#91. Make something really complicated or really large out of pieces from a child’s building toy set

IDEA #91. It’s part art, part engineering: make something really complicated or really large out of a child’s building toy set like Legos, Construx, TinkerToys, or K’nex. Find a younger sibling or a pre-school teacher who can help you amass a truly awesome pile of raw material; choose your objective, make a design, and build away!

Go play with children’s toys!

If this seems like the simplest of all possible suggestions, think again. The lessons of pure design, structural visualization, logical planning and execution, measurement, and improvisation are essential tools for solving a great many of life’s problems, big and little. Here is a chance to be a design thinker, a maker, a true practitioner of STEAM: science, technology, engineering design, art, and mathematics.

In fact, being a professional display builder for Lego is said to be a lucrative career, and at one point the “audition” involved the deceptively simple task of building a sphere out of the random pieces the company supplied. Lego was looking for creative, adaptable brains who could imagine and then build whole new product lines and who could make the toys themselves into hitherto unimaginable constructions. All of the commercial building toys—or even a pile of homemade blocks made of scrap lumber, for that matter—have the potential to transcend their status as elementary toys to become the elemental stuff of wonderful new visions, made real.

Yard and rummage sales are great sources of these toys. They might need a quick bath in soapy water before use, but they last nearly forever, and losses to breakage or misplacement simply add to the challenge of conceptualizing and completing ambitious designs.

Alternatively, the exercise could be to start small: discover the fewest number of pieces that can make a recognizable version of a specific object, for example. Or create hordes of tiny objects or figures, arrayed in patterns.

The possibilities here are truly endless.

#84. Find a hardcover book that is about to be thrown away and very carefully disassemble it

IDEA #84. Find a hardcover book that is about to be thrown away and very carefully disassemble it. Figure out what the physical parts are of a hardcover book; see how the cover is made, and how the pages are held together. Look up “bookbinding” online or in an encyclopedia and learn as much as you can about the process. If you are inspired, try building a blank book of your own, with a beautiful cover, to give to a friend or loved one.

This may seem distinctly sacrilegious to committed bibliophiles, but for a young person with an interest in books this can be a solemn and significant act, like a medical student dissecting a cadaver.

The printed word, they say, is on its way out, and yet physical books persist and multiply. There is something elementally satisfying about handling a book, and for many the feel and smell of a book can be in themselves pleasurable. Young people do not always realize the power of scent, but in later years the smell of an old book that has lain on a dry and dusty limantel booksbrary shelf or that has gently mildewed in a seaside home may bring back rafts of memories. Books as objects are a medium in themselves.

Simple curiosity might motivate the careful deconstruction of a physical text. The act itself might inspire some research as to the parts and terms of the publishing and printing worlds—the meaning of endpapers, half-titles, front and back matter, and signatures. Each book, even a paperback of the meanest sort, has been designed, not only in the cover design, but in the choice of paper, font, illustrations, and textual organization (forewords, acknowledgments, prefaces, bibliographies, notes, afterwords, and so forth). Imagining why the choices were made that resulted in the finished product can also raise questions about the appropriateness of the choices or about the interests and backstories of those who made them.

The deeper structure of the physical book will reveal hidden complexities—stitchings and gluings invisible to the reader. The dissector may be inspired to do some research on the bookbinding process—and all the elements of bookmaking, from papermaking to printing to design and binding, are in themselves highly developed crafts practiced by professionals and amateurs alike. The project might inspire a visit to a printing shop or a bindery, or at least to ask the local library how it prepares and repairs the books in its collection.

The reader comfortably familiar with the nature of a book as a made object will carry with him or her a deepened sense of the significance of text—and this reader will always be one more voice raised in defense of the book against the inroads of whatever technology is next ballyhooed as portending the death of the printed word.

#66. Take a factory tour

IDEA #66. Take a factory tour and write about the experience.

Once a feature of almost every American community with any sort of industry, factory tours are becoming more and more rare. The “offshoring” of manufacturing has not hit all domestic factories, concerns about liability have closed the doors of more and more of the remaining facilities establishments to visitors.

Still, there remain a number of famous and not-so-famous businesses that maintain elaborate factory tours. Many, like those in the food and beverage industry, work hard at attracting and entertaining tourists, and free samples are part of the treat. Others are proud to show off state-of-the-art manufacturing operations and are more likely to appeal to a technically savvy crowd.

Factory tours may be located by word of mouth, by tourist websites (and try an Internet search on “factory tours [yourstate]”), and in one of the several guidebooks that focus on such sites. It’s always best to call ahead, as some tours are by reservation only or occur only at specified hours.

The object here is to get as close as possible to a production process. Mass production and the factory system are the two hallmarks of the Age of Industry, an age that less and less visible in North America. To see raw materials transformed into a finished product is to witness what was two hundred years ago a marvel, and a fast-moving production line, whether it is producing cupcakes or convertibles, can still set the heart racing and the imagination whirring.

For the thinking child, the sight of a factory in production mode is an opportunity to ponder the nature of technology and the nature of industrial society itself. Look closely at the workers or at the automated machinery that may be doing much of the work, and think about what life must have been like when just about everyone who did not live on a farm worked in a factory, with the noise, grit, and superhuman pace an everyday apart of life. Now that much of this work has either been automated or moved to nations whose factories tourists seldom visit, factory tours are as much about a vanishing way of life as they are about producing. A journal entry would be a great way to reflect on such an experience, and any social studies or history teacher would be delighted to hear more if the child were to document the tour in a more public form.

Our Cure for Your “Summer Reading” Dilemma

The Interested Child was born as a list of activities put together by a couple of us working at a school in response to a heated discussion about what to assign for summer reading and how to hold students accountable.

Our thought was, Why not ask kids to have other kinds of learning experiences? Even if we’re not going to “check up on” them, we could just create a menu of ideas that might be fun and interesting–and educational in all the ways that we think are important.

So if your school is about to start the annual discussion of summer reading, or if you’re ready for a change, just download The Interested Child‘s list below and adapt it for your needs.

Or if you are the parent or guardian of an interested child, or if you work with interested children and want some ideas to keep them engaged and learning this summer, the The Interested Child‘s list might give you some inspiration.

You have seen some of these ideas in more detail here, and in the future you will see more of them–but this is the short version, suitable for distribution from your school, library, or organization website–or the front desk..

All we ask is that you mention us if you publish or adapt the document–but spread the word, and share the wealth!


#58. Try selling a work of art or literature that you have created

IDEA #58. Try selling a work of art or literature that you have created. The internet or your public library will have resources on how to sell your writing and illustrations, or perhaps a local art store will be willing to give you advice about marketing a painting or a piece of sculpture.

This activity combines the challenges of creativity with the sometimes greater challenge of finding a market for one’s art. There are vast numbers of low-circulation poetry and literary magazines that will accept work submitted by amateur or unknown authors (usually, alas, without payment, but look hard), and there are probably at least as many magazines, books, and websites dedicated to publicizing ways for authors to get work published. The chances are good that your public library will have at least one of these “how to sell your work” books, which may also have information on selling illustrations and fine art work to the same kinds of literary magazines.

There may be other markets closer to home. Some small-town or community newspapers will happily accept fiction, poetry, and even art work from local creators. There may even be local or regional literary magazines whose existence is unexpected; the library might be a good source of information here.

As far as the marketing of visual art goes, many communities have summer arts fairs where local artists can show and sell their work. Some of these are juried—that is, artists are selected by a committee to participate—but some are open. There is likely to be at least one art dealer nearby who might be persuaded to handle good-quality work by a rising young local talent, or there is always the equivalent of the lemonade stand: put up a booth on the curb.

If the youngster has a few friends with creative urges and a pile of poetry or paintings, why not suggest that they pool resources and publish their own literary magazine or start their own gallery? A few advertisements from local merchants or friends would pay to photocopy a few dozen copies, which could also be sold. Or perhaps a local business has a small spare room that could become gallery space. And there’s always a website: many blogsites are free and could be used to post poetry, short stories, or paintings or photographs, although it’s hard to make money on a blog.

It is easy to find people who will maintain that art does not pay, and often they are correct. But an ambitious artist (and friends) might be able to raise at least a few dollars in the art market, and along the way there will be opportunities to learn about both the creative self and the art market.

#51. Invent something or come up with an original idea for your own business

IDEA #51. Invent something or come up with an original idea for your own business, and then find someone who can help you write a business plan for putting your invention or idea on the market. When your plan is done, figure out how to put into practice.

Of course this suggestion presupposes a certain inventive strain in the young person, as coming up with an idea for a successful business is a major challenge even for the most original of entrepreneurial minds. But let the imagination run free, even if the idea is flawed, because the point here is for the child to consider all the steps required in establishing a business and bringing a product or service to market.

The internet or a public library can provide reference materials including actual templates for business plans. The exercise is to apply specific, intentional thought to the business idea and to imagine each segment of the actualization plan. There are opportunities here to consider such matters as mission—the larger intent of a business—and the ways in which businesses find and pull together the resources necessary for production. Marketing is the final aspect to be considered, and perhaps the student can analyze some of his or her own experience as a consumer to come up with ideas as to how a product can be made appealing to a particular group of people.

One aspect of this project is to imagine what people want and need—to make the consideration a business idea an exercise in empathy. Another part is to consider the kinds of companies and products that truly and consistently deliver in terms of quality and service. What makes Coca-Cola a successful company, or Microsoft, or Old Navy? How do such companies become so successful—is it luck, or planning? What companies has the child seen fail—what fads and “must-have” items have completely disappeared within his or her lifetime? What is the secret of business success, in other words?

If the plan seems sound and exciting, there is no reason that the young person cannot try to connect with some adult resources who might help turn the dream into a reality. How old was Bill Gates when he started Microsoft or Mark Zuckerberg when Facebook took off?

#44. Choose some object that you use or some food that you eat regularly; research and then write the story of how that object or food was produced

IDEA #44. Choose some object that you use or some food that you eat regularly. Research and then write the story of how that object or food was produced—everything from raw materials to processing to transportation to marketing. How many countries or states are involved in your story? Who makes the most money in the process—the people at the raw-material end or the marketing end, or someone in between?

We take for granted almost everything we eat and consume, with few products or services attracting even a small amount of our thought as to their origins or the process by which they were made or brought to us. This activity aims to help the young person explore the complexity of the modern consumer economy.

A powerful fact of economic life is that we are becoming more and more distant, physically and psychically, from means of production. Our lives as consumers are mediated less by an understanding of how things come to be than by the engines of marketing and advertising, which would have us believe that most of what we consume has been created, sui generis, at the stores from which we buy. Famously, many of our consumer goods are produced “offshore,” and diners in most parts of the country sit down to eat food that has traveled hundreds or thousands of miles from where it was grown or even processed.

Because many companies are loath to have us know how highly processed our food is or the conditions under which our clothing or electronic goods are made, this activity will actually require some fairly serious sleuthing. A can of green beans, for example, involves 1) the beans, which were grown somewhere; 2) a can, which was made somewhere from steel processed somewhere; 3) the canning process, which takes place somewhere; 4) the label, made of paper from somewhere and printed somewhere; 5) transportation to a warehouse somewhere, and then a market; and 6) all the mechanisms involved in advertising and marketing the product. Along the way there are government inspectors, fertilizers and pesticides used on the bean fields, energy consumed by tractors, factories, and trucks, and some master hand directing the entire process from “corporate headquarters.” The challenge is to find the details of each step; imagine the challenge in doing the same for a laptop computer, an automobile, or even the DVD of a favorite film.

Library and Internet research will only accomplish so much in this activity, especially if the youngster starts with a very specific product in mind. But persistence will pay off, even though there will be blank spots in research and even the possibility of experiencing some corporate stonewalling; after all, there are business secrets involved in any process, as well.

The truly ambitious student might want to do a comparative study involving the same product today and fifty years ago. The results might be revelatory as to the degree to which globalization has affected every aspect of our lives.

#35. Find a local business that will let you volunteer as an “intern” or helper

IDEA #35. Find a local business that will let you volunteer as an “intern” or helper. Even if you don’t wind up doing much important work, what can you learn about the business and about how people work?

Internships are increasingly a standard part of the professional planning phase of collegiate life, but the opportunity to spend some real time in a workplace setting is above all a chance for younger people to come to an understanding of how actual work is carried out in the adult world.

Schoolteachers are constantly reminding students that certain kinds of behavior will not pay off in the “real world,” and children are accustomed to living in a more or less authoritarian environment. What better way can there be to see both how adults behave in the workplace and how decisions are made and implemented in the adult world than by observing real work?

Not all businesses will welcome young volunteers, and some may simply say no. The age of the child (probably no one under twelve or thirteen should even consider this activity) and his or her level of responsibility—perhaps attested to in a written recommendation from a teacher or principal—will have a bearing on what kinds of opportunities open up, and patience may be necessary. Issues of hazard and confidentiality may also arise and should be thoroughly discussed by parents or guardians in advance.

An ideal situation would have the youngster tagging along with a particular individual who is not unhappy to have a young sidekick and who will have the patience and interest to explain and answer questions. For children on the younger side the old “take your child to work day” concept may be a good way to start, as long as the parent or guardian is able to perform his or her job with a child at hand and as long as the employer is not averse to this arrangement.

Among the valuable lessons students tend to learn from internships is that not every job is suitable for every person; some students find out just how much they do NOT want to work in certain kinds of environments. On the whole, however, most youngsters find some exposure to a real work setting to be of great interest and great value, and the thinking child will find much food for cogitation as he or she observes adult work in action.

#26. Find a product or company you are interested in, find it on the stock market, and follow its fortunes there.

IDEA #26. Find a product or company you are interested in, find it on the stock market, and follow its fortunes there. Imagine that you have bought 100 shares of a stock, and track it—write it down!—at least once a week on the Internet or in the newspaper. Keep track of how much you win or lose in a month, or two months. Are you happy or sad that you didn’t invest real money?

Stock market reports feature prominently in the news, and investment is the cornerstone of capitalism. The child who learns to understand the system and who can begin to see the relationships between the urge to buy and the urge to sell can at least begin to develop a sense of society’s values as well as how day-to-day events influence the economy.

The first order of business is to help the youngster understand what a “share” of a company is, and how the rising or falling value of the share is a function of the perceived future value of the company. The simple fact is that a stock sale represents a fundamental disagreement between buyer and seller as to whether the value of the stock will rise or fall, a fact with profound implications for the economy as a whole and, of course, for the immediate future of the company.

The second step in this activity is to choose a stock for the hypothetical purchase. Youngsters like to invest in things in which they believe and with which they are familiar—a company that makes a favorite possession, like a computer or a game, or that provides a service the youngster enjoys, like a particular restaurant or television network. It should be fairly easy to find out if the company is listed on one of the major stock exchanges—New York or NASDAQ—and what its trading symbol and current share price are.

Imagine one share at X dollars, and then imagine a hundred shares. This is the initial investment cost. For the duration of the activity the young investor can track the share price; does it rise or fall? Older children may want to track several stocks, perhaps keeping a graph or table of daily value and perhaps also noting the state of the market in general, up or down.

At the end of the period, total up the value of a hundred shares and then compare it to the initial cost. If the investment “made” money, especially more than a percent or two, the investment was sound and perhaps spectacular. If there was a paper loss, then all involved should feel relieved that the investment was not real, but even a significant loss might not signal disaster. The question might be, What would explain the rise or fall in the stock’s price? Were there news items relating to the company and its business, or did the fluctuations in price seem to have little relationship to anything obvious?

The real lesson of the stock market is to look at long-term investment and to see how a company might do over an extended period of time. Another wise investment strategy involves diversification, investing in several or more different kinds of businesses. Many people do not understand the importance of the stock market as a principal investment of pension and retirement funds, insurance companies, banks, and even college and private school endowments—not just individuals.

It should be possible to locate a stockbroker—try an online search—who would be willing to discuss the market and its vagaries and processes with an interested young potential investor. Of course, this exercise could be performed with real money and real shares, although perhaps a very small amount of stock would be a safer way to start.

#17. Organize and run a small business with some friends

IDEA #17. Earn a sum of money with a business that you organize and run with friends. Then find a charity you believe in and contribute a tenth of what you earned.

This activity builds on the previous suggestion in the Business and Entrepreneurship category, with the added complexity of partnership. Here is a valuable opportunity to learn interpersonal skills around management and compromise, with the new wrinkle that the joint participants are friends.

One of the best ways to forestall problems among the partners–even with an elementary schooler’s lemonade stand–is to make a simple chart that defines and allots tasks and responsibilities, doing what’s possible to draw on strengths and interests. With the chart completed and literally signed off on by all participants, the next step is to build a timeline of jobs to be completed. Careful, open, and clear pre-planning of the work to be done is essential in making the operation, and the relationships of the partners, run smoothly.

NOTE FOR INTERESTED PARENTS/GUARDIANS: Incidentally, this same system—an established business model—can be used to help kids organize and complete collaborative academic projects, where workload inequity and individual shirking often lead to disaster among even close friends. Even if the teacher does not help students by assigning such a system, urge or even guide your child to set things up in this way—a clear list of tasks, a clear allocation of responsibility, a clear timeline—whenever a group project is starting. The plan should impress (and perhaps inspire) the teacher, and the work will go much more smoothly.

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