Why The D-School’s Alice Shi Kembel Lets Her Children Play With Trash (Part 4)

This week I’ve been writing about why I let my children play with trash (parts 1, 2 and 3 HERE, HERE and HERE). Here’s a hint: 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. Here’s the fourth suggestion in this 5-part series on how to foster innovation in children:

Teach children to view setbacks as a opportunities to learn rather than as failures, and encourage them to embrace an attitude of experimentation.

When a project falls apart, gets knocked down, or is in some way unsatisfactory to a child, model a positive view of setbacks by encouraging children to think about what they can learn from it.  Some children, particularly those with a low frustration tolerance or who are perfectionistic, will be upset when something goes wrong.  Acknowledge their feelings and then ask questions such as, “That’s interesting, what happened there?  What can we learn from that?  What can we try next?  How can we change what we’re doing to make it better?”  When parents point out that children can make their projects even better when things don’t go as planned because they can learn something in the process, children will be more likely to accept setbacks as learning tools rather than view them as barriers that paralyze their progress.

In addition, encourage children to experiment with their ideas and make quick representations rather than focus on a finished product.  Most children incorporate this attitude naturally in their play as they explore, but can be overly concerned about producing a perfect end product when attempting to create something.  As parents, we can help establish a culture of experimentation by prompting them with questions that emphasize learning and problem-solving.  “That’s interesting, what do you think?  What can we try really quickly to test out this idea?  What can we try next to help us learn?  What if we sketch this out to see what might work?” are examples of questions that remove the pressure of making something perfect from the start and bias children towards action.  For example, if a child is frustrated that his drawing is not turning out the way he wants it to, we can ask, “Can we just do a quick sketch first, before we do the real one?  We might learn something that could help us go forward.”  This approach helps children test their thinking and identify and resolve problems early on, reducing the need for perfectionism and instilling confidence in their own creative abilities.

When my oldest son was five, for example, we received a box of Magnatiles as a gift.  He immediately began building a tower, but at a certain point when the weight of the Magnatiles at the top became too great, the tower collapsed with a resounding crash.  My son dissolved into tears.  My immediate inclination was to rush to his side, comfort him, and reassure him that we could build the tower again.  To my surprise, my husband said, “Wow, that was interesting!  Did you see how that collapsed?”

My son stopped sobbing for a moment, intrigued.

“I noticed that this part seemed weak,” said my husband.  “What do you think we could do to make it stronger?”

My son’s crying ceased completely as he began to contemplate the pile of collapsed Magnatiles in front of him.  “Well, maybe we need some supports instead of building it straight up,” he said.

“Let’s give it a try and see what happens.  Do you have an idea for what kind of supports you want to try?”

They began rebuilding the tower, making modifications as they went, and quickly finished a sturdier structure.

“See, buddy, even though it can be frustrating when something doesn’t work, it actually helps us learn so that next time we can make it even better!” said my husband.

“Yeah,” said my son.  “Now my tower is really strong!”

After being coached through similar incidents, our son began viewing falling towers and broken Lego ships as opportunities for improvement rather than indicators that he was doing something wrong.  He has developed such resilience from this mindset that he has a much greater capacity to persevere with his projects, even when he faces difficulties.

Join us tomorrow for the last in this series: Praise the effort children put forth in the creative process, not their innate abilities.


Alice Kembel and her husband, George, are recent CA–>CO transplants, having just arrived in town after immersion in the Stanford D-School. You can find Alice at www.aliceshikembel.wordpress.com.

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