The Beauty of the Open-Ended Creative Project

My children spent Friday afternoon and Saturday morning designing their own boardgame. The supplies they used for the game design were simple – several pieces of paper, a bit of glue, and a box of crayons.

With each iteration, the game became more compelling. It started off as a Candyland variant, except using dice for movement. Next, they added spaces to the board that moved around – if you landed on the space, you lost your turn, but you could move the “lose a turn” aspect of the space to any other space of the same color on the board. After that, they went crazy with the moveable spaces, making enough to cover most of the board, and turning the board into a loop where you were trying to collect “sets” of the moveable spaces.

My oldest son and daughter each spent several hours on the design. It caused them to think about the project as a whole, how to design each component, and what the rules would be like. The cost? Perhaps a quarter’s worth of paper, crayons, and glue.

On Saturday afternoon, we took almost every Lego in our house, put them out in bins around our coffee table, and engaged in building a giant castle. Everyone in the family participated in this and by the end of it, we’d incorporated virtually every compatible Lego brick we could find into some combination of Dracula’s castle and a fairy princess castle, guarded by ninjas and with several lookout points.

Between these projects, almost everyone in our house was occupied for several hours, the total cost of used-up materials was roughly a quarter, and everyone had fun. It didn’t require everyone to be involved the whole time, but it did allow everyone to be involved for long periods of time and enjoy spending time together.

After thinking about it for a while, I recognize that my parents used to do much the same thing. There was pretty much always a family jigsaw puzzle going on during the winter. It would occupy one end of the dining room table for months on end. A puzzle would be finished, everyone would admire it (since everyone had usually helped with it), and then it would be broken down and a new one would be started. There were always a few jigsaw puzzles given as inexpensive Christmas gifts and they were often swapped with neighbors.

Big open-ended projects just keep popping up in my life when I reflect back on it. When I was in junior high, a teacher challenged me with a “recommended reading list.” It was a list of 100 or so books that would really push a bright eighth grader’s vocabulary (and ideas) to the limits. I’m pretty sure it was a list taken from a high school AP literature class, but I’m not sure. Anyway, I made it my goal to get through this list. It took me a few years to do it, utilizing our school’s library and also a few visits to a library in a relatively nearby city. When I finished that list, I was not only very proud of myself, my ideas about the world had grown.

What do all of these things have in common?

One, they’re timesinks. A person can easily spend hours and hours on these things if they so choose.

Two, for the most part, they’re social. Even the reading list idea can be a social one if you’re churning through the list in a “book club” type of setting.

Three, they encourage creative thinking and organized thinking. In order to pull off an open-ended project, you have to come up with a plan and execute that plan. That requires careful thought on a lot of levels.

Four, they eventually result in a pretty interesting or impressive achievement. Yesterday, my kids came up with a pretty neat boardgame and a pretty impressive castle. With other projects, you’ll complete a puzzle or an art project or a writing project or reading a body of work… the possibilities are endless, but a completed project is something you can point to as an achievement.

Finally, they’re almost always incredibly frugal. Most of the time, the thing you’re really spending with an open-ended project like these is your time, not your money.

The next time you’re struggling with a way to get your family engaged together, pull out some art supplies and say, “Let’s design a board game!” If you’re feeling as though your spare time isn’t really fulfilling you, look up a recommended reading list on something you’re fascinated with.

You’ll have something to channel a lot of time and passion into. Everyone involved will learn something new. You’ll create or achieve something impressive by the end of it. You’ll have the strong possibility of spending a lot of quality time together.

Best of all, you won’t spend much money in the process.

Open-ended projects are one of the big things we use to keep our family bonded together and to encourage our individual interests and thinking as well. What kinds of projects can you engage in, either alone, with your family, or with friends?

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