Twenty years ago, my husband and I were on a team of people serving behind-the-scenes at a Willow Creek-style start-up church. We’d been to Willow for a conference and came back inspired to do more with lighting; we wanted some par cans on the floor of the stage pointing up, providing a splash of color against the curtain. Like this.I urged the team to create a new look using this concept.”We can’t do it,” one of the tech guys said. “We don’t have the stand or plate to mount them.””Can we get what we need?” I asked.“The lighting store sells them, but we don’t have money in the budget.””Can we use something else?”He shook his head. “No, we have to use those stands and we don’t have any.” He showed me how the light usually hangs from above, attached to metal rods using a nut and bolt. To use it on the floor, it would have to be bolted to something strong and stable.”Well, I can’t just give up like that,” I persisted. “Not before we’ve given it the old college try!”He shrugged and turned back to his work while I marched backstage to dig around the area where we stored drama props, scenery, pieces of wood, and a variety of cords and black cloth. I found two strong plastic milk crates, the old-fashioned sturdy kind stamped with the name of a local dairy. Could these work?I emerged on stage where the crew was running cords and plugging in mics. Without a word, I crossed over to two par cans that were lying nearby, flipped a milk crate upside down, and bolted one of the lights to it myself. Positioning it near the curtain where it could shine up, I asked the person at the lighting board to please turn it on. Before doing so, they expressing concern over its stability. As a test, I jostled and jiggled it, and the crate stood firm. They seemed satisfied; even, dare I say, impressed.At my urging, they turned on the light and we watched it shoot color across the folds of the curtain just the way we imagined it. The team helped me mount the second par can to the other milk crate, and voila! We had our effect.One last complaint: the milk crates looked junky.I sighed and returned to the storage area, returning with some black material that I draped around the crate to mask it. Problem solved.Many years later I returned to visit that church. I noted that the lighting included some color shooting up from the floor. Curious about the arrangements, I slipped up to the stage after the service and peeked. The milk crates were still in use.In the chapter “Creative Uncertainty” of Mindfulness, author Ellen Langer presents the possibility of teaching facts in a conditional manner (Langer 119-120). She and a colleague conducted a simple experiment in which they introduced a collection of objects to one group of people in an ordinary way using ordinary terminology. “This is a hair dryer…this is an extension cord…this is a dog’s chew toy.” For a conditional group, they added the phrase “could be”: “This could be a hair dryer…this could be a dog’s chew toy” and so on. Phrasing it like that suggests that under some circumstances, the object could be seen or used a different way.While filling out some forms during the experiment, Langer and her associate purposely made some errors and said that they couldn’t finish the study because the forms were filled out wrong and they had no spare forms. This was to create a sense of urgency. Anyone have an eraser?They wondered if anyone would think of using the dog’s chew toy, which was made of clean, unused rubber.Only subjects from the group introduced to the items conditionally thought to use the rubber toy as an eraser.Langer tweaked the experiment and the second version produced similar results: the “conditional group came to see that people create uses for objects,” and the “successful use of an object depends on the context of its use” (Langer 122).In other words, a milk crate could be a milk carrier, a container for drama props, or even a base for a par can.Langer talks about teaching in a conditional way so that children can be presented with alternatives. We usually present labels and categories to kids, so they can make sense of the world. Naturally, we tell a child things like:
“this is a pen,” “this is a rose,” “this is a card.” It is assumed that the pen must be recognized as a pen so that a person can get on with the business of writing…What if a number of ordinary household objects were introduced to a child in a conditional way: “This could be a screwdriver, a fork, a sheet, a magnifying class”? Would that child be more fit for survival on a desert island (when the fork and screwdriver could double as tent pegs for the sheet, near a fire made by the magnifying glass)? (Langer 124)
I didn’t have to teach my kids that a pen was only a pen or a magnifying glass was only used to look at items up close. They quickly realized they could use a capped pen as a DS stylus and a magnifying glass to catch the sun and burn a hole in a piece of paper. When my kids were little, I would find pieces from board games mingling with Playmobil and money from Monopoly in a cash register that they used to play “store.” It drove me crazy; the banker was always short of money when playing Life and we never did locate all the jewelry from Pretty Pretty Princess when they merged it with their dress-up collection.But they were learning to make-do and solve problems. I sometimes wish I’d insisted they leave the board games intact, but I would soften as I watched them think—literally—outside the box, making new associations and spotting creative uses for all those plastic bits and pieces.Years ago, our friends had a cool set of nylon tunnels that could flip open for little kids to crawl through.After visiting their house and rolling around in those tunnels, our kids remarked that they’d love to have some tunnels, too. We didn’t buy any. Instead, our kids used clothespins to attach sheets to the couch and chairs for a makeshift tunnel that later morphed into a fort filled with pillows.They did so because they knew that big piece of material could be a sheet.Or it could be a tunnel.Or it could be a fort.Or it could be a cape. Or a toga. Or a cover for the bird cage. Or a tablecloth for the picnic table. Or an ocean for stuffed animals to sail across.
I’m linking to The High Calling Book Club this week, as they work their way through Mindfulness, by Ellen Langer.Credits: Forks and clothespins by Ann Kroeker. Milk Crates Stacked by limonada (Emilie Eagan), used with permission.