Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Open-Ended Gift

I read somewhere recently that stress or fear or anxiety is really our minds trying to protect ourselves from pain that has already happened. So when we get all stressy about whether something will work out or we fear the outcome of the unknown, it is because we are starting to feel the pain of when this went badly before.

I have absolutely no memory of where I heard this and am now starting to wonder if I made it up, but it makes sense. Can't you just picture your body saying, "Hey, I remember this. You hate this. I'm going to squeeze you until you can't move forward into it anymore." Except your body doesn't realize you're already there. That memory, that moment of recognition was enough to throw your mind into a full immersion experience of all the pain you remember.

My life right now is as if  I threw a bunch of papers up in the air, and then they all froze. I know some of them will blow away and I'll never see them again, and others will land. I will pick up the ones that land and they will form a more structured path for my life to come. But right now there they are - encased in perpetual flight. Twisting and extended. Free and static.

For the most part, I am at peace with this. The control-y part of me wants a little more input in which papers come down - like everything would be perfect if I could just rank my options - but where is the fun in that? If you could rank everything, wouldn't you always choose paper number one? Instead of whichever one hits you in the face first?

So I am resisting that part of me that wants to be in control of everything. Because sometimes she is no fun at all. Sometimes the fun is in the creation of something new. The answer to the Open-Ended question.

As a Journalism major, I was trained to ask open-ended questions in interviews. In order to get organic, true responses from interviewees, you ask questions to which people have to say something back - not just yes or no. Anything that starts with "do you," "can you," "are you" are BAD questions for a reporter. (This is why sideline reporting annoys me. It's generally bad journalism.) Questions that start with "what," "why," or "how" invite a conversation. And that's what a journalist is supposed to do - create a conversation, preferably with really good quotes. Yes and no are not good quotes.

Interestingly enough, this is where my writing life and my teaching life most intersect. Because in teaching, open-ended questions are the best way to push a child's learning forward. Teaching is not about imparting knowledge. It is not placing information, however delicately, inside a child's brain. It is about creating a conversation that asks a child to come up with predictions and explore how those predictions hold up throughout new experiences. These explorations are done many ways, but one of the things we talk about at the museum a lot is open-ended materials.

Open-ended materials are not like snakes with a hollow tail. They are toys or objects that can be used in whatever way the child invents. Unfortunately, they are getting harder to find. Not in a, "We're running out of wood," sort of way. More in a, "The toy aisle at Wal-Mart only has Pixar characters in it," sort of way. There's an interesting (well, to me,) article that explains the deregulation of the toy industry in the 1980s, but to summarize, the 80s were when things like McDonald's Happy Meals took off. And the toys found in those cardboard M-handled boxes usually correspond to a popular movie or TV show. The success of Happy Meal toys led to a boom in action figures and other toys with pre-existing scenarios. Meaning, kids went from playing with "a doll," to playing with "this specific doll that does this one special thing and lives in this one special place and wears this one special outfit." All the imagination that goes along with creating a world for an unknown person is crushed when that person is replaced with a character from a world that already exists.

This is all to say that encouraging kids to use their imagination has become more difficult. Because if you travel the toy aisles, it is way easier to grab a brightly colored box of action figures than it is to seek out open-ended materials. Plus there are no commercials for plain old blocks, and you don't want to be the loser who brings the toy everyone ignores.

I, however, am not scared to be a loser. Last year, Target had cardboard bricks in their dollar spot. I should have bought 100 packages. Instead I bought one for one of the greatest two-year olds I know. I gave it as part of a family thank-you gift for hosting me for the weekend. This little girl has more toys than I have ever seen, and as a credit to her amazing parents, most of them are open-ended. So she was ahead of the game in terms of knowing she had options for what to do with the bricks. She did not look at them expectantly as if they should suddenly sprout video screens. Instead, she picked them up and began to build with them. What did she build? That's the beauty of the open-ended gift. It could have been anything. And we wouldn't know what it was unless we asked her. (Apparently she built a fort.)

On a related note, I went to the Indianapolis Children's Museum this weekend, which is the museum I grew up adoring as a child. It is the largest children's museum in the world. (Which is a little bit relative, as most other countries do not have children's museums at all. When I was in France last summer explaining my job, everyone was like, you work for a museum that has exhibits of children? It doesn't translate well.) And in every educational aspect within the exhibits, the ICM is right on point. The gift shop however, is another story.

The gift shop offered Legos. I LOVE Legos. As a child I would play with Legos for so many consecutive hours that the tips of my fingers would go numb from pressing the knobby tops together. I was constantly running short on wheels and doors, but I still managed to make an entire transit system. So when I saw Legos at ICM, I thought, "They must have cool Lego pieces here."

Instead, I found this many Lego sets based on movies, TV shows and pre-existing ideas:

This represents one fourth of the case, btw.

Super fancy Legos deserve black packaging.

Not sure why Star Wars is such a big deal here.

I found this many plain Legos:

Twelve buckets. I found twelve buckets of regular, open-ended Legos. AND those buckets were color-coded to be gender specific. Lego, you disappoint me.

If I ever have a daughter, I will buy her the blue bucket. Because f*** you, Lego. Stop telling us what to build. You are no fun at all.

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