Why the D-School’s Alice Shi Kembel Lets Her Children Play With Trash (Part 1)

Anyone visiting our home will stumble upon numerous unique creations designed by our three boys: bats with five-foot wingspans made of paper and masking tape, daggers whittled from sticks, bug zoos designed with wine corks and popsicle sticks, night vision goggles consisting of toilet paper tubes and duct tape, snake traps constructed from cardboard and string, and a two-pronged lice comb that my oldest son made for his kindergarten teacher out of wooden skewers and Scotch tape.

While I haven’t fully embraced the effect all of this creativity has on the appearance of our home, my husband and I encourage this type of play, because we believe that allowing our children this freedom nurtures a spirit of innovation that will help them develop important skills now and in the future.  Not only will the ability to think innovatively help children develop a love for learning, but it will eventually prepare them to enter the workforce of a rapidly-changing world that faces complex challenges in the areas of technology, health care, the environment, and the global economy.

This week (today and for the next four days), I hope to offer simple principles you can start with to nurture a mindset of innovation in your children. The first is:

Provide materials that foster creativity.

Give children access to a variety of materials that can be used in many different ways, and model for them that their ideas can be made with these rough materials.  Children can create from unexpected materials – paper, tape, sticks, toilet paper tubes, popsicle sticks, boxes, corks, egg cartons, leaves, rocks, and much more.  Rather than buy toys for your children that have a singular, set purpose, choose toys that encourage creativity in their open-endedness.  Examples include Legos (without the instructions), Citiblocks, Tinker Toys, Magnatiles, straws and connectors, and blocks.

When my five-year-old wanted a Star Wars clone trooper mask, rather purchase one for forty dollars, my husband cut up a plastic milk jug, drew on it with Sharpie, and attached a cord to the back.  Our son was just as happy with his milk jug mask as he would have have been with a commercial one, and seeing his dad create his idea, simply with materials around the house, unlocked a new realm of possibility for him.

This process can work in reverse as well.  Children can be inspired to create a project from what they find compelling about various materials.  My boys, after they had collected numerous toilet paper tubes, created several sets of night vision goggles and binoculars because the cylindrical nature of the tubes triggered their imaginations in that direction.  Materials that foster creativity can give form to the ideas that children already have, as well as spark novel ideas.

Join us tomorrow for the next in this series: Emphasize that there is no “right” way to create something.

This post is submitted by Alice Shi Kembel, speech-language therapist, swimmer, quilter, photographer, hiker and writer. As the wife of one of the co-founders of the Stanford d.school, Alice absorbed principles of design thinking through osmosis. Upon discovering that none of her three boys were the type to color within the lines, she embraced the maker mentality and can now sometimes be found trying to refinish furniture, adding recycling to the bin of materials in the project lab in the basement, or reminding her boys to be careful with their pocket knives as they whittle sticks into creations of their fancy (mostly play weapons). As recent transplants to Boulder, Alice and her husband are actively involved in helping create the design lab at their children’s new school, Mackintosh Academy.  Alice loves aspen trees, garage sales, escapist novels, and pre-prepared foods. Find Alice at www.aliceshikembel.wordpress.com


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