The creativity in sandboxes
When I was little, I remember fondly the times spent playing in my backyard sandbox. Moreover, whenever we went to the beach, nature's sandbox, my love for building castles, moats, fortresses and the like would sustain my enjoyment and engagement for hours on end. Whilst entertained, I can recall the sound of my mother's voice in the background, like many others on the continent, chiming in with the age old joke, "If you keep digging, you may end up in China!"
As I got older, I remember spending equal amounts of time building LEGO. Not the kind that came from kits, but just a mixed jumble stored in two, restaurant-sized, plastic butter containers. Like my sand play experiences, I'd spend countless hours constructing make-shift planes, castles, spacecraft, robots, dinosaurs, trucks and just about anything else that inspired me at the time.
Fast-forward to my teenage years and you would find me exploring the outdoor street canvases whilst skateboarding. When resting from my love of building ramps and trying new tricks when jumping staircases, I also enjoyed expressing my creativity in digital games. One of my favorites at the time was Sim City. I'd love building up a city from scratch to see if my ideas and/or iterations would turn out fruitful. The game even had elements of purposeful feedback by way of newspaper reports, which I would use to improve my city in hopes of it becoming a thriving metropolis.
So what do sandboxes, LEGO, skateboarding and Sim City have in common?
As educators and/or parents/guardians, one of our crucial goals is to try our best to prepare children to be successful for their future. A future that will be lived out in the era of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Without a doubt, a key skill that will continue to bring humans success and joy in the era of AI will be that of creativity.
Mitch Resnick, professor of Learning Research at MIT Media Lab, in his September 2018 Medium post, posits that creativity will be "forced" upon us in the AI era. However, he doesn't see this as a problem. "Creative activities bring joy, meaning and purpose to people's lives. Focusing on creativity is not just an economic imperative, it is also a path towards human fulfillment, an opportunity for humans to be more human."
How can we best foster this opportunity for humans to be more, well ... human?
Chances are, you're already fostering creativity by constructing experiences where children are engaging in projects of personal interest to them. Projects that they're intrinsically motivated to engage in. Maybe they're learning how to make their own slime, ideally remixing or creating their own recipe, rather than just making one verbatim from a procedure posted somewhere. A.J. Juliani, who has authored or co-authored The PBL Playbook, Empower and Launch, suggests that we should be fostering more chefs rather than just cooks.
Conversely, maybe your child is personifying their Beyblade to possess super-worldly powers and creating all types of iterations of how their Beyblade can battle and try to defeat the arch nemeses in the environments in which they have created. They may even go as far to write or illustrate stories based on their passions such as these.
In the learning spaces that I advise in, students engage in personal projects that are largely varied. Some are collaborative, others deeply personal and individualistic in nature. Some students are designing their own shoes, whilst others are creating their own music, drawing their own animations, publishing their own stories, or creating their own video games. All of these projects include passion and playing around with ideas through iterations and/or tinkering. These 4Ps (projects, passion, peers and play), are the key concoction to creating cultures of creativity, according to Resnick. He elucidates what successful implementation of the 4Ps could look like and more in chapter- by-chapter detail in his amazing book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers and Play (2017).
In my childhood examples above, some of my creative explorations included experiences both in real and digital worlds. Balance in these worlds, when exploring creativity, is a crucial point worth stressing here. Exploration that should be disproportionate in real world experiences, but not so extreme as to exclude digital spaces. As an educator and parent, it is disconcerting when you see children suffering from digital device addiction. Usually causes for this is the result of absent parenting, poor modelling, and/or no education towards media balance. When in doubt as to what constitutes a healthy media diet, Common Sense Media can be a great resource for education on the topic and much more.
I argue for a disproportionate balance in real world experiences because one thing that is front and center on my mind as a parent and educator, is what little amount of time children get to engage in unstructured play. Ideally, the type of play that is outdoors and without digital devices. In my opinion, the reasons for this deficit are varied, but for many, it boils down to unsafe neighborhoods, too much rigor in after-school lessons, or not valuing the importance of play altogether.
There are digital sandboxes, too...
Not all digital spaces are evil. With media balance, these spaces can provide settings for humans to explore, engage and entertain their creativity. In addition, digital spaces can also foster some of the same skills we try to instill in the real world, such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking (i.e. The P21's 4Cs of 21st century learning).
Two digital spaces that serve as excellent examples fostering the 4Cs, as well as Resnick's 4Ps, are Minecraft and Scratch. In fact, Minecraft is often termed as a "sandbox" game, included in this genre for the limitless possibilities in which a user can engage with the environment.
In Minecraft, players collaborate and communicate with one another (if they so choose) to "mine" resources and "craft" items in order to build digital worlds in LEGO style fashion. The worlds are byproducts of the crafter's creativity, since worlds in Minecraft are typically, but not limited to, geographical blank slates such as grasslands or deserts. With a careful balance of structure and agency (i.e. voice, choice and ownership) the possibilities to use Minecraft as a tool to make thinking visual are endless.
Below are two Minecraft examples that my students have created to make their thinking visible. These projects were created through inquiries under the PYP transdisciplinary themes of "How we express ourselves" and "How the world works", respectively (click on images to play video):
Meanwhile, in Scratch, another digital space that cultures creativity, players can create their own stories, games and more by learning to code "sprites" using Blockly (a visual, "drag and drop", style of computer code making programming accessible to all). Users tend to independently make their own projects, yet collaboration is fostered through Scratch's supportive "remix" culture. Users in Scratch can decide to either make their own creations and post to the share space for others to remix, or they can decide to keep their creations private. Alternatively, users can choose to build upon or remix other people's creations. By doing so, they learn to expand on the ideas of others, but also learn the importance of crediting others for their work when they re-post to the community. The creative spiral, or design thinking approach, continues as Scratch projects have limitless potential to be remixed by the community.
Scratch, besides being an excellent platform for expressing creativity, teaches computational thinking (another important 21st century skill), along with the important lessons that "sharing is caring" (in this case through open-sourcing one's code) and that all creatures on this planet learn through copying or modelling from the more experienced.
A future in fostering creativity
In sum, creativity, is without a doubt, a timeless important skill to nurture. When creating experiences for those under our care, whether as educators or parents/guardians, consider whether or not the experience, as Resnick posits in Lifelong Kindergarten, is that of a playground (i.e. sandbox) or a playpen. As an analogy, playgrounds are to Juliani's metaphor of creative chefs as playpens are to cooks who merely follow the creative playbook of others.
Perhaps some guiding questions to ponder when trying to foster creativity in your context:
After a sandbox (or playground) for creativity is established, remember to carefully consider the balance of creative experiences between the real and digital world. In other words, be sure to not only educate, but model ourselves, as to what media balance looks like.
Yes, creativity is undoubtedly a skill that can bring us much joy. However, skills of equal, if not more importance, are the ability to empathize with others and build strong face-to-face social connections. According to this longest study on the subject, these are things that will equate to a good life full of happiness.
To end this post on creativity, I'll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from Resnick's Lifelong Kindergarten...
"Creative thinking has always been, and always will be, a central part of what makes life worth living. Life as a creative thinker can bring not only economic rewards, but also joy, fulfillment, purpose and meaning. Children deserve nothing less."
What are your thoughts on creativity? What skills do you feel are also important to nurture in the AI era? Do you have any thoughts towards media balance? I'd love to hear your perspective in the comments below!
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PYP educator | Father | Husband | Life-long learner | Nature lover | Technology enthusiast | Sports hobbyist