Recently I heard about a fascinating experiment in early childhood education. In one scenario, the researcher plops down with a group of young kids and says, “Hey, I just got this new toy. I wonder what it does?” She pokes away at it, makes it peep. In the other scenario, the researcher plops down with a group of kids and says, “Hey, look at what I can do with my new toy!” She pokes at it, makes it peep.
What the kids don’t know is that this toy has many little secrets: flashing lights and mirrors and pieces that nest. Over the course of the experiment, the kids in the first group discover many of them; the kids in the second do not. The conclusion? How we present information encourages—or discourages—exploration.
I was still mulling on that when I encountered an impassioned argument for increasing the presence of arts in our schools. The current focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM subjects) doesn’t give students much experience or support in developing sensory sophistication, open-ended questioning, and emotional acuity. We may be creating brilliant technicians who won’t really know how to innovate. To me that sounds like group one toy-users.
In our time, innovation usually shows up as a corollary to economic boon, but I think it’s more critical than that. I watch my own kids and it’s painfully clear to me that they are inheriting a world that is outstripping our ability to manage it. Climate change, environmental havoc, energy shortages, political upheaval, economic instability: these are global issues we humans have created and don’t know how to fix. All of these issues have high human costs. As every newscast makes abundantly clear, we still have more fear, poverty, isolation, violence, and misery than we can handle.
We need innovation, and we need renovation. All of us, both kids and adults, need a chance to engage in experiences that go beyond data. We need dancing and dreams, we need paintings and plays and fat novels. We need opportunities to create things, to explore ideas, to be soaked in feeling. That’s our fuel. We fool ourselves and short-change our kids if we don’t respect the human desire to play.
Seventy-five years ago, the brilliant artist Charlie Chaplin observed, “Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”
We need systemic change, and I think one bold step is to embrace our challenges more openly. Let’s hold this blue dot of a world with loving hands and really explore how it works. Let’s look our fears in the face and choose to be unsure and open rather than arrogant and defensive. Let’s remember that we are only one of many species on a planet that is blessed with life. Let’s respect the innocence and security of all children, and let them remind us how to play.