Hands-On Play Crucial to Problem Solving

Following my post yesterday my mother sent this in reply:

People also need to practice playing by themselves. I read recently how kids are losing their imaginations because the toys are too detailed. There isn’t room to create their “own” idea of what that car or fort or whatever looks like or what it will do. We become too literal. We need to be able to fill in the blanks with our own creations. Build our confidence so we’re not afraid to play out loud with others. To not practice self-censorship.

How do different cultures play? I know much is universal, but that would be interesting… Joyce Meyer’s was saying once how her son always was creative at playing. She said if she put him in the corner as a punishment it would be only minutes before he would create a game out of something on the wallpaper.

This reminded me of a story told at the beginning of Play and it’s one I’ve repeated numerous times to illustrate that hands-on play as a youngster, not digital, is crucial to problem-solving skills later in life.

As Brown tells it, Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) encountered an interesting phenomenon when looking to make new hires to replace the retiring legacy aerospace engineers who built our spaceships, robotics and everything in between. JPL set about hiring top talent from leading engineering schools but they “were often missing something. They were not very good at certain types of problem solving that are critical to the job.” The area in question? Taking complex projects from theory to practice.

JPL set to find out why they were hiring the wrong engineers even though they looked good on paper. The answer was found with Nate Jones who ran a machine shop specializing in performance racing. After noticing that many of the younger kids coming in to work at the shop were not able to problem solve, Jones and his wife began investigating the differences between the old and new employees. What they discovered is that “those who had worked and played with their hands as they were growing up were able to ‘see solutions’ and those who hadn’t worked with their hands could not.”

JPL went back to their retiring workforce and discovered similar findings. “…in their youth, their older, problem-solving employees had taken apart clocks to see how they worked, or make soapbox derby racers, or built hi-fi stereos, or fixed appliances. The young engineering school graduates who had also done these things, who had played with their hands, were adept at the kinds of problem solving the management sought. Those who hadn’t, generally were not. From that point on, JPL made questions about applicants’ youthful projects and play a standard part of job interviews.”

This story has stuck with me for multiple reasons:

1) As we devolve into a digital society with our children’s noses in iPads, how will that impact the quantity and quality of future engineers? Creating soapbox derby cars was a hobby much more prominent in the time of the older JPL engineers but how much so today? Where is the emphasis on creating with tangible products, creating something physical from the ground up?

2) How we played as children says a lot about us as adults. If your nature is to be curious how things worked and took items apart to find out, odds are high you’ll be technically astute. If you were the organizer of neighborhood games and activities, you’ll likely find those skills following you in your profession. I was one of those kids. (Brown has a chapter called “Play Personalities which is equally interesting.)

3) It reminded me that no matter how old I get it’s important to get my hands dirty when it comes to playing. Sometimes you have to put down the iPhone and pick up some paints and paper or dig into a craft project.

Engaging in play, be it a visit to the museum, building sand castles at the beach, or a day of street photography, should be an activity that lets you think without boundaries, to “fill in the blanks with our own creations” as my mother put it.

How did you play as a child? Did you have the freedom of play that required use of your imagination?

How do you play as an adult? Do you find yourself restricting creative thoughts or not able to reach them as well as you once could?

What kind of example are you setting for the children in your life? Now that you’ve had a brief glimpse into the JPL example and the impact hands on activities can have in the long run, maybe that next video game purchase could be put towards a project that results in a creation not just a high score.


4 thoughts on “Hands-On Play Crucial to Problem Solving

  1. I whole-heartedly agree with the gist of your thinking. I would, however, caution that it is easy to get caught up in thinking kids aren’t getting imaginative play, therefore JPL can’t get any good engineers.

    Being an engineer, our profession is extremely frustrated. The rise of technology, and the steady stream of money it has produced, has generated lots of business culture piled on top of creative folks. The result is risk adverse management whipping folks for “innovation”. It is a silly situation.

    In a culture where people are often rated by how many hours they spend at work, is anyone going to be rated highly for being offbeat, creative, playful? Nah. We need to accept that creativity is the future and loosen up a bit. Not just on the kids, I think.

    My 3 cents. Great posts and blog.

    Thank you,

    1. Thanks for the reply John. Always interesting to hear an engineer’s point of view.

      I agree about the business culture being heaped on unless you’re able to work for a creative shop but even then…

      The creative process can take time as do the fruits the ideas bear. I heard a story once, no idea if it’s true, about an ad team that was struggling to come up with a new campaign for a well-known beer. The pressure was on and then one of the lead creatives decided to remove himself to provide the mental space to think. He went to the beach for a week and came back with this: http://www.slate.com/id/2218849/

      Creativity is the future. You’re spot on. With the need for constant content from all types of companies, creative thought is what will power it.

  2. I completely agree with your post. My brother and I grew up with very little toys, only things other people gave to us for Christmas, so we ended up making the furniture in our house the toys. Now I’m an architecture student and I love making multifunctional things, especially when it comes to creating environments.

    But I believe there’s an equal importance in video games in a sense. Kids today should get the best of both worlds considering the incredible trend of technology. Selective video games really helped me learn how to problem solve, especially now since most of my work does exist in 3D non existent space.

    I think you should give kids the best of both worlds now. There’s no denying that a lot of jobs do use a lot of creative digital skills as well as physical skills.

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