by Bridget Cecere
“What if” questions are not ones I often have time to think about, but as the summer continues and my middle school students are tucked away with their families, I get to focus on mine. What would happen if my son didn’t dash to his room to play hockey between his screen-time minutes? What goes through my daughter’s mind when she makes up song after song with the often unrelated words she strings together? Do they spend any part of their day wondering about things? At the start of last summer, I decided to test out this theory a bit. My inspiration came from a friend who has devoted her life to studying and teaching others about creative thinking.
We have a three-season porch that I was preparing to open.While I was muddling through the usual to-do list of dusting, vacuuming, and moving furniture, I began to wonder: how could I use this room to inspire my kids’ creative brains? Year after year I had tossed the same old toys into an arrangement along the perimeter of the room, and the kids happily played with a summer breeze drifting in from the windows. This particular year I was sure I could do better. I did want them to have a say in the matter, but I didn’t quite trust that they could resist the urge to antagonize the other in the process. I knew if I asked my husband he was likely to give me a sideways glance and mutter something about having a few other things to think about that day. Still, I wondered, wasn’t there some way to offer them, and possibly all of us, the chance to break open some creativity?
As I watched them grow and age up into different phases of play, I had noticed how drawn they were to all things that plugged in or offered some sort of competitive reward. As they are three years apart, such activities often left them choosing to play without the other or engaging out of obligation, ending with tears and complaints. A whole two months at home can be an intimidating thing for those unaccustomed to it, so I must admit my motivation did include finding that one thing that might help me get through a summer without looking forward to bedtime by 3 p.m. I continued to wonder while I swept the floor, all the while keeping a distant eye on their current play in the living room.
What if I gave them an empty space? What if I told them they could create the space themselves with whatever materials they wanted? What if they could make the room into as many different things or places that they chose to? It was a risky idea, but I felt myself getting excited as it began to take shape in my mind. Immediately I had several ideas of what they might like to do – a LEGO room, a spaceship, maybe a police station. I mentally organized piles of materials for them to use with each possible theme. Then I realized that if this idea was going to succeed, with success defined as my children’s ability to use the space to build their own creative thinking, I had to turn myself off. In order for this exercise to be anything other than Mommy “pretending” to leave the room up to them, I was going to have to keep myself in check. This was not any easy thing to do when, as a special educator, I create order and structure for other people’s children all day, but I realized it would make or break this plan. Once I had those impulses under control, I told the kids the good news.
The three of us sat down in the empty (and quite clean) space to talk. As we started I had to deal with the usual distractions: who was sitting too close to whom, intermittent requests for snacks, side chatter about the funny squirrel on the garage roof, and my all-time favorite, whispered bathroom talk. I persisted, and finally secured their attention when I let them know that we were going to use the room as a creative space for them to make their own. I explained that they could fill the space with whatever materials they thought they needed to make all the exciting and wonderful things they could think of, as long as they agreed on the plan before they started it. They could take things from their bedrooms, play areas, even outside (provided Mommy got the chance to clean it up a bit first) to create their most exciting place. They could paint or draw things to make scenery that went along with whatever or wherever their imaginations brought them.
I wish I could remember their exact verbal responses, but for some reason I only recall their faces and body language. They smiled and giggled, I think at first because they thought I was kidding. They looked at each other to check the other’s response, they asked the other questions, they responded to the other’s ideas. Soon they were up and moving in the room, pointing wildly to where things could be placed and discussing where to go in the house to start collecting materials. It was working! Right in front of my eyes they were creating something of their own designs. I had to resist the urge to organize them. I smiled and offered encouragement without judging the validity of their plan. In the end, I had to leave the room, because that was a lot of self-control for me to muster mid-Saturday afternoon.
When I walked away, they were busy creating their first imaginary space…ESPN ZONE. My daughter wants nothing more in life than to be like her brother, so she got excited for this heavily sports-oriented idea, a recreated television broadcast booth. They hurried through the house to get their sports-themed items and dragged their play table and chairs into the room to be their sports desk. They drew pictures and made signs that represented their favorite teams and begged me to help them pull the tape from the dispenser to hang things up. They used sports figures, of which we have far too many, and decided to create the “games” for which they would do play-by-play on the porch floor. They rehearsed with minimal arguments and actually shared several encouraging comments. The final step in their whimsical creative plan was for me to record their ESPN broadcast with the video camera. After a surprisingly quick hour or so they were ready for filming. Even with the added pressure of the camera, they played their individual parts and giggled their way through what has become a treasured memento in our family.
I can’t claim that every variation they tried that summer worked out to be as memorable or as pleasurable as the first. I can’t even claim that we left the porch open to their creative discretion all summer. What I can say is that I did in fact provide them with space and time to be creative together. They enjoyed this process and took away happy memories from the experience. It was a fantastic parenting lesson for me to realize how simple but important it is to take a step back sometimes to allow them to find their own way. Our “What if” journey achieved its seemingly ambitious goal and has left me wondering ever since.