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Divergent Thinking and "Not A..." Play

"Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought."

-- Albert Einstein

It’s Not A…

In our “It’s Not A…” lesson, we discover objects that look familiar, but they are not what they appear to be! We explore the endless possibilities of what our “not-a” objects can become. This lesson is inspired by Antoinette Portis’ books Not a Stick and Not a Box. This type of play and imagining helps us strengthen kids’ divergent thinking – the kind of thinking that we do when we open our minds and explore all possibilities in a given situation. Kids are wonderful at it, but we often lose it as we grow.

As you play today, keep in mind that we invite both children and grow-ups to play with our Invitations to Play. These are just that, invitations, and will sometimes result in kids playing the way the invitation suggests, and other times have kids moving in a completely different direction. In child-led and open-ended learning environments like Tinkergarten, after we invite kids to play, we trust their intuition on what type of play and learning they need that day and follow their lead.

Invitation for Explorers: What can we do and imagine with the objects around us?

Invitation for Guides: How many different ways can you imagine with and use the objects we discover today?

Gather Materials and Set Up

Invitation to play written on a piece of paper, Not A… Cards (you can download them from this link), egg cartons (1 or 2 per child), cardboard boxes of various sizes, bowls or other recycled containers, socks (1 or 2 per child), sticks, yarn (cut to various lengths, 2 or 3 per child)

Place your invitation somewhere in your outdoor space (more information and ideas in the ‘Invitation’ section of this lesson).

Gather materials and place or hide each set of materials with their Not A… Card somewhere around your outdoor space.


Find a way to show your explorers the invitation for play today that inspires joyful wonder. In our classes, we have a special invitation bag that kids open with the phrase “I wonder how we’ll play today?” to find clues for the day’s lesson and our invitation to explorers. Other options are hiding the invitation somewhere in your outdoor space for explorers to hunt for or to put it in an envelope and find it together in your mailbox.

Read the invitation with your explorers then exclaim, “Our park/backyard/etc. Is full of treasures to play and imagine with. Should we go on a walk to see what objects we can find?

Let’s Go!

Head out together on a walk in the direction of one of your Not A.. sets of materials. When you find the first set of objects, show the card to your explorers and read it together. This is a great opportunity for repetition reading and reading the pictures for younger explorers and wonderful practice in reading out loud to others for older explorers.

After reading the card, model 1 or 2 ways to imagine and play with object then invite kids to guess what you are imagining the object could be. For example, you can turn bowls over and pat on them like drums, or pretend a stick is a fishing pole and cast it then reel in a fish.

After modeling, welcome your kiddos to try out their own ideas. A good way to initiate this can be with phrases like “I wonder what you can make your stick/bowl/box/etc. do? I wonder what you can imagine your stick/bowl/box could be?”

When the time feels right, wonder if there are more objects like these for you to discover together and then go hunt for those other cards and sets of materials.

Supporting Play with All Ages and Stages

When needed, continue to model different ways to move, play and imagine with the objects. Try out kids’ ideas too! If you are noticing lulls in play two things you can do are:

  1. Nothing! Just let kids lull for a moment and see what sort of play they imagine next.

  2. Ask open-ended questions like “I wonder if you could make a sound with your box/bowl/stick/etc.” or “I wonder how many ways you make your box/bowl/etc. move?”

Narrate what you see kids doing to attune them to the play of their peers (if you have more than one explorer with you) and welcome them to try out each other’s ideas.

Younger Explorers – Pretend play can look different at different ages and stages. Younger kids may be more interested in exploring what their objects can physically do. Support this by modeling different ways to use objects in your outdoors space.

Older Explorers – Older kids may lean into the imaginative aspect of this lesson and enjoy pretending that they and their objects are becoming different things. If you have mixed ages of children, encourage older kids to model different ways to play and imagine with the objects for younger ones.

Check out this blog post to learn more about the Stages of Play. Looking for ideas on facilitating play with your kiddos? Tinkergarten has made this wonderful Play Facilitation Chart to give us ideas and techniques to try out.

What are we learning with “Not A…” play?

🔹Creativity - Divergent Thinking

🔹Problem Solving

🔹Curiosity and Wonder

🔹Communication Skills

I’d love to hear which ideas sparked play and joy with your explorers or if you have any other connections for play! Comment below or tag me in your play on Instagram @magnoliaoutoor.

Wishing you a joyful week of outdoor play!

(This lesson was adapted for our community from the Spring Creativity Tinkergarten curriculum. If you'd like more lessons like this, join us for in person Tinkergarten with MOLE classes or go to the Tinkergarten website to find other similar programs in your area.)


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