I think most of us in education are aware of, or have at least heard about, the Maker Movement. A Maker is defined in many ways by many people, but perhaps Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame summed up the maker mentality as good as anyone when he wrote:
Humans do two things that make us unique from all other animals; we use tools and we tell stories. And when you make something, you’re doing both at once.
And Robin Moore, an expert in the design of play and learning environments, notes that:
Natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s limitless imaginations and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity observable in almost any group of children playing in a natural setting.
These perspectives quoted here are not definitions per se, but for me they do shed some powerful perspective in two realms- on my own experiences as I’ve evolved as a Maker; and on my role as an educator responsible for inciting innovation in and out of the classroom.
On My Own Experiences
As was typical for most kids growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, much of my childhood was spent either outdoors in the natural world playing with all the loose parts contained within (all good makerspaces have plenty of loose parts-more on that in a bit!), or coming up with some hair-brained scheme that started simply enough but always seemed to require taking things apart and repurposing them to achieve the well-intentioned objective. I’m convinced the experiences I had in natural spaces and my tinkering endeavors were formative in contributing to my current mindset as a Maker and Innovation Strategist.
I earlier referred to the idea of “loose parts.” I first read about this concept in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The theory of loose parts was coined by architect Simon Nicholson in his 1971 Journal of Landscape Architecture article “How NOT to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts.” In Nicholson’s words, the theory of loose parts says:
In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it.
As my brothers and sisters and I (and the lucky friend or two we pulled along with us!) ventured through the cornfields and into the woods and creeks of southwest Ohio, we were presented with many of these variables: a vast unstructured playground, unlimited opportunities, and countless loose parts for creating and making. We made crawdad traps out of river stones, bologna, and sticks (my pet alligator wouldn’t eat the bologna, but he loved fresh crawdads.) Heck, I even once repaired the split rear slick tire of my Schwinn Apple Krate stingray bicycle with a modified piece of birch bark from the tree I ran into. We weren’t constrained by any rules, but rather guided by a desire or a problem to be solved. And we had lots of loose parts to experiment with, fail with, and sometimes experience success with. These forays into natural spaces continued into my adulthood as I took up high altitude mountaineering, long distance backpacking and cross country bicycle touring. To this day, as I continue to venture into wild spaces, I'm constantly learning from being challenged to solve problems using loose parts.
And getting back to those often thought-up hair-brained schemes…one remains vividly imprinted on my brain and is an experience that will linger with me to my grave. In 1966, I was in the first grade living on the 8th floor of a 12 story apartment building in Repulse Bay, Hong Kong. Now, if you ask my younger brother, he’ll tell you it was all my idea, but I seem to remember otherwise. Anyway, inspired by the cover graphic of the book A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer, we decided to recreate the cascading waterfall from the 12th floor stairwell.
Mind you, we were 5 and 6 years old. There were lots of things to figure out-How could we get enough water (undetected) from our 8th floor apartment up to the 12th floor? What could we use as containers? How could we release all the water at once? We were successful in designing a working system to dump all the containers at the same time, but the result did not replicate the scene from the cover of the book-rather it partially flooded the entryway of the 11th floor apartment nearest the stairwell. I still remember the look of consternation on my father’s face (but I’m pretty sure my mom was a teeny bit proud of what we had engineered) and having to mop up the mess with paper towels and learning how to say “I’m sorry and I promise to never do this again” in Cantonese. I don’t really remember, but I’m guessing deep down I was proud of what we had accomplished from loose parts.
My Role as an Educator
So how does all this relate to and/or inform my intentions and actions as an educator? What are my learned lessons from my formative years as I attempt to bring life to the creative Maker mindset in my students? Here are four of my evolving ideas.
Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees. What happens when all the parts of childhood are soldered down, when the young no longer have the time or space to play in their family’s garden, cycle home in the dark with the stars and moon illuminating their route, walk down through the woods to the river, lie on their backs on hot July days in the long grass, or watch cockleburs, lit by the morning sun, like bumblebees quivering on harp wires? What then?”
Dad, Husband, Outdoor Adventurer and Innovation Strategist
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