What Is It?

May 18, 2011

What’s your first answer?  A circle? A block?  What do you see when you look at the picture to the left?  When I pull this item out of my bag during a Playshop and ask that question, most adults gaze at me strangely then give me the “correct” answer. I  nod then ask the question again, “What is it?” Now the looks are both blank and a little concerned.  Didn’t they already give me the right answer? But I persist. Holding it up higher, I ask again. Finally someone ventures, “It could be a sun….”  “Yes! That’s great!” I encourage. I ask the question again. Slowly the participants began to look at the object in my hand differently.  “It’s a hockey puck!”  “It’s a clown’s nose!” “It’s a yo-yo!”  “It’s an earring!” The lid lifts off the Only One Right Answer box. And we begin to play.  We move beyond the limits of our experience with the item and begin to think in terms of possibility. We move from concrete to concept. It is here that innovation begins.

In Dr. Stuart Brown’s book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, the author tells the story of Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which had been the United States premier aerospace research facility for more than seven decades. In the late 1990’s, though, JPL was experiencing a problem. The engineers who had come onboard in the 1960’s were beginning to retire in large numbers and those who were hired to replace them, though coming from the most prestigious programs with the highest academic excellence, seemed unable to handle the difficult challenge of moving from theory to practice. Being engineers, the JPL management analyzed the problem and decided they were looking at the wrong metrics. But what were the right ones? Then came the discovery: those who had worked and played with their hands as they were growing up were more open-ended in their approach to challenges and thus able to see solutions that those who hadn’t played with manipulatives could not.

As Early Childhood caregivers and educators we have the wonderful opportunity to practice open-ended thinking – the stuff of creativity and innovation – with the little people in our care. This is play with a purpose. But it’s not just for little people. When was the last time you cracked open your “Right Answer” box? It can be fun!  And as easy as asking the question, “What is it?”

No. Really. I want to know. How many possibilities do you see in this next picture? Write and let me know!


5 Responses to “What Is It?”

  1. Joanne Says:

    The item above is the eye mask for an owl

  2. Lauren Says:

    An outlet.

  3. Aaron Says:

    It could be a hat for a lego.

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