Learning Landscapes: Summer Creativity Challenge

Summer Creativity Challenge

Each year my family and I do a Summer Creativity Challenge. The goal of this playful challenge is to celebrate creativity, inquisitiveness and innovation. We explore local natural resources, as well as dig through our recycling bin and challenge ourselves to design and build anything that can be imagined. Yes, it can be that simple, but we try to take it further by inviting family, friends and neighbors over to build, play, laugh, learn and strengthen community throughout the summer and beyond.

Where did the idea for our Summer Creativity Challenge come from? It was inspired and grew out of something we learned about three years ago called the Cardboard Challenge. The Cardboard Challenge was inspired by a 9-year-old boy named Caine who designed an entire cardboard arcade business. Now playful building with recyclable materials (aka Cardboard Challenge) is an annual, global event presented by Imagination Foundation. However, by extending the time we dedicate to the challenge we are able to slow down, integrate more of the natural resources in abundance in our area and cultivate on-going community connections.

In September the Imagination Foundation encourages kids of all ages, all over the world to design and build anything they can dream up using cardboard, recycled materials and imagination. Then the designers (aka the children) who worked all September invite others from their community to get together on a specified date in October to share, play and celebrate creativity knowing that other children in other communities all over the world are celebrating in play that same day. 

Why wait?

Summer is a wonderful time to be outside and use our observation skills to engage in the natural world through the eyes of creativity. Rather than seeking to fill up my children’s days because “we all know what happens when kids have nothing to do” they are given the time and the space to get in touch with their creative self! I honestly plan for about half of our time on any given day to be unplanned. This gives us time to follow passionate streaks and, at times, to let boredom sit and see what emerges. There are useful literature connections that we may drop into our children’s paths to complement the Summer Creativity Challenge that include:

Designing, playing and building is not just for our children. We need to embrace an attitude of playfulness ourselves and design, create and build just as passionately as our children. Seeing others in the community, regardless of age, use and value creativity and design learning inspires and as we say in the PERMIE KIDs community, “Inspiration Grows!”

We are calling all adults to get hands-on and minds-on, too! Let the creative energy of our children inspire others beginning local and spiraling outward from there. Talk to your neighbors, share your “story” and inspire others all summer long.

For those with big shoes who may need help reconnecting with their natural curiosity and an attitude of playfulness (*ahem, that might be us adults), here is a summer creativity challenge to consider. Through the summer we will include ideas like this one in our newsletters to help Inspiration Grow.

Stone Age Painting

Inquiry: Play Pictionary and use that as a means to think about how ideas are communicated through writing and drawing. How did our ancestors use written communication and what did it look like? Some of the earliest recorded writings are drawings on cave walls using burned wood, soil and natural paints with muted colors. What about languages from the past and present? Are there languages that use pictures rather than letters to make up words? What natural materials do you think the pictures were painted with?

Activity: Collect rocks, flat and porous ones tend to work best. (Yes, they are usually available at a garden store if you can’t find any in nature depending on where you are, but for most of us it isn’t hard to find such a resource in abundance locally.) Clean the rocks with water and a brush. Find some materials to test out as paint brushes – sticks, feathers, stalks of wheat or rye, crimson clover or coneflowers are fun to experiment with. Make natural paints grinding materials found in your place (see suggested materials below) with a little water and an egg yolk to create a stone-age art design. Think about what recyclable materials that might be useful for creating the tools needed to make, store and apply the paint, as well as a medium to paint on in addition to the porous rocks. When you are done these can become an artistic centerpiece in a rock garden.

Natural Paint Sources:

  • Reds and Oranges – cooked raspberries (even combined with blackberries for making darker red), bricks or broken terracotta pots (grind two bricks together and use the powder), chili powder, paprika or even rust ground into a powder
  • Yellow – turmeric or the outer skin of an onion
  • Green – water-dense herb leaves and/or greens like spinach, but interestingly green can be difficult to make with natural materials (or mix materials for blue and yellow to create green)
  • Blue – blueberries or blue flowers like borage
  • Pinks and Purples – blackberries, elderberries, black currants, red currants, raspberries, strawberries, and cooked beets (try beet leaves)
  • Brown – Natural soil or earth
  • Black – soot or charcoal
  • Grey – woodash (or mix materials for black and white to create grey)
  • White – chalk or even talcum powder

Reflection and Extension: Create new symbols and create a new language only understood by your family or community. Write a secret message on a community “cave” wall (e.g. hang up an old bed sheet where children can paint, read and respond to one another’s messages).

Process-based Inquiry

We are all part of community, but far too often in the busy, disconnected lives that many have we often seek to meet friends with kids for a playdate for a few hours only then to drive to opposite ends of the town and re-enter our self-imposed isolation in our own apartments or houses. Summer is a time ripe with opportunities to nourish life as children of all ages and often adults find themselves present, on vacation and maybe even bored with “nothing to do.”

By using an activity like the Summer Creativity Challenge throughout the summer, not just as one “event,” we can transform this from a product-based activity to a process-oriented and community-building opportunity. Don’t think product-based thinking is the end goal, which with the Cardboard Challenge it can easily become. Instead, seek to integrate process-based learning and reflection about natural relationships into the experience.

Design and build anything that can be imagined, but go beyond the creation of a product and remain focused on the process – the process of creative thinking, innovating and using and valuing resources. Consider also the processes of learning related to ethics exploration and community-building that are possible when the design and building becomes process-oriented. Invite family, friends and neighbors over to build, play, laugh, learn and strengthen community throughout the summer and beyond. The Summer Creativity Challenge is a means to intentionally explore ethics and values not just about natural resources, but the process of connecting with all our natural relations.


Jen MendezJen Mendez
Jen is mother of two joyous children, Community Experiential Education by Design (CEED) facilitator and founder of PERMIE KIDs. PERMIE KIDs is an educational resource network that uses whole systems thinking tools and ethics to help families and educators around the world discover the art, science and wisdom of mentoring children on their journeys in learning and life. Through educational programs, resources and workshops, we help parents and educators work with children to co-create personalized educational plans and projects driven by their passions and connected to their place, culture, family, and community.

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