Looking for a summer brain stretch?

Orange County Register 

By Kelly St. John Regier, Contributing Writer

June 29, 2016


SANTA ANA – Peter Chang has some advice for anyone who visits the Child Creativity Lab in Santa Ana:

Creativity is like a muscle, and it needs to be exercised.

“Creativity is just like any other skill set,” says Chang, the lab’s executive director. “Everyone has this muscle, but the more you exercise it, the stronger it is. What if you didn’t play soccer for a whole year? What do you think would happen when you stepped out on the field? Creativity is the same thing.”

So what does a creative brain workout look like?

A lot of fun, for starters.

Two Wednesdays per month, at an open-studio “maker” session for home-schooled kids, about 15 children ranging in age from 4 to 12 visit the lab. 

The facility offers an open space and access to a seemingly endless supply of materials that children can use to create art and other projects.

Buttons, zippers, bottle caps, sticks, bubble wrap, plastic containers, tiles, beads, Legos, burlap and more items fill jars and bins around the studio. Chenise Hardy, the workshop leader – or “creativity facilitator,” as her job title reads – stands before the children and tells them to imagine it is their birthday, and anything they want is inside a treasure chest. What do they find when they open it?

“Jewels,” answers one child. “A remote control car,” says another.

“A unicorn,” one girl says, eliciting a smile from Miss Chenise.

Then she asks the children to think about a present that we all share – the Earth – and to think of Earth Day as its birthday. She challenges them to make their own Earth out of the materials before them. Or if that doesn’t suit their fancy, to make any project their heart desires.

In an open session like this, children have free rein to choose their materials from the jars around the room. Helpful adults assist with tasks like using hot-glue guns and spray paint, but that hands-off approach puts kids in the driver’s seat for their creative projects.

Leeana Harvey, an 8-year-old from Anaheim, heads for a back table to gather sticks, twine, burlap and cardboard, and begins lashing a frame out of sticks to hold her picture of the Earth.

“It is so cool and amazing and awesome,” says Leeana, a self-described Pinterest fan and first-time visitor to the Child Creativity Lab. “There’s no limit on you here.”

Across the room, 8-year-old Matthew Rexmer fashions a “Star Wars” TIE fighter out of cardboard, plastic and tiles that Miss Chenise helps him spray-paint black. 

Carrie Buchele, a Fullerton mom, brought her children – Jude, 8, and Raya, 5 – and says they enjoy their visits to the Child Creativity Lab so much that she pulled Jude out of school to come. She helps Jude create a sculptural-looking beetle out of flat seed pods from a jacaranda tree, as Raya sits affixing sparkly beads to a box.

“When I first heard about this place, I thought, if it is half as amazing as it looks, it will be great. The kids aren’t used to being able to take what they want with no limits or rules. They love it,” Buchele says. “It has also made me look at our own trash differently. Bottle caps and soda tabs. It doesn’t take much, just a jar of stuff and a kid to make something cool happen.”

The Child Creativity Lab gets its materials through donations from businesses. In addition to the maker space, it also operates Depot for Creative Reuse, where teachers and others can purchase reclaimed and reusable materials for their own classroom projects.

That serves the dual purpose of finding new life for materials that might otherwise go to a landfill, and offering educators a deep discount on the materials they need. The facility offers material scholarships to low-income organizations.

In addition to open studio sessions, the Child Creativity Lab holds a variety of STEM-based workshops and also offers educational outreach programs directly in schools, libraries and other community organizations through its Museum-on-Wheels. In such workshops, children might be challenged to build a contraption to carry a ball safely across a zip line or build a boat that can hold the weight of 15 pennies using only the materials given.

“At the end of the exercise, they will come up with 10 totally distinct solutions using the same batch of materials,” Chang says.

Chang was compelled to open the Child Creativity Lab after becoming a parent and thinking about what kind of education he wants his kids to have.

“My wife and I started looking into schools, and that’s when we came across research that shows creativity skills have been declining since 1990. The biggest decline was in elementary-school-age kids, and that was eye-opening for us,” he says.

But at the same time, business leaders say creativity is one of the top traits they are looking for in employees, Chang says. 

“There is an unmet need. What we are trying to do is balance out what the schools are doing, and give children freedom to step away from standardized testing and exercise the mind. No one’s telling them it’s the wrong way.”

Chang advises parents to resist the urge to hand a child a tablet computer at their first complaint of being bored.

“Boredom is something that we hate to see our kids experience, but boredom can be a good thing. Ultimately, children have to be creative to think of something to do,” he says.

“When my kids are bored, I tell them to go in their room and figure out something to do. Every single time – it might take a while – but every single time they come out with something exciting that they created.”