Thoughts on Creative Play for Grown-Ups

“Tinkering School is a place where kids can pick up sticks and hammers and other dangerous objects and be trusted. Trusted not to hurt themselves. And trusted not to hurt others.” – Gever Tulley

What Gever and Julie have done with Tinkering School is applicable to our day-to-day, grown-up challenges too. It’s not hard to imagine a large corporate or small business environment, where hands-on creative problem solving, playing with dangerous objects, will unleash new ideas, innovations and prototypes for achieving a diverse set of needs and goals. Whether creating new products, collaborating across different functional teams or motivating non-traditional approaches, adults can learn a lot from the way children view the tools and elements at their disposal. If you doubt this, watch how kids can create entirely new worlds from the toys in their rooms.

Peter Drucker addressed innovation and the need to separate such efforts from the bureaucracy and structure of the core organization way back in 1985 with his book, “Innovation and Entrepreneurship”. He saw the need to unshackle development from the business as usual (BAU). In other words, there’s no one way to solve all problems.

Posner and Kouzes similarly promoted the notion of a transcendent leadership arising from active participation.  Their book, “The Leadership Challenge”, outlines an active process for leading and innovating across any business or organizational venture. Posner reminds us that “Leaders Do.” Indeed, there are mistakes, but a leader won’t dwell on what didn’t work … what failed, he or she will isolate the reason and adapt, and try again … and again … and again.

George Kembel, co-founder and executive director of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, aka the, has been an outspoken supporter of applying rapid prototyping (continuous iterative design) to all kinds of issues – from developing new products to providing clean water to creating self-sustaining economies. Kembel’s talk “Awakening Creativity” given at the Chautauqua Institution in 2009 is a valuable illustration of how design thinking may help individuals and groups tackle a broad range of complex challenges.

Let me return to the Tinkering School. Children, perhaps because they’ve not been indoctrinated with structurally ossifying requirements such as business cases, ROI analyses or product development models, have an innate ability to solve problems quickly and continuously. They simply don’t give up.

Gever’s TED Talk on the Tinkering School shows how his students, when faced with difficult setbacks or complexities, decorate the unfinished project. Yes. That’s right. They decorate with markers, paint, and stickers. It shifts them temporarily out of the current line of thinking – a line that seems at first to have hit a dead-end, and opens up new ideas and creates a “kind of conceptual incubation.” So that they don’t lose sight of the goal, he and his team “keep the landscape of the projects tilted toward completion.” Imagine what such an approach could do for us grown-ups too, if we’d be willing to pause and play or experiment a little more often.

Still not convinced? Listen to the sound of pure glee and elation at the end of the TED Talk video. When was the last time you Woo-hoo’d on the completion of a project?

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