Creativity and innovation

Creative play leads to innovative solutions – this post is written as a storyteller and coach of a robotics Lego team.

I have been silent on the blog for a while. Work and life tick away and continue to offer me opportunities, surprises and much joy. One of the new adventures I have embarked upon is Robotics Lego.

Robotics Lego is pretty much as it sounds. Making robots from Lego MindStorms Kits. It is a worldwide activity and the official name of the competition is FIRST Lego League – you can learn more here

A brief overview, for those whose life hasn’t been overtaken by FLL. 20,000 teams worldwide. Approximately 250 teams in Australia and growing fast. Think AFL for the mind. The kids design build and program robots from MindStorm kits (Lego). That’s the super fun bit. In our club we meet once a week and have a range of activities lined up for them to work on – build a sumo robot and then compete against each other – build a road runner, ladder climber, catapult and then pitch them against each others. The kids are hands on engaged, receive immediate feedback from the robot, not an adult. That is they see the robot fail. Then they race to repair/redesign/rebuild/reprogram till they get the success that they are aiming for.

The link between a storyteller and a robotics coach is – creativity. Our group of kids age between the 8 and 13. They are open creative thinkers and I encourage any and all ideas to be tried out. Anything. Basically I see it as the perfect opportunity to fail, laugh, even enjoy the spectacular nature of the failure and then work for the recovery. Love the recovery.

I am one of the coaches of the competition team – Komplete Kaos Inc (– these are a core group of kids that have competed at national level for the past two years only. In year one they won the rookie of the year award. In year two they came second in the country and received an invitation to compete at The Open European Championships in Pamplona. We fund raised like crazy, worked as hard as we could and these kids earned a first place for innovation.

The competition has four categories overall. One; the robot game (how many points their robot scores on an international table), two; the robot judging. The kids ONLY answer any question about the robot design and programming when faced by 3 judges. Three; a innovation or research project. Every year there is a theme. This year was Natures Fury and the kids have to choose a real world problem (floods for us), research it and create an innovative solution. Komplete Kaos Inc designed and created a working prototype of a smart phone app to assist people to prepare and stay safe in a flood emergency. They also designed and created the social media campaign to go with it. (Because for kids – these are all immediately connected). The fourth category is called Core Values which means how they work as a team and within/amongst their community.

At the Open European Championships there were 95 teams from 47 different countries and our team achieved a first place and in innovation! For me, this is a huge achievement and one to be very proud of as they have been recognised for their creativity, a way of thinking and an approach that will serve them well into the future. After a long trip there were many reasons to feel proud as a coach (and a mum of two team members) but in particular I wanted to note the beauty of an artists approach to science and learning and the ability of kids to flourish under that approach.

I put it down to creative play, the artist’s approach – where nothing is wrong. Give it a try, fail, redo, retry, persist. This approach will give us creative thinkers and innovations in the future. Heres to the importance of the arts in all life – including programming, robotics, science and design amongst 10 to 12 years olds.

Dignity for Children Foundation, Malaysia

Recently I was invited to give a workshop on storytelling skills at the Early childhood Conference at the Universiti Tun Abdul Razak in Kuala Lumpur. It was a wonderful conference and extremely interesting to learn about the education systems and the learning expectations that are place on the very young in Malaysia. As a results driven Asian nation it certainly holds many differences to Australia, some of the expectations set on the very young were quite shocking to this laid back Aussie. So it was an inspiration to encounter students and teachers willing to take on creativity as a valid method of learning and development. The teaching conference lasted for two days, the 7th and 8th of October and our warm and welcoming hosts dined and toured us visitors the entire stay of 4 days. I ate some incredible food and enjoyed touring modern and traditional architecture, markets and regions of Kuala Lumpur.

As recent work of mine, over the past few years has included refugee populations of Australia I decided that the link between Australian and Malaysian refugees is not something I can ignore. I made contact with the Harvest Centre (which became the Dignity for Children Foundation in 2010) and offered to volunteer. This was an incredibly rewarding experience. For one day I performed for a number of classrooms, I talked, learned and lunched with the staff and I taught storytelling skills in the afternoon to the teachers.

Harvest Ctr, Sentul, Malaysia

The story circle

First let me briefly describe the Dignity for Children Foundation.

It started from a ground roots need to aid urban poor – those living in shanty towns with no water, broken families, extremely poor, undernourished, high exposure to drugs and crime in their community. Not surprisingly while these kids have the right to an education in Malaysia they do not have the support or ability to continue through. Living hungry, being malnourished throughout their developing years significantly impacts their cognitive ability and concentration levels. They are unable to buy the basic essentials needed for school – uniforms, stationary etc. They have no quiet place to complete homework or study as the family home is small, crowded and often noisy/exposed or the children have other duties to fulfil like babysitting whilst the one parent works or gathering water from great distances.

It took two people from the community centre, Petrina and her husband to recognise that something needs to be done to break this cycle of poverty.

Firstly they had the ability to recognise that these kids are stuck within a poverty cycle (ie its not their fault, they are not dumb). They will drop out of school due to all the difficulties, they will be unemployed, they will have children early, they will be tempted by drugs and a life of crime. Their children will also follow this path.

How to change it?

Offer education that focuses on the whole child. They offer schooling, meals, medical care, hygiene care and therapy when necessary. They offer a safe place for the family to be, to study, learn and share. The education includes opportunities to play sport and to engage with the arts.

Harvest Ctr, Sentul, Malaysia

Girl learning through play

The Dignity for Children Foundation also supports teacher training, sporting competitions, and education (Malaysian curriculum based) for children ranging from 1 year old to 20. There is also hospitality training for those not suited to the mainstream education structures.

When the infants school began a new need was quickly realised. Amongst the urban poor of Malaysia were a different kind of poor – refugees. A refugee in Malaysia does not have the right to an education. That is, currently 16,640 children in Malaysia cannot enter the education system. Their parents do not have a right to work/earn an income and the children cannot gain an education.

The dignity for Children Foundation offers education for all, refugee, urban poor and disabled.

Harvest Ctr, Sentul, KL, Malaysia

The group hug at the end of one class. I love this moment 🙂

The Harvest Centre (the school I visited) is currently at double the classroom capacity accepting the cases that arrive at their doorstep. The administrators, teachers and directors operate from a place of pure heart and love. I was proud to be there for a day and sad to leave so many people in the face of so much need.

In the words of one volunteer at the school – the arts gives these kids an opportunity to learn about people. To learn to trust and who not to trust. Its part of a complete education, its part of what they really need in life. We want to give them the best chance.

Overall I spent one day in my life sharing with these children. I shared stories, language, smiles, hugs, laughter and small details of our histories/our stories. I am in awe of the dedication of those that see a need and an injustice and work with their heart and soul to overcome it. Thank you Kuala Lumpur and the Dignity for Children Foundation for making me appreciate my Australian life and for igniting in me the flame that burns to help another.

If you would like to volunteer time or money please go to the website;

Harvest Ctr, Sentul, KL, Malaysia  Harvest Ctr, Sentul, KL, Malaysia

Working with stories with 10-13 year olds

I am often asked about how I work with stories and youth. Let me share with you one example.

The Tortoise and the Hare.

You know the story right?

I tell an African version of it that I read in Tales of an Ashanti Father, by Peggy Appiah. When I tell I use certain Ashanti (Ghana) words, which I have learned from my friend Afro Moses ( and I play the djembe or mbira in parts.

The story…

Lion, king of the jungle noticed that many of his animals were being lost to hunters and other animal predators. He gathered his animals together and talked of the loss and how he believed that unity and cooperation between them could help the situation. He then asked the animals what they thought. Many animals agreed, many did not, in particular, Hare jumped up and stated that he is fine on his own, he is fast, a good hider and does not need all this nonsense.

Well, you can imagine the animal’s reaction to a comment like that? They shouted, yelled, got animated, noisy. In the end it was Tortoise who spoke up in favour of the king. Tortoise took his time and told Hare what a fool he is to believe speed is so important, to prove his point he offers to race against Hare – much to the humour of all animals present. The race time and track are set and all animals go home with mirth in their hearts and on their lips. How could Tortoise possibly do it?

Tortoise, his family and friends do not go home to bed. They meet together and …

You know the rest. Tortoise made a plan and recruited his family and friends after a bit of resistance. They hid in strategic places along the track. They learnt a song to sing to warn the next runner that they were coming… in the end they won. Although at the end Tortoise states that it is cooperation and diligence that won.

This story raises some serious questions?

– Who won? Is it Tortoise, or all of his family and friends? Who receives the acknowledgement? Who is remembered long after the event?

-Did tortoise cheat?

Did he run the race alone? Did he challenge the Hare alone?

What are your answers I wonder? When I ask these questions generally half of the population believe that Tortoise cheated, most believe he ‘bent the rules’ to win.

So that leads me to ask;

What were the rules? Were they ever stated? Who has the right to impose rules? Who in our world EVER wins a race completely on their own?

Let me repeat that, as it is the key question for many youth. Who in our world EVER wins a race completely on their own. The runner? The swimmer? They may cross the line alone but they have a multitude of people supporting them along the way. The chess player learns strategies and practises against others along the way. The rock climber has their belay person, the trainer, the route setter etc etc.

Once this idea has been broken out we then work in a group to mimic the success of Tortoise. We think about things that we want to achieve. Write them down, describe them, visualise them clearly. Tortoise knew exactly what he wanted.

We write a step-by-step plan. Including who we need to recruit to help us achieve that goal. We also make a strong point of who we need to ignore/leave behind to achieve our goal. It sounds harsh but not everyone is going to buoy our spirits or compliment our efforts or want to see us achieve. Not everyone should be listened to.

We also look at the things we can do alone, such as research, visualisation, practise etc.

Depending on the age group I analyse the turning points in the story, that is at what points could the story have gone a different way. What were the alternatives? What then are the alternatives in our own stories?

The Tortoise and the Hare is a universal story that has been passed down over generations across the globe. Its long life and success as a story is due to its relevance. Sometimes us adults need to be reminded of our story and the power of the stories we tell ourselves and our children.

Just as a further note for those that are interested.

I used the story and structure above as a part of the ‘Kids Making Choices’ Program over a period of 5 years. Below is some information on the program as a whole.

The program was an early intervention two-day workshop. We worked with targeted primary schools, typically with a high component of Culturally and Ethnically Diverse (CALD) background students. The program was funded by The Attorney Genreral’s Office (National community crime prevention programme), the PCYC Wollongong, and the Illawarra Ethnic Communities Council (as it was then known).  The program approach focused on raising young peoples awareness of the importance of developing personal values, competencies and character strengths that will empower them to understand and consider alternatives to a variety of situations.

The Objectives of the project as a whole were to;

  • Assist and enable CALD young people to understand and explore values that are important for them and society.
  • To explore concepts for the positive and negative choices, self esteem and peer pressure.
  • To develop personal competencies for the transition to high school, particularly how to deal with peer pressure.
  • Learning to communicate effectively and set personal goals.
  • Using values and character strengths to make positive choices.