If you are like me, many of the moments you remember most from childhood might involve making something. There’s the pillow I made by hand in elementary school that I still have stored in a plastic tub in the basement. The Madonna-inspired music videos I made with my two best friends. The pumpkin bread each Thanksgiving. The project posters. The mix tapes.
As our modern world often demands 24/7 connectivity, there has been a surge of interest in making things as a way to unwind, release our creativity, and even to combat addiction: cooking from scratch, knitting, woodworking, essentially anything you do with your hands that focuses on repetitive actions at a skill level that can always be improved upon. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this as entering a “flow” state where we reach a balance between skill and challenge that fosters in us an almost unconscious drive to keep trying. To keep making. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as the secret to happiness.
In schools, we’ve seen the Maker Movement and project-based learning bring renewed focus on making. Mitchel Resnick, the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and Head of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, explains that the Maker Movement is about more than gadgets and technology. It’s about making things you care about, things that are meaningful to you and meaningful to others around you.
Children are really the best makers. My eight-year-old makes flip books, comic books, lists, and marble runs. This week, while getting out the frying pan, he said, “I want to make my own quesadilla.” The urge to make is always there especially when the process and the product go hand-in-hand.
As we get older, the things we make sometimes change. Our eleven-year-old likes to make lists of basketball drills that he writes in a journal dedicated for this purpose. He made a Top Ten Basketball Players of All-Time slideshow just because. He doodles and draws, but mostly when no one else is looking over his shoulder.
Throughout our lives, we never lose the urge to make things. My mom is an avid and skilled needlepointer. Her favorite things to make are ornaments. Small projects that she can finish in a week or two. Thanks to her devotion to making things for the people she loves, we have dozens of ornaments that bring us joy at every major holiday. Her love of making ornaments is consistent with research that shows that the act of doing for others gives us an immediate sense of satisfaction unparalleled by things we can buy for others.
Of course, the act of creating can be frustrating. The lines we want to make straight may turn out squiggly. The drawing we hoped would be perfect may turn out “ish”. The building might collapse. And the cookies may burn. But when we try to make something and it fails we learn it’s okay to try again.
Writing as Making
It’s easy to forget that every piece of writing we craft is an act of making. In writing workshop, the question “What are you making?” is a more joyful alternative to “What are you writing?” This shift in language is subtle but significant. When we reframe writing as making, we free students to try and experiment much as they would when making something in the kitchen or in a laboratory or in a workshop.
Memoirist and writing teacher, Suzanne Farrell Smith, explains in her book The Writing Shop: Putting “Shop” Back in Writing Workshop that we can reclaim writing workshop as a method that draws from its namesake–the shops of craftspeople like carpenters, quilters, visual artists, architects, or cooks. She explains that a true writing workshop offers much more than technical expertise. It also offers “self-awareness, impulse control, seeking help, listening carefully, cooperation, conflict negotiation, appropriate risk-taking, grit, initiative, courage, [and] consideration of the health and well-being of others.”
Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play
When designing things you care about is the goal, it doesn’t matter what the materials are: wooden blocks, paper and pencil, seeds and soil, a keyboard and screen. What matters is the opportunity to design creatively and to play with the materials to see what happens. The Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab has developed a set of principles around making that, well, make a lot of sense.
First, when we make things, the joy factor increases when we are involved in a project, ideally of our choosing. I was visiting a school this week and the science posters I saw captured the immense creativity of these fifth grade students . They were free to choose a topic within their unit on the solar system that they wanted to learn more about and were free to display what they learned using a variety of materials. I had never seen three-dimensional student posters til now.
Second, when we make things related to our passions, or the things we care about, we are more willing to keep going when the learning process gets hard or we run into obstacles.
Third, when we make things with our peers, we learn to collaborate, negotiate, and make group decisions–all of which are essential for finding happiness. Of course, part of the beauty of making anything is that you can choose to do it alone or to make something with others.
Finally, the play involved in making is about more than fun. It’s about experimentation, creativity, and getting in a flow state all of which lead to greater overall happiness in our lives.
An Invitations Approach
I’m a believer in the power of an invitations-approach to learning. Giving students the invitation to make something with materials allows students to tap into their sensory selves, to embrace the mess, and to discover something new about the making process and themselves. In my classroom, I had a corner of recyclables especially paper towel rolls and plastic containers. One week’s worth of recycling led two boys to spend a month building a rollercoaster and another to design a playground. When we make something, we know we have the power to create again and again. There weren’t step-by-step instructions for things to create. The materials were the invitation.
At home, our kitchen table is often designed as an invitation to create with paper, pencils, markers, and other making tools handy. My boys are fortunate to be ongoing penpals with their great grandmother and great aunt who send them handwritten letters with questions that invite a response. They’ve grown up knowing first-hand that a personalized letter means more than an email or text and that the recipient will love it no matter the spelling errors. The letter is an invitation to write back.
This past week, a big box arrived with an unexpected gift for my husband from a friend. The box was a bigger hit with our eight-year-old than the gift inside. He spent two weeks decorating the box, making holes in it, turning it into a make shift chair for his desk, and building a fort with it. He finally put it in his closet so that he can pull it out when he needs to release some creative energy and make something out of it once again. He has learned that he can create an invitation for himself for the future.
We Are Always In the Process of Making
Try a little experiment. Over the course of the day, take notice of all the ways you make things. Meals. Coffee. Writing. Friendships. Even mess. The more we are mindful of the things we are making, the more it helps us recognize we have purpose and meaning. Support the children in your life to notice the things they are making that have meaning to them and that have meaning to others.
Try These Simple Tips:
Reframe the writing process as a making process
Model things you are making in your own life
Create invitations for children to make things with a variety of materials
Embrace the mess that making inevitably creates
Read aloud books like Not a Box by Antoinette Portis, Ish by Peter Reynolds, and Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg that let children know making is worthwhile and imperfect