The Difference Between a Pinwheel and a Dog

Flashback with me: squiggly lines, squiggly lines, squiggly lines. We’re at the Denver Mini Maker Faire in early May, 2014. The National Western Complex is busy with inquisitive children, adults, childlike adults and even a couple childish adults all buzzing with the excitement of various hands-on activities and demonstrations. had a booth at the Faire — it was one of our first incarnations. And in addition to a Makey Makey and a couple other jazz-hands attention grabbers, we had selected an engaging little craft: a clever pinwheel made out of simple straws, tape and some soft wire.

It seemed so simple! A couple cuts, a couple folds, pop it on a straw and Bob’s your uncle. In real-life, we quickly learned that while the project was relatively simple, it was hard to execute well, and a number of children were frustrated with how long it was taking, and how many iterations it took to get it right.

Of course, iterating is part of the wonder of Making — learn from what works and what doesn’t, try a new thing or two, and “tweak and nudge” — but this pinwheel was quickly swamping our children (one was even overheard saying, “I failed!”), and not fostering the fun and creative experience we were hoping for.

While I struggled to keep up with four clever crafters, a lone boy picked up the scissors and started to bend and cut straws. He taped things together, and several moments later, he barked at me.  There, on the table amid the straw-and-wire pinwheel graveyard, stood a handsome (if somewhat lop-sided), dog made of neon straws and wiry ears. You know those things you look back on and wish you had a good picture? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.

The rest of the children that approached the table with the oft-uttered question, “what can I do here?” heard a new answer: “Whatever you like. We have straws, tape and wire.  Here are some scissors.  If you want to make a pinwheel, I’ll help you. But you can do whatever you want.”

I was, for the first two hours, deeply committed to bending those straws into pinwheels — but the child taught me (again), that when the human imagination is free to wander through materials, it’s capable of doing so much more than following the instructions.  Brilliant.
The rest of the weekend saw more dogs, flutes, benches, bridges, people, curly machines, and yes, even a pinwheel or two.

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