September 2, 2009

Where Have All the Whatsits Gone? On Children and Creativity, via Diana Mercer.



“Get these whatsits off the floor!,” my dad used to holler from the den, “I’m going to trip on them and break my neck!”

The elaborate and sprawling whatsit of the moment my beleaguered father was referring to might have been my time machine (as a child, I was unusually interested in meeting George Washington), or telephone for the car (yes, I thought of this gadget in 1971), or my dinner-making robot (a la Rosie, from the Jetsons) assembled from a motley collection of cardboard boxes, paper tubes, tin foil, fabric, buttons, tape, nails, or whatever else I could pillage from my mother’s sewing closet, and my dad’s workbench in the basement.


My whatsits may have looked haphazard, but these creations were carefully dreamed, planned, executed, and never easy. It was darn risky clambering up the tall stack of couch cushions to attach paper cone points to my Statue of Liberty’s headpiece. My real-life walk up the long, circular set of stairs to the observatory in her crown had inspired me, and I wouldn’t rest until I had recreated her in our living room.


This work defined me. It wasn’t what I made that was important. It was the process of making these crazy, ugly, inventive, and wild structures that helped me grow up more fully; into a person who has nifty ideas, solves hard problems, and thinks outside the box. The whatsit is, essentially, a symbol for creativity: the invention of something new.


It’s worth noting that whatsits don’t come with directions, they’re hardly ever pretty, and when children are involved, they rarely work. It’s also worth noting that our planet’s complex problems don’t come with directions either. The opportunity to engage in an open-ended, creative process gives children the ability to think critically, and solve complex problems: a pretty handy set of abilities to have, considering the societal challenges we’ve got in front of us. Sir Ken Robinson, head of the British government’s advisory committee on creative and cultural education has this to say:


The challenges we currently face are without precedent. More people live on this planet now than at any other time in history. The world’s population has doubled in the past 30 years. We’re facing an increasing strain on the world’s natural resources. Technology is advancing at a headlong rate of speed. It’s transforming how people work, think, and connect. It’s transforming our cultural values.


If you look at the resulting strains on our political and financial institutions, on health care, on education, there really isn’t a time in history where you could look back and say, “Well, of course, this is the same thing all over again.” It isn’t. This is really new, and we’re going to need every ounce of ingenuity, imagination, and creativity to confront these problems.


Sadly, the whatsit appears to be endangered. For modern children, whatsit building has largely been replaced with boxed craft projects, complete with ‘cleanified’ art supplies that promise less mess. When any project has a predetermined outcome, it is unlikely that significant creativity is happening.  Structured projects can be entertaining, but they don’t come close to providing the rich, developmental experience for children that open-ended art and creative self-expression does.


Children are dreamers, and if encouraged, will astound you with their original thinking. Their kernels of original thought must be tended all the way to popping. The process of bringing our children’s visions to life is a developmental process essential to the formation of the creative mind.

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