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.
It’s been my experience that change typically comes from the outside — from outside where all the expertise lies. Years ago (1995, to be exact), I asked our IT department for helping in setting up a company web site. I was told flat-out they wouldn’t help — that the web was a flash in the pan, like 8-track tapes, and that the future was — Lotus Notes (I am not making this up). When I persisted, they patted me on the shoulder and said that if I wanted to waste my own department’s money, I would have to do that without IT’s help. So I did, and went outside for the help I needed. The outside firm I found did such an impressive job on our web site that Microsoft made them a regional partner.
Oh, Glynn…you knew. You could see what was happening, and you knew.
Bravo, for seeing the potential and giving it the old college try.
Lisa notes... says
I love that you were creative and diligent enough to keep pushing through to get the lighting you wanted. Perhaps creativity and diligence are linked as well? It doesn’t always just flow out of us effortlessly. Sometimes we have to work for it.
Great post. Thanks.
Nice thought, Lisa–Glynn’s comment above suggests the same thing, that his diligence combined with creativity brought results.
Love this story about the lighting, Ann. I think your kids have an excellent role model for creativity. But if we take what Langer says unconditionally, then we should be letting our kids model creativity for us! Do you think we get more rigid with age? I’ve found the opposite to be true for me. If I only knew then what I know now…
I coulda been a contender.
Interesting. I suppose some people do and some people don’t. My parents are less creative and flexible than they used to be, so there’s one example for the “more rigid” category.
What can we do practice this kind of “different use” creativity?
This does not surprise me. At all. 🙂
I love your creative mind, Ann. Your milk crates serve as a great example.
I grew up on a farm, Jennifer, and I was thinking about the farmers I knew who invented all kinds of solutions to their problems. Baling wire, for example, has many applications.
Pam Haddix says
Those were fun days. I’m so glad we got to serve together and watch God do His thing!:-)
Those colored lights gleamed behind you as you played and sang for the Lord. 🙂
Diana Trautwein says
I love this, Ann. And I think an earlier commenter is onto something by combining the creative urge with diligence, with a willingness to keep trying, no matter what. I was actually delighted (in between bouts of frustration) to see that all of my kids and grandkids had (have!) really strong wills. If we as parents can help them channel and direct that energy, there is no end to the creativity that can be generated. And building forts/oceans/treehouses out of scrap materials is a fine way to open up the floodgates. Thanks for this one.
I like that picture of funneling the grandkids’ energy and determination into something as tangible as a tree house!
Sheila Lagrand says
Everything in the world can become a percussion instrument. 🙂
Love this, Ann. It’s so easy to get tied down by “what is it?”
I think “what could it be?” is a more interesting quesetion.
Amen! I love “Stomp”!
What could it be? Lisa wrote about the Liar’s Club game, where you have a weird object and have to guess what it is. Remember that? I loved that show. My mom always knew what things were, though.
Sheila Seiler Lagrand says
If you get the chance, check out “Blast!” (says this mom of musicians with a grandson named Cadence).
Those moms, always knowing what things are. They’re amazing.
Hazel I. Moon says
Growing up, we did NOT have a lot of toys to entertain us. Making do with what you have and pretending got us through those young years. It also taught me that we can often create something out of nothing. We too played with a sheet over a card table, and mud pies decorated with pretty rocks and on it goes. I think that is why I can bake and it turns out pretty good when I need to substitute something that will work. Kids now adays have ready made toys and games, so they do not need to create. The thoughts in the test did get the one group to consider new ways to fix things. I hate to say it but doing without – – can cause you to be a doer and a creative designer.
David Rupert says
I think we do need to be adaptable. Our throwaway culture has us not thinking about ‘other uses’ of things. My dad was a master at cross fitting, cross usage of common items. We had more weird contraptions at our home — but I would always show my friends the creativity and oddity 🙂 of my Father.
Cindee Snider Re says
Ann, a friend recently asked me why my kids are so creative. I wasn’t sure how to answer and began to watch in the background, noticing, and she’s right, they are, individually and as a whole. But why? As I watched and thought back, I realized it was probably due to my own selfishness. I’d lay out supplies on the table and set them free. I needed a break from homeschooling and the constancy of five small children, and they simply learned to create — one spurring on another until a whole afternoon had been absorbed in the process of creating. My oldest is now in college (a great place to be creative!) and my kids still create, still think outside the box, because it’s just who they are, who they’ve always been, and I didn’t even realize it was a gift, a beautiful, accidental gift of time and space and opportunity to be who they were created to be — a gift from the Hand of God to me, his weary child, and to the incredible kids He’s graciously entrusted me to raise. Thanks for a GREAT post!
You know, I really think that rather than worrying about teaching our kids to think conditionally about things, maybe we should worry about how to keep them from outgrowing that amazing ability. I am continually astonished at how my boys just come up with the most creative solutions to problems. It delights me.