Tales of carpet tubes and poetry

What do carpet tubes and poetry have to do with each other, and with early childhood education? In several recent workshops, early care providers were presented with creative opportunities inspired by carpet tubes and poetry—opportunities that other professionals may want to replicate in their own early care or out-of-school time classrooms.

A twelve-foot long, six-inch diameter heavy cardboard carpet tube was poised in the corner of the room with the question, “If this were in your early childhood classroom, what could you do with it?”  Throughout the workshop, participants were encouraged to write their ideas on paper displayed near the tube. Responses included: create a giant palm tree, roll it down the hill outside, pretend it’s a firefighter’s pole, cut it up into segments and create a ring toss, ride it, create a giant teeter-totter, paint it like a totem pole, have an outdoor caber toss, build it into a giraffe, prop it and race cars down it. Occasionally the presenter would review responses and ask, “What else?” The exercise was a demonstration of an “imagination challenge.” Young children can be encouraged to imagine broadly and wildly through these challenges. 

Western culture often conditions people to think in either-or patterns: “We could do this, or we could do that.” Creativity experts want thinkers to break out of that pattern to generate many ideas and options, to explore with “what else?” thinking, and expand the pool of possibilities. Educators and workforce experts identify creativity, curiosity, inquiry, and problem solving as crucial skills that equip children to be capable participants in the next generation workforce. Children’s experiences in early care settings can lay the foundation for these important learning dispositions, or approaches to learning.

Set up an “Imagination Challenge”

“A man who has no imagination has no wings.” – Muhammad Ali (quote from ExchangeEveryDay February 9, 2017)

Display an unusual, perhaps open-ended, item or material in the classroom with the prompt, “What could we do with this?” and collect responses for several days. Allow parents, visitors, and children of all ages to contribute ideas and excitement as they imagine experiences with the item. During this brainstorming time, use language like, “Think of as many original ideas as possible,” and, “Write down even the silliest ideas!” Fight against children’s mental self-critiquing that keeps them from suggesting an idea because they think it can’t be done or won’t be allowed. After several days of suggestions, allow the children to express excitement and choose some ideas to follow through. If the ideas seem out of the adult’s comfort zone, the teacher could say, “Let’s think together and find a way to follow this idea AND stay within the rules/stay safe (whatever the concern is).”

After a time, imagination challenges may become collaborative, with family members and community volunteers contributing items for future experiences.

The “Unusual Uses Test”

The unusual uses test is similar to the imagination challenge, but the provider presents a well-known object like a paper clip or a pen. The children in the group come up with as many alternate uses for the object as possible, beyond the expected, typical one (Hadani 2015). This kind of game helps to develop a child’s flexible thinking and originality. Research has identified seven characteristics of children ages six through fourteen that contribute to that child’s ability to be creative, to think outside the box:  imagination and originality, flexibility, decision making, communication and self-expression, motivation, collaboration, action and movement (Hadani 2015).

Build games like “The Unusual Uses Test” into a preschool or school age curriculum to nurture these valued qualities in children.

Safe space for ideas

“All sorts of things can happen when you're open to new ideas and playing around with things.”  – Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar (Smith 2016)

It is important for the early care or out-of-school time space to be emotionally safe, where children know that others receive their ideas with interest and respect. This is especially true in elementary school where children go through a fourth grade slump and begin to conform rather than present original thoughts (Hadani 2015).

Providers should try to say “Yes” more than “No” to children’s ideas and experiments. This happens through words but also through intentional arrangement of materials in the play space. Accessible, developmentally-appropriate items allow children to pursue their ideas freely. At times adults may have to do a mental risk assessment and increase supervision if the idea is particularly adventurous.

Shake up the status quo

Do children in your program always seem to do things the same way? Shake up the status quo by adding a specific challenge or prompt. For instance, to cause children to play differently in the block area, challenge them to build as many different structures with a group of only seven blocks rather than the entire set. Take photos of each arrangement to see how many they build. Or read them the poem “Block City” by Robert Louis Stevenson and ask them to create a city inspired by the words in the poem. You and they may need to explore words such as temple, vessel, moored, kirk, and mill.

Loose parts encourage creativity

Every early care space should have a variety of loose parts to experiment and play with. Loose parts—things like blocks, craft sticks, pinecones, construction paper, twigs, squares of fabric, shells, clay—are items that children can use in many different ways for imaginative play and creative expression. Bins of loose parts that children can access on their own encourage creativity and problem solving. For more ideas about loose parts view the Better Kid Care resource page “Loose Parts: What does this mean?”

two girls working on a project

Don’t give them the answer, give them curiosity

“If a kid comes to you with a question, to assume that you have the answer is to assume that life is really simple. But it's not true. If a little kid comes to you and asks you, ‘Why is the sky blue,’ you may know something about scattering of light, you may think you know that it reflects off the ocean, but all of that doesn't matter. The point is, it's about the process of them being curious! So, don't try to give them answers. Try to give them curiosity. So, when someone says, ‘Why is the sky blue,’ you say, ‘I wonder! I wonder why. It's really—it's a really multi-faceted thing. I wonder why.’” – Jay Silver (CEO of Joy Labz and MakeyMakey) (Silver 2014). Then the provider can encourage the child to research, experiment, and discover an answer to the question. In that way, the teacher supports this child’s wondering and gives it value.

Justin Kitch (CEO of Curious.com) (Kitch 2016) says, “We think being curious is almost the essence of life and extremely fun, but besides that there’s been a lot of science and research in the last ten years that has shown that being curious actually makes you happier, healthier, live longer, and be more successful. So there’re a lot of practical reasons why being curious is a good thing.”

Want more ideas about nurturing curiosity, creativity, and wonder?

Download the Better Kid Care handout “Wonder-full programming ideas.”
Also, check out the ideas at the website “Creativity Catapult.”

If you’d like to learn more about inquiry-based strategies and how to encourage creative, open-ended play experiences, check out these Better Kid Care On Demand modules: 

  • STEAM for the Preschool Programming Engine
  • Family Child Care: Welcoming Wonder Through Inquiry-Based Strategies.


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Tales of carpet tubes and poetry

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