Joy in the Unexpected

One of the challenges and delights of creativity is that things often don’t turn out the way we plan. A year (or was it two?) ago, I made gingerbread houses with some of my favorite children. The houses were pretty impressive, given the ages of the architects, surrounded by green jellied-leaf trees. One child used white frosting to attractively coat the trees with “snow.” Another, not to be outdone, and without white frosting, used red instead.

“Look, the pine trees are bleeding!”

And then, with great enthusiasm, “It’s the Bleeding Pine Trees of Death!”

At this point, there were two choices. As the resident adult, I could have explained to Child B that trees don’t bleed and we don’t put bleeding pine forests around happy candy houses. Fortunately, my better sense prevailed and I laughed in delight (while confiscating the red frosting before additional gore ensued!). What resulted was a happy family memory and a silly tradition. “Bleeding Pine Trees of Death” now appear in family holiday charades and subsequent gingerbread houses. It is just one of many moments that come together to make that home a place that is safe for creative ideas.

This year, I had a similar experience. When I brought art supplies that were designed for project A, we ended up with projects B, C, D, E and F, used for toys for days afterwards. It was imaginative and fun—but not at all what I expected.

These moments illustrate the yin and yang between helping children learn to follow directions/procedures, and teaching them that sometimes there is a better way to be discovered. When learning to make pie crust or use a microscope, innovation may not give you optimum results. When building gingerbread houses, it may. In schools, where so much time is spent teaching young people the “right” way to do many things, such challenges can be confounding.One way to young people navigate these differences is to explicitly teach them that there are many kinds of thinking, appropriate for different moments. Today we may use sequential thinking to learn a particular math algorithm; tomorrow we may use divergent thinking to find many ways to solve a problem. Different tools are appropriate for different challenges.

But what do we do when students find an unexpected way, or a novel response, in a moment we least expect it? Let’s (as best we can) react with joy and delight to whatever “bleeding pine trees” of math or science, or social studies arise. You don’t need to allow the lesson off track if the procedures at hand are important. But you can acknowledge a different kind of thinking and recognize the strength it brings to your class or home. Joyful responses acknowledge the creative strengths around us and give them space to grow. If, for whatever reason, it had been important for us to have a pristine gingerbread house, I could have said, “Wow! I never thought of a bleeding pine tree forest. What a wonderfully creepy idea. Let’s hold onto it until after we finish this forest, then we’ll think about what those bleeding pine trees might do.” Such responses help children understand that innovation is valued, even if it can’t be pursued at the moment.

What happened to the bleeding pine trees this year? Sadly, there were no green-jelly leaves to be found when we needed them, so we were left with a few red candies on a lone gingerbread tree. It didn’t matter. The Pine Trees of Death live on in imagination, right where they belong.

Watch out for those unexpected moments of wonder and innovation and let them bring you joy—particularly in these gloriously crazy holiday times.

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