Young Originals: The importance of passion and play, the challenge of purpose

A few weeks ago, I wrote a couple posts about Young Originals (The Young Originals: Non-conformists in the classroom and A Learning Paradox: The battle of being present and preparing for the future) Adam Grant’s book Originals focused on adult non-conformists who had changed the world with their unique view of, and approach to the world. I defined Young Originals as the classroom non-conformists who challenge the status quo, not simply from their non-conformity, but their willingness to continue pushing the boundaries and desire to add their unique perspectives whenever possible.

After reading Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner, it simply made me feel even more strongly that that these students could play an important role in shifting our view of education. In many ways, I think many educator’s are slowly finding ways to invite these creative thinkers to be more invested in the classroom, and for their teachers to invest in them.

Creating Innovators

One of my challenges is that these books are written about adults, or at least young adults, and I haven’t found anyone yet who is tackling the challenge of connecting with young originals in the elementary classroom. Not to say that books like Grant’s and Wagner’s are not important (they obviously are), but there is a gap that needs to be filled. Fortunately, we can connect some of the key points from these authors to gain a better understanding of what makes unique learners successful. In my opinion, it comes down to motivation.

Throughout the book, Wagner points to three driving forces behind the way the innovators in his books were raised and mentored – Play, Passion, and Purpose.  Daniel Pink’s book Drive highlights three similar keys to motivation – Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Pink uses multiple studies to highlight his point that these three elements are what drive us to succeed. Play is simply a child’s way of imagining control over a situation, using their creativity to bring life to a situation (picture the cardboard box/rocket ship). Passion is the ability to choose how far one can go with a given topic. Young Originals have an, at times, frustrating ability to focus on a given topic. Kids will read endlessly about a topic, even the same book over and over again. (My seven year old proves this constantly. The books in his room seem numerous, yet it feels like we’ve read the same three books a hundred times.)


If you have ever taught, you must know at least one Young Original from your classroom that seemed to be some combination of frustrated, uninterested, and confused by your teaching, yet made a brilliant comment later on that showed their understanding of the lesson. These students have a way of confounding their teachers, yet bringing much needed life to the classroom. As Wagner points out with many of his innovators, they find ways to succeed in spite of their surroundings.

Wagner made me realize one of the reasons that I find these students so appealing – they cling to passion and play longer than most students; they choose the present over the future. I have taught third and fifth grades, and most students have figured out how to play the school game by the time they have reached the age of 9. Young Originals, however, maintain their desire to find the humor and joy in the mundane.

While most students stick with the teacher-led game plan, Young Originals play with the simple and make it complex. They turn a basic project into one of excitement and passion.  They turn cereal boxes in mountainous monuments of cardboard and glue. They read the newest Rick Riordan adventure novel instead of listening to your read aloud. Rather than talking to friends at lunch, they design a card game with 3 decks, complicated castle like formations of cards, and some sort of ability to conquer their foes (I can’t be sure, it seemed too complicated for me.) At a young age, play is their passion.

Honestly, they will also get bored. Their highs seem higher and lows seem lower in a typical day. They will also play so passionately and with such reckless abandon that their project takes an expected turn for the worse. Such is the life of a Young Original. Play and passion are an innate part of their playbook.

The challenge, of course, is helping these students find purpose. They will not find purpose in an assignment or a test. They might even perform well on those tasks, but not because they find meaning in them. Genius hour, project/problem-based learning, Reggio Emilia, are ways to approach that goal of purpose, but there is still a great deal of work to do. With the canaries in the coal mine approach to these students (see Carla Shalaby’s book Troublemakers), I think we will find that uncovering strategies that work for these students will also work for many others. It is our task to help them see that their passion and play can have purpose, that their present can lead to the future.

We should continue to ask ourselves, as teachers, these questions:

Do I give my students the opportunity to be playful, or to have a sense of playfulness in the classroom every day?

Do I give my students the opportunity to bring their passions to the classroom every day?

Am I guiding my students toward a purpose? Am I helping them use their passions to reach a meaningful goal? Am I giving them the chance to make a difference?

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