by Jen Filonowich
I am often asked what makes Ruth Washburn different or special, and I think of the open-ended activities that drive creativity and engineering.
Last month, I watched with interest as a child built a “car” at the woodworking bench in Afternoon Explorers. I was in awe at that perseverance and creativity involved in the activity. I was glad this child had the time and opportunity to just create and the space and supplies to be “successful”.
I recently read a statement that said that how we parent is a direct reaction (whether positive or negative) to the way were parented. I laughed at this, remembering a fifth grade project I was required to do many years ago. I was tasked with making a diorama of an igloo. This doesn’t seem too difficult, but I was incredibly stuck and anxious. The only thing I could think to do was to make it out of sugar cubes, which, of course, we didn’t have readily available. I cried because I didn’t have the sugar cubes, so I settled on making it out of flour and water. I didn’t know how to make play dough, so I just literally mixed flour and water to a pasty mess. This was not in the least bit useful in making an igloo. When I became a parent, I overcompensated by having an entire closet of craft supplies at the ready. I wonder how my children would have created that igloo. My oldest would have found many different things from outside and experimented until he found something he liked. He would not have asked for sugar cubes, instead seeing this as a quest. My youngest would have been all over the Internet, researching real igloos and finding great ideas for the project; adapting the stuff we have around to meet his needs.
Does this mean that my closet of wonders helped my children become the creative, engineering types they are now? Nope. Last year I had to empty that closet and found most of the store bought wonders unused. So what did help them be able to stretch beyond my water and flour “solution”- the time, space, support, and patience to make messes on my porch. Over the years they have created many things such as bow and arrows, an entire putt putt golf course created out of found bricks in my alley, rope swings and “hammocks”, endless origami swans, whittled soap creations, etc. I watched as their creations became very sophisticated. As an older teenager, my oldest started making ornamental knives out of recycled metal. He learned how to cut and finish wood for the handles, buff, shape, and polish the blades, use leather to make a sheath, and then he created a case. He gave this to his brother as a gift for Christmas, which was a pretty cool gift to receive when you are 16. The younger son taught himself candle making on YouTube and was incredibly offended when I tried to scale back his idea of making cupcake candles as gifts. I was trying to help him learn the basics, forgetting that he had already learned those and was ready for the fancier stuff. They were beautiful, and I was a bit ashamed of my meddling. I am beginning to realize that by allowing them time to tinker and create I was helping them to become competent young adults. It definitely did not feel like that when I looked at a pile of whittled soap or stepped in a hole in the alley.
I have always known, in theory, that childhood is a time to create, wonder, tinker and learn to persevere, but now I get to see the actual results in my own children. So, when your child comes home from school with paint all over from using flyswatters on tempera or is muddy from building a castle out of rocks and “mortar” on the hillside, remember that they are learning to solve problems with more than just flour and water.
Jen Filonowich is the Director of Ruth Washburn Cooperative Nursery School in Colorado Springs, CO.