  So far, we have gotten a long way with not a very large number of sets (because we break them up regularly to get practice rebuilding them, and some sets get modified to allow for different types of play. [e.g. a hospital that has doubled as a school, restaurant and museum at various times])  Next, we do intend to get him a set of basic bricks, but that only works because will be combining it with the remnants of sets that provide a few specialized parts that enable a range of techniques that expand the range of what is possible and imaginable.

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