The Joy of Knots
(This piece originally appeared in my book “Teaching Creativity” (Whitmore Books, 2010). You can order it here.)
What messages do we send children about problem solving?
Many young children probably think something like this: “Problem solving is for grown-ups. And it’s not fun. In fact, it’s so not fun that it makes them sigh and grumble and yell and say things like ‘Oh no!’ (And ‘Oh no, not again!’)”
We need to communicate the positive side of problem solving – that it can be a fun, or at least interesting, challenge – and that it feels really good when we solve problems on our own.
“Your problem may be modest; but if it challenges your curiosity and brings into play your inventive faculties, and if you solve it by your own means, you may experience and enjoy the… triumph of discovery. Such experiences at a susceptible age may create a taste for mental work and leave their imprint on mind and character for a lifetime (Polya 1945).”
I discovered that untying knots can be a wonderful way to share the joy of problem solving.
When the first Velcro-fastened sneakers came out for little children, I thought, Hurray! That’s it for shoelaces, then. No more tying and re-tying little shoes all day, and best of all, no untying the knots that inevitably happened. But no – they still make plenty of regular shoelace-type shoes to drive teachers and parents of young children crazy.
But it’s not only the sneakers. When you add up the little work boots, the little roller skates, and all the jewelry that gets tangled up, we spend a lot of time and energy untying knots.
Very early on in my teaching career, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision. I decided to like untying knots. When a child would come to me with a hopelessly tangled knot, I’d say, “Oh, thank you! I love untying knots!” and I would show pride and satisfaction when I succeeded in untying it.
Now, after a while, a really interesting thing happened. When a knot situation would arise, one of the children would jump in and say, “Let me do it! I’m good at untying knots!” Pretty soon the children would be arguing over who got to untie it! It was hilarious.
I also noticed that my own attitude changed. I found that I started to really enjoy untying knots. I saw them more as puzzles than annoyances (and I love puzzles). While I worked on a knot, my brain was engaged in a relaxed way, I had fun trying different strategies, and I felt great when I had untied a really difficult knot.
I believe that influencing their attitudes about knots may help young children develop a positive feeling about creative problem solving.
And it doesn’t hurt to be good at untying knots!
Show interest in pursuing different strategies – pulling, observing the knot from different angles, loosening the center of the knot gently, switching from one side of the knot to the other, and so on. Verbalize the process as you go through it.
Verbalize a positive attitude – “I know I can get this!” – and perseverance – “I’m going to keep at it until I get it untied!”