Beautiful oops – the value of mistakes

I have a favourite picture book which I love to read to children as it has such a positive and powerful message. Barney Saltzberg’s Beautiful Oops! is itself a work of art. [1] The book shows children that we can get creative results through relaxing about our mistakes and actually using what we think are errors to create beautiful pieces. This three-dimensional picture book focuses on creativity and imagination, turning mistakes into animals and mysterious shapes. I have read it again recently to groups in our school library during Book Week.

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Is your child that person who starts drawing, makes one little line and says, “Oh no, that’s not right!” before scrunching the paper into a ball and throwing it into the rubbish bin? Does she then try again and throw it in the bin repeatedly in frustration? In situations like these, children need to be encouraged to embrace any imperfections, and be told that they can draw, they can write and they can create!

Our New Zealand Curriculum states that we want our young people to be, “Creative, energetic and enterprising.” [2] The document lists values which are important and makes specific reference to, “Innovation, inquiry and curiosity, by thinking critically, creatively and reflectively.” Sir Ken Robinson is an English author, speaker and international adviser on education. He speaks a great deal to educationalists about the importance of creativity in schools. Robinson says, “Creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” [3]

As teachers and parents, we need to create situations where we encourage risk-taking. It is essential that we demonstrate to children that making mistakes is part of learning.

What can we do to help children?

  • As adults we must model having a go, making a mistake, and taking a risk
  • We need to share our feelings by verbalising what is going on for us during frustrating moments, because it shows our kids that it is normal to get frustrated and cross with ourselves
  • In fact, we can model working through this frustration. Walk away and come back with ‘fresh eyes’
  • Get some help or advice
  • Share our dismal failures
  • Encourage the original idea
  • Value creativity – find a special place for children’s artwork

Many inventions in the modern world actually resulted from a mistake. Some of these inventions also illustrate that creativity is a very important part of scientific endeavour. Creativity is not limited to the arts but is important across all curriculum areas, including science and mathematics. It’s a great idea to talk about some of these inventions with your children.

Frank Epperson was only 11 years old when he invented the popsicle. He was stirring drink mix and water, and then accidentally left his drink outside over night with the stirring stick in it, only to discover in the morning that it had frozen solid.

Safety glass was invented when a French chemist, Edouard Benedictus, accidentally knocked over a glass flask in his lab. Instead of shattering into a million pieces, the fragments hung together because he had lined the flask with cellulose nitrate.

Post-It Notes were also a recent mistake. In the 1970s, a 3M scientist named Arthur Fry adapted a product by Spencer Silver which was originally a mistake. They were meant to be inventing very strong glue. Instead, they made a weak adhesive that subsequently was reinvented into the Post-It Note.

Velcro was invented by a Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, in the 1940s. George was trying to get the burs off his clothes after walking through a field. He was so intrigued that he put the burs under a microscope and discovered the fibre had little hooks. Ultimately, he was able to adapt this concept to produce Velcro which is made from thousands of little hoop and loop structures.

Why am I sharing these stories? Because we need to share these scientific illustrations with children and young adults. These examples teach them not to be afraid of making a mistake but instead to relish the opportunity to think differently and outside the square.

At a recent school assembly I used a personal example of mine to emphasise how important it is to be okay about making mistakes. I did a twirl in my skirt and asked who they thought the designer was. The girls suggested a list of famous New Zealand designers and I was very flattered! Actually one child did correctly guess that I was actually the designer. I sewed a skirt precisely to the pattern with gorgeous Italian fabric. But, on completion, the zip stuck out as it was placed on the side in this particular design.
I was so disappointed. However, instead of loathing it for the mistake, my sewing teacher encouraged me to celebrate the garment and create something truly original. She guided me to gather the material at the side, and created a sophisticated ruched, Spanish look that made the hem asymmetrical and helped me create a completely original skirt.

I now wear this skirt with pride, knowing that I created a piece that is totally unique and superior to the first design. By sharing my story, I demonstrated not only that I make mistakes, but actually by being positive and viewing the happening as an opportunity, I created something novel. If your child is battling with a Science Fair project, think of the invention of the popsicle. Sometimes the simplest idea is the most effective.

It doesn’t matter if the resulting idea is different to what was first planned. A poem for school may have started out about the beauty of winter but ended up being an entertaining account of the time when Dad slid over on the ice. It doesn’t matter that the outfit that your child put together for Book Week looks more like ‘Thing One’ and ‘Thing Two’ than her first idea of a character from Harry Potter. If one of the hip hop dancers is away sick on the day that your child’s group is recording the video entry for the school competition, help your child to look on the bright side. Maybe the asymmetric look of the choreography will start a new dance craze?

So the next time there are tears over a homework project because it doesn’t look right or the work didn’t come out as planned, encourage your child to view it as an original piece of work. To use Barney Saltzberg’s phrase, “When you think you have made a mistake, think of it as an opportunity to make something beautiful.”

[1] Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg. Workman Publishing, New York.
[2] nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/The-New Zealand-Curriculum
[3] Creative Schools by Ken Robinson. Penguin.com.au.


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About Author

Juliet Small

Juliet is the Principal of Saint Kentigern Girls’ School in Auckland. She has taught across all age groups from new entrants to intermediate level at schools in London, Hamilton, Invercargill and Auckland. She has 14 years of experience as a principal in Auckland primary schools and holds a Bachelor of Education, Diploma in Teaching and Post-Graduate Diploma in Counselling Theory. Fun fact - Juliet is also an accomplished violinist, playing with the Auckland Symphony Orchestra for eight years.

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