Guest Blogger

Planning the Unplanned: Program Reflections to Encourage Growth Mindset

Trailblazers Craft – Photo Credit: Leslie Swaim-Fox

Like a lot of my library colleagues, I tend to be a planner and list-maker extraordinaire, working two calendars and a library schedule that extends six months in advance most of the year. While the library where I work is fortunate to have an ample early literacy play area and a variety of after school activities, I started to notice many of the programs I developed veered toward the hyper-planned, with linear formats and projects that moved from point A to point B. The End. I wondered if there was a way to include unplanned elements.

There is certainly nothing wrong with projects that have a finished product in mind, but the approach was out of sync of with recent work on Reimagining School Readiness and other research I found most inspiring. I realized all that careful planning left very little room for child-directed play, problem solving, risk taking, experimentation, and creative thinking. Since unstructured exploration contributes to building a growth mindset and enhances the cognitive and social emotional development, I decided to make some changes. What follows are two strategies that have helped me rethink opportunities for child-led activities within programs.

First I started to think about how to include process-oriented activities that offered different pathways of self-expression and self-determined ways to reach a “finished” project. This required a little more and a little less planning. I considered alternate ways to create, cooperate, and imagine. Instead of prefabbed supplies and kit-styled projects, I organized materials around themes and filled a cart with a wide variety of options. I resisted the urge to bring samples of finished, possibly too-perfect crafts. Instead, I’d have a few ideas in mind, then create something alongside the participants working together or offer a few samples of works-in-progress to generate conversations and ideas. Like Harold armed with a purple crayon, I started leaning into the imagination-potential of what-if activities. Preparation morphed from creating those too-pretty examples into scanning the supply closets, gathering rolls of craft paper, stacks of cardboard boxes, crates filled with decorative tape, yarn, cardstock, markers, crayons—you name it—for some out of the box creativity.

I also planned for station-based programs, offering more than one activity built around a single theme. I began relying on general program descriptions that invited curiosity but didn’t promise a particular experience. This provides multiple endpoints and is adaptable for almost any age level and any setting. Once again I’ve found this requires a little more advance preparation because instead of planning for one activity, I aim for a minimum of three stations, include independent options like a scavenger hunt or reading area, and consider what a group or community project might look like. During a “FrankensSTEAM” event we offered a build-a-monster art table, circuit building stations to experiment with electricity at various skill levels, a 3-D human torso puzzle, a lego Frankenstein challenge, and a book display featuring monster stories the latest children’s biography of Mary Shelley. A Trailblazers & Trouble Makers women’s history event involved a build-a-hero paper craft, scavenger hunt, and women in art matching challenge. Best of all, flexible descriptions allowed room for late-stage program adjustments when needed.

Poetry Station – Photo credit: Anne Tisch
Poetry Station – Photo Credit: Anne Tisch

Before long I noticed I was asking more questions instead of providing instructions. Even when the open-ended approach felt a little scary, it was exponentially more fun and provided opportunities for collaboration once the generative ideas took hold. I’m not ready to retire my planner yet, but as it turns out, thinking six months ahead about potential events doesn’t have to lock in anything more than a date on the calendar.

How do you encourage creative exploration and opportunities for collaboration in your programs? How do you navigate planning the unplanned? Let us know in the comments below.

Today’s guest contributor is Erika Hogan. Erika is a youth services librarian at Heights Libraries in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.


  1. Lisa Bintrim

    I do semi-directed projects for our Crafternoons. I do usually provide instructions and a finished example, because I’ve found that a lot of kids need that jumping off point. They need something that gets them started. But I also always tell them that they are free to do whatever they want with the materials provided. Anarchy is always an option! And as I walk around the room, I make a point to praise them for the ways they’ve used their own creativity. Over time, the kids feel more comfortable with exploring their own ideas and being creative because they know they won’t get in trouble—in fact, Miss Lisa might ask them to teach her how they did something!

  2. Karen Alden

    In the world of early childhood learning, terms like play-based learning and guided playful learning are used to describe the ideal learning experience for children aged 0-5. I launched a free, not-for-profit website called Good2Know Network ( for early childhood care and learning providers, that has lots of ideas for open-ended activities for little learners. Our Art & Music page includes posts with process art and messy art projects that are especially open-ended. Our Children’s Book page includes recommended books on seasonal or topical themes, as well as ideas for pairing children’s books with activities. You can find the Art projects and the Children’s Books section under the Playful Learning Activities drop-down menu. Hope you find some ideas that work well for you!

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