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Children are born scientists. They are always turning over rocks and plucking petals off flowers. They are always doing stuff that, by and large, is destructive. That’s what exploration really is when you think about it. An adult scientist is a kid who never grew up. Neil DeGrasse Tyson

That inner kid, driven by the powerful engine of unabashed wonder – the curiosity that drives children to turn over those rocks or examine bugs or

Leaves of joyconstruct blanket forts – is a selfless motivator for art ,invention and innovation, as well as science.  Children aren’t thinking anything beyond “What’s this for?” or “I wonder what will happen if I do this?” or “This looks like fun!” or “What if….” when they do what they do best as children: experiment.

Challenges like Red Bull Creation are invitations to that creative playground of the mind, opportunities to do something just for the fun of it (and maybe for a trip to Detroit to make more stuff for the fun of it)  They’re like those funky icebreakers and team building exercises for business meetings, only better, because there’s no business meeting – just the exercise of being creative.

Every single time we’ve participated in a Red Bull Creation event, we’ve learned something new- often many new and interesting things.  Not because we were looking to learn something, but because in order to make what we wanted to make, we had to figure out how to master some new concepts, and usually they were concepts or ideas or skills we probably wouldn’t have learned in the ordinary course of our grown up lives.

In a recent column in the New York Times (The Art of Focus), David Brooks begins by admitting he’s “losing the attention war,” giving in to the multiple distractions the make up the fabric of our modern work days.

“Many of us lead lives of distraction, ” he says, “unable to focus on what we know we should focus on.”

But upon reading an interview with child psychologist Adam Phillips, Brooks says maybe we’re looking at that “attention war” all wrong.

boys-with-bubbleThe lesson from childhood, then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”

We’ve spoken here before about the importance of play in a productive society (A Players Uprising – A Manifesto for Play), because play, and more to our purposes as a creative, self-reliant and personally and economically fulfilled society,- its integral components of wonder, curiosity and joie de vivreis –  is a vital aspect of innovation.

Edutopia recently visited the story of the Robohand Club in Innovative Education: Make Room for “What Ifs”.  Educator Rich Lehrer , an 8th grade science teacher,  created an opportunity for his students to have “the kind of learning for which there are no textbooks or tests.”

What if we invite students to solve real problems? ” Lehrer asked. “What if the classroom doesn’t have walls? What if learning activities don’t always end with letter grades?

So he asked his students if they could help build a mechanical prosthetic hand for his 4 year old son, Max, who was born with a hand deformity.  They did, and learning happened – without structured classes, without assessments, without grades, his students were just able to “take an idea and soar!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37DVR-TCbUE&w=560&h=315]

Now Lehrer’s students weren’t “playing” in the playground sense of the word with this project. They were applying themselves at a high level of engagement to solve a complex problem – but in a creative group learning fashion often seen in play, and which David Brooks says we need to return to at the adult level as well.

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Discussing ideas at the recent Hillsborough Hackathon

Forget those brainstorming sessions, Brooks says, and those conferences with projector screens. Instead, find some like minded associates with “overlapping obsessions.”

Brooks urges us to look at the way children learn in groups.  “They make discoveries alone, but bring their treasures to the group. Then the group crowds around and hashes it out. In conversation, conflict, confusion and uncertainty can be metabolized and digested through somebody else. If the group sets a specific problem for itself, and then sets a tight deadline to come up with answers, the free digression of conversation will provide occasions in which people are surprised by their own minds.”

“The only way to stay fully alive,” says Brooks, ” is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep.”

Eureka! That’s how our Red Bull Creation team works; that’s what happens in small informal learning groups, in FIRST teams , in our friends’ ASCII Warriors team, and in makerspaces all over the world, all providing playful opportunities to be surprised by our own minds.  This isn’t just project based learning, it’s project based living.

We need to find more engaging and productive ways to freedive into the depths of our creative being for our own good and for the good of our communities.