A few years ago, over a summer break, my family and I went back home to Omaha, Ne to attend a family reunion. We drove out to the middle of nowhere, to my relatives’ cabin along the Platte River. After 2 ½ looong hours of convincing my kids all the fun they’d have “in the country”, we were finally there. We drove down the narrow gravel road and across a rickety old bridge and soon came upon the property. It was a tiny red cabin sitting along the river’s inlet. There was a fire pit, a sand pit, an outhouse (gasp!) and, on the far side of the property, was a shed. As my kids got out of the car, they appeared a little leery. “How long do we have to stay here? What are we supposed to do?” As cousins, nieces, and nephews approached, I nudged my kids towards the others and wearily told them to “go have fun.”
It was a relaxing day of grilling, canoeing, laughing, and catching up with one another. The kids were busy fishing, swimming, and rafting and would occasionally check in with the adults. At one point I realized I hadn’t seen my kids for a while. Not wanting to cause a panic, I quietly asked my cousin if she had seen them. She casually mentioned that they might be in the shed. I quickly made my way to the shed and opened the door. I immediately spotted my son, with other children, surrounded by …stuff! Buckets, broken guitars, boxes, chains, tubes all seemed to envelop the boys and girls. I stood there, mouth open, hoping whatever they just broke could be fixed. “What are you doing?” I asked, trying not shriek. “Just building”, my son replied. “It’s ok. His uncle said we could.” I questioned said uncle and he confirmed it. “Yeah”, he replied, “I let my kids go in and just fiddle with things. Most of those things I would probably throw away anyway.”
On the way back to civilization, my kids excitedly shared their experiences of “just building”. They built a castle for frogs, created instruments for a rock band, made an airplane complete with a cockpit and made up their own board game. As they continued to relive their day, I heard one declare “Who knew we could spend all day having fun just building?!”
But it was so much more than that. These children had an extraordinary opportunity to use a “pile of junk”, recyclables, and other loose parts to spark their creativity, ignite their imagination, and create all they could think of. They weren’t “just building”, they were tinkering.
The children we serve are preparing for jobs that currently don’t exist, for a future we can’t yet imagine. According to the World’s Economic Forum’s of Future Jobs Report, “complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity are the three most important skills a child will need to thrive.” Children are natural makers and are driven by curiosity. They are naturally compelled to take things apart and revamp them into other things. Jean Piaget’s developmental theory states that children need “to actively participate and engage in the environment and materials around them in order to best support learning.” Loose parts and tinkering support innovative and creative thinking as children move and manipulate pieces without directions. Loose parts and tinkering offer children open-ended exploration, opportunities to investigate on their own, and perhaps even a different way of thinking to better understand. There is no right or wrong. Children are allowed to do and re-do. They learn that failure is not to be feared.
Loose parts develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and build creative confidence through the exploration of new and different materials. Constructing with tape, tubes, straws or plastic bottles, children learn how to solve problems, make decisions, and come to understand how to put things together. They provide opportunities for teamwork, coordination skills, as well as learning the art of compromise.
Sir Ken Robinson states that “creativity is now as important as literacy.” Today’s business leaders point to creativity as the top leadership quality for the future. The children we serve will need to envision and execute solutions to complicated problems in their lifetimes. Our job as teachers is to foster environments that are places of wonder, where children can explore, imagine, create and feel free to challenge themselves. Just like my children in the shed, we need to let them “just build”.