Creativity and Process in the Children’s Library

We are on the cusp of “returning” in all sorts of ways to a life that is far more interactive than it was mid-pandemic. Our library has opened its doors. We are offering outdoor programming. We are more physically available to one another than we have been for a while. We hope it won’t be long before we can safely return to indoor programming.

As we turn our sights to the future, we have a massive opportunity to evaluate how we program. Covid-19 forced us to press pause, and now we’re playing again, albeit at quarter speed. While we’re in this strange moment, let’s time to think about changes that we would like to make going forward.

One of libraries central tenets is that we develop communities of learning. Learning and creativity are synonymous.  Lately, I have been researching ways to develop creativity in childhood, and creative play’s impact on resilience, mental and physical health, and gainful employment in adulthood. There are tons of articles and good research available. One struck me as particularly important, and it is leading me to push for a revolution in our approach to arts and crafts and STEM and music. We incorporate so much creativity into our programming, but I think our approach is ripe for change.

May I make a personal plea? As we move forward, would we be willing as a profession to turn towards messier, more process driven creative endeavors? If you are like me, you have likely had enough of canned art projects due to the mountain of grab and go kits that we’ve made through the last year. Product driven arts and crafts require an enormous amount of preparation time by staff. In the end, especially in projects for young children, not much creativity is used in their execution. Kids are simply gluing or coloring in the lines. This definitely appeals to some, particularly those who are able to make their pieces look like the model. But for other kids and adults, it just leads to frustration and bitterness.

I always hated arts and crafts. Handwork didn’t come naturally to me, and my arts education was very product based. Everything I made looked scrawny, lopsided and wrong.  I would get frustrated and give up, leading to the vicious cycle of continued failure. I wasn’t engaged. I judged myself harshly and felt miserable. As a result, I learned nothing and my abilities were stunted.

The product based failure cycle that I experienced growing up is the opposite of this creative learning spiral, detailed by Mitch Resnick of MIT Media Lab. His organization even has a wildly cool collaboration with public libraries called Public Library Innovation Exchange, or PLIX. Look what they are doing! There are so many ideas for inspiration in ways to develop a messier, more open ended approach to our programming listed available to us with just a little research.

An practical way for the librarian who is faced with the unattended after school crowd, or the energetic post preschool storytime crew, to apply process learning to their programming is through a learning lab model. In learning labs, we simply set materials out, provide some sample ideas, and let the kids create the projects! We could have music learning labs, writing learning labs, art learning labs, STEM learning labs, culinary learning labs and on and on! It would be so open ended! So much less staff prep time would be required! We would provide materials and supervision, and families or individuals could brainstorm and collaborate together! Creativity would be developed! Relationships would bloom! Independence and confidence would grow in the participants!  

We have not begun labs like these yet at our library, but I’m hoping to do so in the upcoming school year or in 2022. I would love to hear from libraries who are already doing similar projects! Would you be willing to describe yours in the comments? What has been a hit? A flop? Is there a scaffolding that is helpful to build around? Let us learn from you!

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