A group of third, fourth and fifth graders tentatively enter an activity room at the Institute of Science & Technology in Denver, Colorado. The room is a blank slate with bare white tables, white walls and a projector at the ready.
Beth Cohen, a STEM teacher and Imagination Chapter leader, excitedly welcomes the children into the new Cherry Creek Imagination Chapter. The children’s parents are present for this first meeting and to kick off their time together, Cohen projects the short film Caine’s Arcade onto the screen.
This is the film that inspired a worldwide movement of creativity, the launch of the Imagination Foundation and the 30 pilot Imagination Chapters now running across the globe. Chapters are rooted in Creative Play—a process that encourages kids to make the things they imagine out of whatever tools and materials they have readily available. And Cohen is the leader who will guide the kids along the way.
Her hope for this Chapter, she tells the parents, is to help the kids discover and build upon their passions. “I want to give them the chance to know they can do anything,” she says.
After the film, Cohen splits the kids into groups and asks them to build a tower as tall as they can with one marshmallow, 20 sticks of spaghetti, a piece of string and a roll of masking tape. This activity, The Marshmallow Challenge, was made popular by Tom Wujec’s TED Talk. The kids are cautious at first, but as they start to tinker and share their ideas, the feeling in the room changes. They are engaged and working together. The music is switched on, the chatter grows louder and the towers begin to take shape.
Inspired by their children’s creativity, the parents also group up and build their own marshmallow towers.
Since that first day, the Chapter has grown into a community. “It is this joyful coming together and celebration of creativity,” Cohen told me in a recent interview.
A Community of Creativity Flourishes
When Cohen decided to start an Imagination Chapter, she knew she wanted to reach elementary school kids from all different backgrounds.
“I thought about Caine’s Arcade and I thought about Caine. I wanted to find the Caines out there who don’t necessarily have every opportunity when they walk out their front door,” she said.
In the community where she wanted to start her Chapter, there are six elementary schools that feed into one high school. Cohen, who has a reputation for being passionate and relentless when it comes to educating kids, contacted every one of the elementary school principals. She told them about the Imagination Foundation and the Cherry Creek Chapter she wanted to form and asked them to identify kids who would benefit.
The Chapter started in November 2014. Twelve kids meet every Saturday morning for an hour and a half to build and make things, using a variety of resources, and exploring different themes.
The Chapter sessions are held at the Institute of Science & Technology, a space dedicated to STEM education. As you walk through the building, you see a sculpture of a DNA helix, a NASA space suit enclosed in glass and a large sundial. Longitude and latitude lines are painted on the floor and if you peek into different rooms, you can spot high school and middle school kids engaged in robotics and engineering. The room where Cohen wanted her Chapter to meet, she said, was an “activity room not yet built out and waiting for its future.”
By setting up her Chapter there, Cohen said her kids would not only be inspired by their surroundings, but would also have the opportunity to engage with older kids who attend other STEM-focused programs at the Institute. She explained:
“It’s about being 10 years old and dreaming about what you want to do when you’re 15 and then seeing it in action.”
On occasion, the kids work with a robotics team that meets at the Institute and the captain of the team, Abraham, volunteers for Cohen’s Chapter. For one of the Chapter sessions, Abraham facilitated the meet-up between the robotics team and the Imagination Chapter kids. “He led the way and while demonstrating and explaining what their goals were in building their robot, he continuously illustrated the connections between their robot and our Cubelets,” Cohen said.
Cubelets are magnetic blocks that can be snapped together to make a variety of different robots. Meant for younger kids, Cubelets, as Abraham told Cohen, “offer a concrete, creative and non-intimidating way for kids to get the foundation of what they [the robotics team] are doing at the high school level.”
In addition to Cubelets, Cohen has introduced her Chapter to a tremendous variety of unique tools and projects. They’ve created Chapter logos that they will be silk screening on Chapter t-shirts. They’ve made superhero costumes, lemonade stands and vending machines out of cardboard. And they’ve had a blast experimenting with different computer programming tools. In an early session, Cohen kicked things off with a Jenga building activity. Each Jenga block had a “getting to know you question” on it and kids took turns answering as they placed their pieces. It was an exercise in both building structures and creating connections.
A Lesson in Imagination
Cohen’s sessions are designed around the children’s interests, which means that sometimes things don’t go according to plan. When this happens, she’s ready to improvise and adapt. In one session, she had her kids use LEGO as a warm up. The idea was to challenge the kids to create something that made them happy (in celebration of International Happiness Day) and reflected spring. The lesson would escalate to littleBits, a set of easy-to-use electrical components that help kids learn and invent by building circuits, and then to Makey Makey, a circuitboard that hooks up to common household objects to become a working computer input device. But…
When the allotted time for LEGO was up, she looked around the room and took in how deep in the creative process the kids were. “They were so engaged, animated and joyful….and I said to myself, I can go with my plan or I can go with their discovery.”
Cohen believes that when working with kids, it’s important to listen to them and show them that you hear what they’re saying. “It’s about showing them the respect they deserve and giving them the opportunity to be seen,” she said. You can’t always rush them along and creativity needs time and interest to grow.
Her role, she said, is not to direct this program, but rather to “guide them along the path” of discovery and creativity.
At the end of this session and as part of the Creative Play cycle, the kids eagerly shared their creations with one another.
One boy showed the group his LEGO skyscraper and said he wanted to build the tallest building in the world because he loves cities. Because the theme was spring, he built a tree that sprouted out of the top of the building.
With each of the different materials and tools the kids experiment with during the Chapter, they are learning the principals of engineering, math and science—while their creativity is flourishing. Even with more complicated digital tools, like the coding language Scratch, “it’s play, imagination, and it’s open-ended,” Cohen explains.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
During our conversation, Cohen reflected on what she’s learned from leading an Imagination Chapter.
“It’s everything that I think learning should be about. It’s about letting things happen organically. It doesn’t have to be so structured. It’s like the Cardboard Challenge. What do kids get? Tape, cardboard, something to cut with—but they also have their imagination.” And that’s the catalyst.
For Cohen, the experience has also reinforced the importance of adults and kids being a co-learners. “I need to learn from them as much as they’re learning from me—and from each other,” she said.
As we finished our interview, Cohen looked off in the distance and without prompt said, “I just know that there are kids all over the world who need and deserve opportunities like this.”
“Phew, I just get so passionate,” she said looking back at me with a smile.
This story was written by Jenny Inglee, the Imagination Foundation’s Imagination Curator and The Storybook Editor. The second collection of stories in The Storybook highlights the Imagination Chapter pilot program.