Notes from Bev

Notes from our original innovator!

Jumping, Leaping, Swinging, Tagging … Climbing, Crawling, Sliding … The Amazing Risks We Took As Kids

Believe it or not, the actions listed in the title of this blog, once deemed innocent, carefree play, are now considered to be “risk taking” activities for children. Movements such as these allow children to understand and develop their physical strength and coordination. Motor skills, problem-solving and resilience are all learned through play, if we allow a sense of adventure and unrestricted movement.

Free and unstructured play give children the opportunity to create their own boundaries, develop relational skills with others, understand and extend their own physical strength and learn to function without overt adult supervision.  To better navigate the world around them, children need to practice risk assessment. This includes thinking through outcomes, developing creative solutions and implementing options to evaluate the results.

SPARK! is a facility designed for “older” children to learn the creative process. Our goal is to provide them the opportunities to develop and strengthen their motor skills. Research shows that around the age of six or seven, children are honing these skills, assessing minimal risk, and engaging in a process designed to produce an outcome. At SPARK! we engage the physical needs of growth through our Climb, Crawl, Slide Sculpture. Instead of using soft materials, we introduce the kids to steel, wood, hard surfaces, elevated climbs, steep slides and dark, confined adventures. SPARK! offers a minimal amount of risk so children can explore and consider their own physical limitations.  

Dr. Lala Manners in Articles Teaching and Learning shares, “Physical experience informs bodily knowledge that leads to physical maturity and the optimum use of skills across all the environments children experience and encounter.”

We want our children to be mentally strong. However, in today’s world, we’re removing all physical risk and depriving children of the opportunity to develop critical motor skills. Since the 1970’s, concerned parents and educators have been removing risk, sanitizing playgrounds and promoting more sedentary learning.  

In her book Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, says, “When children are allowed to take reasonable risks, they actually become safer. Through the risks they take, they develop a better ability to assess risk, use critical thinking, and to troubleshoot when problems arise.”

There’s a big difference between danger and risk. Don’t be afraid to let your kids take risks. SPARK! provides a safe way for them to experience risky play. We promote learning through the creative process and physical movement. Our field trip students engage in play which allows them to push their own physical boundaries, promotes a sense of adventure and allows for unstructured discovery. This experience prepares them both mentally and physically to engage in hands-on practice through the creative process.  It also helps burn-off some of the abundant energy that young kids have and enables them to focus on the task at hand. 

Creativity and Childhood Self-Esteem

To set the stage for this blog, I want to put forth a definition of the subject at hand:  Self-esteem. By this we mean self-respect, or a confidence and satisfaction with oneself.   

Self-esteem is not a fixed measure. It ebbs and flows with time and experiences.  Each of us has our own self-esteem metric for various aspects of our being. At SPARK! we focus on the self-esteem that exists in a child. It is the gauge of their ability to learn, grow, create, problem-solve and perform in the world.

InMinding the Muse,” a book about creativity, author Priscilla Long shares, “Improving self-esteem is a matter of taking regular steps, no matter how small, to set goals to achieve what you intend to achieve ….”  

At SPARK! our teaching of the creative process helps children set goals, envision outcomes and take the steps needed to achieve that outcome.  Our proprietary definition of the creative process is Inspiration with Iteration and Collaboration leads to Innovation.  Inspiration is the impetus to start a project. Collaboration and Iteration are two valuable steps in working through trial, error and even failure. Lastly, the desired outcome is achieving Innovation.

Based on research around creative development, SPARK! programming focuses on children ages 7 -18.  During the early teen years, kids have a tough time figuring out who they are and where they fit in the world.  Helping them develop their creativity and their self-esteem can help smooth out some of the bumps in their path through puberty.  While boys and girls are quite different, their path through creativity can be similar.

“Challenge boys and allow them to develop skills. You throw boys as a group into a very challenging situation, and let them figure it out and find their own leadership. They’ll come back thinking, ‘We did it. We did it.’”   Michael Thompson, PhD, coauthor of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.  “It involves creating a situation in which they can develop a skill and, as a result, will have self-esteem.”

Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, authors of The Confidence Code for Girls, surveyed 1,300 girls between the ages of 8 and 18.  Among the findings is a startling desire to be perfect.  At age 13, 45% of girls report feeling like they’re not allowed to fail.  Over half of teenage girls report pressure to be perfect. When this research was published in The Atlantic, the answer seemed to be getting girls accustomed to risk-taking and failure.

Engaging in the creative process meets the need for boys and girls.  It provides challenges, allows for risk taking and room for failure. It helps them persevere to accomplish work of which they can be proud.

The Family That Engages Together Stays Together

The Family That Engages Together Stays Together

In a July 2017 TED Talk, I narrated the story of why Devon and I decided to create SPARK! I share an excerpt from that now to address the SPARK! model of engaging the entire family.

My husband, Devon and I have three nieces and one nephew.  When they were young, we took them on field trips to introduce them to new opportunities and experiences. We took those kids to sculpture parks, history museums, science museums, art museums, and more.   All this with the goal of opening their eyes to new and exciting possibilities.  

In 2003, something totally unexpected happened.  We visited City Museum in St. Louis for the first time.  We were all mesmerized – the kids and the adults. We played and explored in a wildly creative environment.  After a while the kids started asking questions such as: How does that work? Who thought of that? How did they make that?  And then, they asked, “Can we make something like that?” It was incredible. They were asking questions to learn. Their eyes were open to remarkable possibilities.  When we returned home, we were able to engage them in hands-on learning per their request.  

These experiences led us to the decision to found SPARK! and build a facility that offers families creative immersion and exploration with hands-on learning.  That means we want the parents and guardians to engage along with their kids. SPARK! provides a much needed and hard-to-find, unique opportunity for the entire family to explore, discover and create side-by-side.  

A large body of research shows that playtime with parents is important to the development of children.  And, kids crave time with their parents. During play, we have the opportunity to get involved, to praise them, encourage them and laugh with them.  Play can help you discover your child’s special interests and skills. Playing with children builds a lasting bond and lets the child know they are loved.

SPARK! offers many opportunities for family fun in two basic ways: physical exploration and hands-on creative experiences.  Our stated vision is, “To provide a unique environment, that combined with creative programming inspires minds, builds confidence and shapes the future for all children.”

Physical Exploration

In our Climb, Crawl, Slide sculpture, both children and adults are given the opportunity to move, all while exploring a wildly unique and physically challenging environment.  

“We find that parents lose the ability to play,” said Nancy O’Conner, director of the Kansas State University Family Center in a statement to Newswise.  She suggests that parents relearn the ability to play.

Physical movement and childlike play is also a great stress reducer for adults. Family activities help develop strong and lasting bonds.  Exploration such as that offered at SPARK! builds gross motor skills, communication, supportive collaboration and cognitive development. These experiences also build self-esteem, social skills and a sense of connectedness that help kids and teens learn to use good judgment when confronted with difficulties and temptations.

The family that plays together stays together. 

Hands-On Creative Experiences

Family visits to SPARK! should include participation in pop-up creative experiences.  SPARK! is not just an indoor playground. It is a creative experience that offers physical exploration and discovery in conjunction with the creative endeavor.   Our mission is “To ignite the spark of creativity inherent in all children.”

Pop-up opportunities vary by visit and explore creativity through dozens of art mediums, music, performance, dance, virtual reality and more.  These programs are designed for the family with children second grade and older and provide opportunities to innovate together.  

Creative exercises provide a platform for children to practice patience, problem solving, social skills, and iteration.  In today’s academic environment, children are pressured to get the correct answer and are rarely offered the open-ended opportunity to explore alternatives, work through trial and error and yes, even fail.  SPARK! provides a safe place for all of this. 

Children who define themselves as creative have higher self-esteem, better problem-solving skills and go further in their education.  Parents who engage in creative and other learning opportunities with their children tend to have more positive and open relationships with their children.  Jane Dee Hull, the first female governor of Arizona, once said, “At the end of the day, the most overwhelming key to a child’s success is the positive involvement of parents.”

The family that creates together stays together. 

Why SPARK! Focuses on Older Kids

By Beverly Davis

I am often asked why SPARK! provides programming for children in second grade and older and doesn’t focus on younger kids.

Our concentration at SPARK! is on the creative process.  We define this process as: 

Inspiration with Iteration and Collaboration leads to Innovation.

We use the creative process to teach problem-solving skills. That means children need to understand how to set goals, focus on a task and stick with the process through rounds of iteration. The SPARK! age range was established based on the breakthrough research of Viktor Lowenfeld that shed light on the mental development of children.

Viktor Lowenfeld was a dedicated researcher, author of several studies and books on artistic development, and a professor of art education at Pennsylvania State University.  Lowenfeld helped define and develop the field of art education in the U.S. Lowenfeld mapped out the stages of artistic development. These stages have continued to be studied and refined, most notably by Marianne Kerlavage and Judy Burton. While many factors influence the rate at which a child develops, these stages attempt to place a developmental standard as a guide. 

 Ages 2-4 – Scribbling – Creativity is an enjoyable kinesthetic activity experienced through scribbles.

Ages 4-7 – The Preschematic Stage – Children experience their first conscious creation of form.  They’ve discovered and are understanding symbols.

Ages 7- 9 – The Schematic Stage – Children reach a “schema” – a definite way of portraying an object – their representation of a plan or theory expressed through art.  Art is used for communication. They enter a process through creation that has an identified outcome as the goal.  

Ages 9 – 11 – The Dawning Realism – Schematic generalization no longer suffices, and space is discovered. Children work to express more detail. They begin to experiment with individual styles and compare their work to that of others. They develop a passion for realism, have a vision in their mind and work to “make it come out right.” They learn to “see” creatively.

Ages 11 – 13 – The Pseudo-Naturalistic Stage – This stage marks the end of art as spontaneous activity.  Children now focus wholly on the end product. They begin to see things in 3-dimensions and experiment with creating in 3-dimension. Lowenfeld also calls this “The Crisis Period.“ It’s the beginning of adolescence, marking the end of artistic development among most children as they experience frustration at “getting things right” especially since creativity in schools is focused almost entirely on drawing.

Ages 14 – 16 – The Period of Decision – At this stage of life, children make decisions to either participate in a particular discipline or leave it alone.  If children are exposed only to disciplines in which they are not skilled, they tend to drop out. Natural development will cease unless a conscious decision is made to improve skill.  Lowenfeld’s solution is to enlarge their concept of art to include non-representational art and art occupations (architecture, interior design, handcrafts, etc.) 

From these stages, it is evident that children much younger than seven, in the “Scribbling and Preschmatic Stages,” are not yet ready to engage in a process that is focused on an outcome.  Lowenfeld defined “The Period of Decision” as the final stage and allowed for children anywhere from the ages of 14 – 16 to be in this stage. In our work we find this to be true and are even seeing the majority of children in the lower end of this age range making the declaration that they either “are” or “are not” creative.

Knowing that our primary focus has to be on children in the 11 – 16 age ranges, we strive to provide an environment that is attractive to them.  That means giving them space to explore and develop with their peers. At these ages, hanging out with, or sharing space with children under the age of seven is not attractive.  Therefore SPARK! was designed and is programmed for this group of older children.    

I hope that helps answer the “age” question. If you have children that have not yet reached second grade, be patient. They’ll be there before you know it and we hope they will come explore their creativity with us!

Children are Excited About Learning…
…Until We Take That Away From Them

By Beverly Davis

In the award winning animated short “Alike,” created by Madrid animators, Daniel Martinez Lara and Rafa Cano Mendez we see that children really do start out excited to learn. The animators created the short to showcase the conundrum of creative gifts being squashed in traditional school settings. But I like to see the bright side – the energy exhibited when children believe learning can be fun.

Engaged in his busy work life, Copi is a father who tries teach his son, Paste to follow the set order of school. Paste, eager to learn, bounces off to school the first few days and tries to spread his wings with artistic renderings during his lessons in writing the ABCs.

Copi and Paste live in a monotone world, where humdrum citizens walk dumfounded to and fro. Yet, in the midst of this rigor, a colorful violinist brings life to a tiny park in the grey city. As school grinds on for Paste with seemingly no end to the repetitive printing of the ABCs, Copi decides to reignite his enthusiasm and lift his spirits by taking him back to see the violinist.

With summer approaching, it’s time we adults remember – Children are excited about learning. Let’s give them the opportunities to explore their interests and engage that creative side over the summer.

SPARK! offers a series of summer camps, each week exploring new territory. Each week designed to ignite creativity and allow children to experience a variety of concepts and practices. It’s learning made fun. SPARK! Summer Camps.

Engage Their Brains Throughout Summer

By Beverly Davis
Remember the days of summer reading programs at the local library? I remember earning everything from stick-on-stars, to ribbons, to pizza and baseball tickets! I never really knew what motivated those programs, but since I was a kid and loved to read, I didn’t think much of it.

Now I understand the motivation. There are dozens of studies and many names for the motivation. We hear it called Summer Learning Loss, Summer Slide, and Summer Cognitive Decline. All this to say: if kids don’t engage in learning over the summer, they lose some of the “smarts” they gained during the school year. Research shows this is particularly prevalent for children in low income homes.

Beyond halting the slide, engaging kids in learning throughout the summer break has significant positive effects. That doesn’t mean you need to rush to enroll them in summer school. Instead, find something in which they are interested and engage in that. Most summer programs have a higher ratio of students to adults and are more individualized than school programs. With the array of camps, museum and maker space programs available, it’s easier to find programs in which a student can direct their own path for learning.

Often these summer programs feature hands-on, inquiry-based learning. Generally, they allow children to work in groups where they develop collaborative and social skills that more readily resemble the adult world for which we are trying to prepare them. When children engage in these high-quality programs over the summer, they’re more likely to identify their true interests and skills. These programs help them find a field of interest to pursue in secondary education. And, when kids are engaged in projects of their choosing, they actually learn more. They research online, they ask questions, they iterate and problem solve. These are the skills that support them through their entire lives and are the ones they don’t forget.

When you examine the benefits to some of the stellar summer options available today, kids can actually go farther over summer than ever before. Maybe programs such as the SPARK! Creator Studio and summer camps will go farther in preparing a child for secondary education than traditional schools!

Summer should be fun, and learning should be engaging. Let’s give them both at the same time.

Pursuit of Passion Projects

By Beverly Davis
I read a book that validated so much of what we do at SPARK! It was so exciting I could hardly sit still to read. Thankfully, it was a quick but powerful read, because I literally jumped up every few pages to share a thought with my husband.

Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers and Play, by Mitchell Resnick was published in 2017. Not only do Mitchell Resnick’s words align with our approach to igniting creativity in children, but the foreword to the book is written by Sir Ken Robinson, the ultimate authority on teaching creativity; and creatively.

SPARK! had been open almost three years and the question I get asked the most is, “Does technology kill creativity?” My thoughts are, not only is technology a product of creativity, but it continually builds on our creative energies and in many ways, enhances them. And that’s why, in December 2018, we launched the Creator Studio to offer learning and innovation through technology.

In his foreword, Robinson shares, “Mitchell Resnick has spent his professional life exploring the synergies between creativity and technology…He dispels common myths about creativity (that it is confined to the arts, for example)…” I believe this book was the spark that brought our Creator Studio to life.

In the Creator Studio, we’ve adopted Resnick’s proclivity to alliteration and provide a space for children “in Pursuit of Passion Projects.” Here, SPARK! gives children the freedom to learn new skills, develop their own ideas and pursue their passion without deadlines, judgement or grades. Resnick talks about how children really are willing to take risks and try new things when these limiting factors are removed. He says, “They’re eager to define their own problems rather than simply solve the ones in the textbook. It’s students who come up with the most innovative ideas and creative new directions.”

SPARK! defines the creative process as Inspiration, with Iteration and Collaboration, leads to Innovation. When I share this verbally, I move my hands in intertwining and repeat circles to indicate that the creative process is not linear, but rather circuitous. Inspiration happens more than once in a project and collaboration might happen at any point. The creative process is not a 4-point line from A to Z. I once asked an artist to render our creative process as a tornado. Resnick illustrates his philosophy in a “Creative Learning Spiral,”

and goes on to say, “The Creative Learning Spiral is the engine of creative thinking. As kindergarten children go through the spiral, they develop and refine their abilities as creative thinkers. They learn to develop their own ideas, try them out, experiment with alternatives, get input from others, and generate new ideas based on their experiences.”
Thank you, Mitchell, for the validation of SPARK! programming, and for the spark to bring the Creator Studio to life.

Volunteering Returns More Than You Give

By Beverly Davis
Across the globe, people volunteer. And we do this for a great variety of reasons: to help eliminate poverty, build shelters, improve education, protect others, or assist in times of natural disaster. In each of these efforts, people, just like you and me, make specific contributions to others and our communities through our actions.

We’re motivated by the cause and the impact our work has on those who benefit from our service. But, in a positive spin on an old saying, “what goes around, comes around.” Turns out, the benefits to us from volunteer work are quite great. The top five benefits of volunteering return in abundance:

1. Connecting with the community. When I was younger, I moved around a lot, building my growing career. I found myself in a new community every few years. Volunteering helped me connect with like-minded folks. It gave me a place in the community, often led to social engagements and provided new friendships to help me integrate. Volunteering often time leads to networking opportunities that can assist career growth, community engagement and companionship during these lonely transitions. People are the “spice of life” and volunteering brings out all sorts.

2. Feeding your soul. Volunteering promotes happiness. You’ll simply feel better by giving back. It’s good for the soul. When you feel good about what you’re doing and how you contribute, it lifts your spirits. Interestingly, this positive effect has been studied. Compared with people who never volunteered, the odds of being “very happy” rose 7% among those who volunteer monthly and 12% for people who volunteer every two to four weeks. There’s both fun and fulfillment in volunteering.

3. Advancing your career. In addition to the networking opportunities available through volunteering, it’s often possible to develop or sharpen professional skills. Volunteering paints you in a good light and in good company. It allows others to view you favorably because of this work you do. Volunteering helps you build confidence in a variety of areas, from interacting with the public, to delivering a compelling story, to leading project task forces.

4. Being a well-rounded citizen. Through volunteer efforts, you become aware of things you never knew went on in your community. You see needs you might not have known existed, and see others pitching in to help just when you thought the world was growing callus and cold. Volunteerism makes one more civically aware and has a tendency to increase civic engagement and even voter turnout.

5. Realizing better health. The sense of well-being and happiness that comes from volunteering can have incredible health benefits. Various studies point to such things as lower blood pressure, longer life span and reduced stress. Oftentimes volunteer activities keep you moving, which keeps you healthier. Even the sense of purpose that comes from aiding others makes one happier, helps reduce stress and allows you to sleep better.

A few things to consider as you look to engage in volunteering. It’s important that you are passionate about the organization and the cause. They’re not necessarily always the same.

You should enjoy the time you spend volunteering. This is your free time, make sure you enjoy the task, the people, the cause or at least 2 out of 3 of these! Sometimes we’re willing to do an unpleasant task because the need is there.

Volunteer for an organization that appreciates your efforts. Yes, they need to thank you repeatedly. They also need to have meaningful tasks for you to do and they must let you know if perhaps they don’t need you on your regular schedule.

Do your research. Volunteer once or twice before committing to a greater schedule. Make sure you like the people, the environment, etc.

Creativity Thrives in a World of Automation

By Beverly Davis

Automation frees us to be creative! As robots, computers, and artificial intelligence take over the many simple and repetitive motions we now do, we’ll have more time and space to be creative and innovative.  Our history books taught us that the industrial revolution freed a primarily agrarian society from many labor-intensive jobs; freeing our best thinkers to become more innovative. Our nation thrived during and after this revolution and can do the same in this day and age.

In 2015, Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, introduced the idea of The Fourth Industrial Revolution.  We live in this new world characterized by a fusion of technologies including the automation that seems to be striking fear in many.  In October, 2016, the White House authored a report, “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.”  Among the many forecasts were: “83% of U.S. jobs paying less than $20 per hour will be subject to automation or replacement. While up to 47% of all U.S. jobs are in danger of being made irrelevant due to technological advancements, with most job losses due to occur among the undereducated.”

We can solve for this by teaching our children how to think.  Giving them opportunities to learn and practice the creative process.  Creativity currently ranks #1 among the top skills required to thrive in the global economy.  According to the World Economic Forum, “by 2020, creativity and creative thinking will slip to third place behind: #1 complex problem solving, and #2 critical thinking, on the list of the most important skills needed to survive and thrive.”  

Complex Problem Solving is generally understood to mean the ability to solve for new, novel or ill-defined problems in real-world context.  Critical Thinking is skillful analysis, assessment and implementation of ideas and can be brought to bear in complex problem-solving.

Realizing that learning the creative process builds problem-solving skills and self-esteem, SPARK! sets out to educate our children.  Through it all, automation cannot replace the ability to think, to imagine, to create, or to innovate. We humans created automation, let’s enjoy it.  We’ll use it to make life easier, more convenient and allow more time for pursuits of creativity and pleasure. Let’s use our curiosity to drive the 5th industrial revolution!

Looking Back and Looking Forward to the Future of SPARK!

By Beverly Davis

It starts with one spark.

That ignites one idea.

SPARK! began as a simple idea: to create a place where kids could explore their creativity without any inhibitions.  Last year we provided programming for more than 16,000 students in grades 2 through 12. In our first 3.5 years of operation, almost 39,000  children have engaged in creative programming at SPARK!

SPARK! is no longer Dallas’ “Best Kept Secret.” Word is out that we are a world-class organization that inspires minds, builds confidence and shapes the future for ALL children. Here are some facts to back that up:

  • While most of our visitors came from field trips, we expanded our programming to include special interest groups like Talented and Gifted students, homeschoolers and scouts.
  • The opening of our Creator Studio has given kids the opportunity to explore their own passion projects through STEM-related technologies.
  • Additional staff, targeted funding and strategic relationships with professionals have allowed us to expand our curriculum to include music, architecture, robotics, computer programming and advanced technologies.  
  • Over 120 unique, interactive birthday parties entertained, delighted and even educated kids on the weekends.  

All this growth has been phenomenal. And we continue to gain momentum. Not only does our vision demand we reach a much greater percentage of our city’s youth, parents and teachers are also demanding we provide more programming and programming that trains those who work with children.

So now, we look ahead to the next phase of growth for SPARK! We have reached capacity in our current location and are now in search of a permanent home where we can continue to flourish. I encourage those entrepreneurial spirits reading this to step forward and join us as we embark on this exciting journey to ignite creativity and make a greater impact on the future of our children.