Saturday, June 17, 2017

Empowering Imagination Beats the Real Deal

I love learning from children.

I believe strongly that although I am the teacher, it is the children who do the majority of the teaching.  In both my play school and school-aged summer camp, I have learned countless things from children.

Of all of the things children have taught me, however, what I am going to share with you in this post is probably the most shocking and sad.

First of all, some background info:
My summer camp, Camp Empower, is a low-tech, high-think play experience for school-aged children.  The whole purpose of Camp Empower is for children to be EMPOWERED by ownership.   At Camp Empower, the materials are supplied by me....but the ideas are generated by children.  The process of generating ideas is HARD...especially for children who are fresh from a year of public school where in some unfortunate cases, they don't dare do anything unless they are told.  This creates human beings that find it difficult to think for themselves.  It creates human beings who follow rather than lead.  These are side-effects of the current state of our education system that I don't think enough people consider.   Because of this nasty side-effect of prescribed, learn-it-just-long-enough-to-spit-it-out-for-a-test, rote learning, it takes new campers a while to fully trust that I truly mean "YOU are in charge here".

The lesson I learned, that I am going to share with you, was taught to me by my 5th-7th grade campers.  (They just finished 4th-6th and are now headed into the 5th-7th grades).

This story begins in the sand pit:

Without a doubt, the sand pit is the favorite area of camp. It is here where the majority of this week's play occurred.

This session, all but two of my campers have returned for their third year at Camp Empower.  They are seasoned at how things work here.  At the core of Camp Empower is meaningful relationships.  Though we only see each other for 4-8 mornings a year (one camp session is M-Th, 9-noon and some campers sign up for two sessions), I KNOW these campers well, and every year, we pick up right where we left off upon their return.

I know that this group of campers LOVES to mix, so prior to their arrival on Monday, the environment was set, ready to welcome them with open arms.  There were all of their favorites:  shaving cream, corn starch, shampoo, colored water, colored vinegar, baking soda and.... for something new this year, I added washable tempera paint to the sand pit area.

The campers didn't even skip a beat.  After a welcoming hug, they went straight to work.

Again, let me remind you that these children are going into the 5th-7th grades.  Look at their play:

The two seasoned-campers in this photo had previously figured out that using the sand as their mixing bowl worked really well and created a really awesome "dough" when cornstarch, water and shampoo were added.  So here, they are teaching the rookie camper.

It didn't take long before imaginations were hard at work and delicious looking delicacies were created.

They learned that the paint mixes really well with shaving cream and cornstarch to make a super soft, amazingly vibrant frosting.

There is just so much to love about this picture!  IMAGINATIONS hard at work...without a care in the world.  Just as child-led play should be!

After this one day, it was clear to me that baking was definitely something that interested this group of campers.

My summer camp follows my play-school philosophy (I call it the Kaleidoscope Philosophy) which is, in a nutshell:
My job is to control the environment, not to control children.  I am in charge of the materials, the children are in charge of the "what to do" part.   Once the children have arrived, my job is to grab additional materials as needed.  When I do this with the best of my ability, the child-led play is constantly evolving and changing, just as the picture of a kaleidoscope is different every time you turn it.

SO...following their lead,  I said "It's clear to me that you guys are having a blast playing bakery.  Would you like to use real ingredients to make real cupcakes tomorrow?"

Unsurprisingly, the answer was YES!

And so....the next day:
We measured and mixed and scooped and baked REAL cupcakes.

You can't make cupcakes without licking the beaters...right?!  (Before you get all "germy" on me...they are using their fingers to gather batter, and then licking their own finger....the girl with her tongue out is teasing)

Here's a peek at the rest of the play from this day:

More IMAGINATIVE cupcake baking.

Paint fight with watered down washable tempera.


The parachute and WATER!

(BONUS LESSON LEARNED:  Children of ALL ages have an innate need to PLAY)

Bring on the frosting!!

Why Not?
For both of my programs, "Why not?" is the RIGHT answer.  It comes after the following questions:
"Are they hurting anyone?"
"Are they hurting anything?"
When the answer to both of those questions is "NO"....then I say "WHY NOT?!"

I think this last group of photos speak for themselves.
CLEARLY...frosting and eventually wearing and then eating REAL cupcakes was a BLAST!

So then...what was the lesson I learned from this group of 5th-7th graders?
At the very end of this morning, as we were winding down, and parents were picking up, I had the opportunity to ask several campers this question:

"What was your favorite part of the week?"

Their answer?
"Making cupcakes in the sandpit bakery."

My response was another question:
"Would you rather make pretend cupcakes or real ones you can actually eat?"

Their answer?
"PRETEND!!! Not very many teachers let us use our imagination like you do."

There you have it.
A very, very, VERY important lesson, taught to me by some of the most amazing teachers I have ever known.

Children....of ALL ages have imaginations that they want to use, yet our society has forgotten about that.  Out of fear of what children might do when they are bored, we have over-scheduled their lives and left little time for imagining.

And so.... in my little corner of the world, there will always be sand-cupcakes to be made, by children of ALL AGES.


About the author:

Denita Dinger is a popular keynote speaker, trainer and consultant on the topic of transitioning from a teacher-led pedagogy to a play-based, child-led one.  Denita's presentations are REAL, humorous and inspiring.

Denita is the co-author of three books:  "Let them Play:  An Early Childhood UnCurriculum", "Let's Play" and "Let's All Play".

To book Denita for your upcoming conference or to spend a few days coaching your staff, contact her at

Learn more about Denita's philosophy on her many Facebook pages:
Play Counts  (Denita's Consulting Page)
Kaleidoscope Play School  (Denita's Play School page)
Camp Empower  (Denita's School-aged Summer Camp page)

Embracing Play Podcast (Denita's Podcast, co-hosted with Beth Wolff)