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”Mistakes ­are the Portals of Discovery”

By Cathy Saunders, Director of Education, Providence Children’s Museum.

When I started working at the Children’s Museum five years ago, I quickly realized that no matter how neat my hair was or how smart my outfit, it all became irrelevant when I walked past the Museum’s “fun-house” mirrors.  It was pretty hard to take myself too seriously when I saw short rounded legs and an elongated neck reflected back to me.

Child plays in Water RoomAdults and children can get caught up in doing things right, fitting in, being super student or super parent.  There are pressures to get the homework done, have the right toys, and be as good at everything as your peers.  It’s easy to forget the fun-house-mirror view of the world — that the irregularities and mistakes can be joyful opportunities.

Think about our evolution from birth into adulthood for a moment.  An infant doesn’t know what a mistake is.  There are no “shoulds” in his world; everything is an open-ended exploration.  A toddler will topple over, and unfazed, get right back up and continue on to her destination.  By nature, preschoolers interpret the world creatively.  A pencil is so much more than something to scribble with; to them it is a drumstick, a magic wand, a stick to dig in the dirt with, or perhaps a wriggling snake.

Too often though, as we get older, we lose this aptitude for divergent thinking.  We start seeing a stick as a stick, not as an invitation into imaginative inquiry.  But this kind of creativity is at the heart of the skills that experts agree are needed for the 21st century and there is much concern that we are raising a generation of children who are not adequately prepared to meet the complex challenges the future holds.  (This has been a hot topic of discussion recently, and for those of you who want to check some of it out, I suggest Daniel Pink’s 2005’s bestseller “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future“; YouTube videos of creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson’s lectures about divergent thinking and the education system; and Newsweek’s recent article “The Creativity Crisis”).

I think our discomfort with mistakes is one of the key elements to this crisis of creative thinking.  We have been so trained to look for the right answer that we’re afraid to see any other choices.  I see it in children who tell me what they think I, the instructor, want to hear rather than interpreting their own discoveries.  I find it in myself, too, as I fret over buying a birthday present or planning a workshop schedule (or writing a blog post!).

In the heat of trying to be superhuman, I can forget the wise words of Thomas Edison: “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  I was able to embrace this attitude of welcoming mistakes with new relish recently when I discovered “Beautiful Oops!“  In this clever and artistic pop-up book, Barney Saltzberg encourages us to see a stain or a rip as starting point for creativity and inspires the imaginations of both children and adults.

So I ask of us parents, educators and citizens of the world: Can we teach our children — and ourselves — to find the meaning in our mishaps?  To laugh and say, “What are we going to try next?” when things don’t go according to plan?  I certainly hope so because it is much more fun than feeling defeated!

For more ideas and resources for encouraging creative play, see this resource list compiled by Providence Children’s Museum.  Also join the conversation on PlayWatch, the Museum’s community discussion listserv.

James Joyce is credited with the quote used for the title.

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  • What a wonderful post! It reminds me of Ms. Frizzle on the Magic School Bus saying “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” This is something I tell myself repeatedly as my kids dive into something oh-so-wonderful (and more than a bit oh-so-dirty).

    I was really left alone as a child to make mistakes, learn lessons, regroup, and try something new, and when I’m struggling with something in my life, I know that my repertoire of coping devices come from these experiences in my youth. I hope I am doing the same for my kids…