“Problem-Solving Communities”

A recent blog post by Steven Mintz on the Inside Higher Ed site extolled the virtues of “problem-solving communities’ The piece referenced the history of problem-solving organizations and competitions in elementary and secondary education and gave a particular shout-out to Future Problem Solving Program International, an international organization founded in 1974 to promote problem-solving as a specific skill and mindset.

Twenty-five years ago I had a brief stint as assistant coach to a team of students who were engaged in the competitions managed by Odyssey of the Mind, founded in 1978, now also an international organization imagesand competition. Our team made it to the World Finals, but a tight budget kept me off the plane to Colorado, and thus I missed seeing our team finish third there! But the experience, and the program, inspired me.

Part of that inspiration has drawn me to a certain genre of reality TV that involves problem-solving and puts the problem and the solving over human drama. The old Scrapheap Challenge (known in the U.S. as Junkyard Wars) program enchanted me, with teams competing to solve engineering challenges under tight constraints and limited in their selection of raw materials to what they could find in what seemed to be the world’s most wonderful junkyards. Project Runway at its best offers the same kind of experience: a problem, constraints, solution design, coaching, and critiques. All these shows lack is the opportunity to iterate and improve the work product, but otherwise they give a fair representation of the “design thinking” process that many schools are talking about these days.

But I digress. The Interested Child likes to reference programs and opportunities offered in schools that might pique the curiosity and perhaps in time the passions of kids, and programs like Odyssey of the Mind and its counterpart, Destination Imagination, are superb in this area–and we suspect there are local and regional versions and variations that also ignite children’s creativity around solving complex problems in ways that incorporate every aspect of STEM, STEAM, and intellectual endeavors in general. There are also numerous robotics programs and competitions that serve the same purpose–and then there is Canstruction, which combines design, problem-solving, and service learning.

So if your school–or your interested child’s school–has a team or a program based on the idea of problem-solving, look into it. If you’re an interested adult, you might even ask about volunteering as a coach or a driver or a fund-raiser.

And if there is no “problem-solving” program, suggest that having an Odyssey of the Mind, robotics, Canstruction, Destination Imagination, or similar program would be a great way to engage kids in hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, the humanities in action, and even service learning. I remember the thrill of watching kids’ gadgets and machines and solutions in action at OotM competitions, and you and any interested children you know can be thrilled, too.

#90. Find your oldest living relative and ask them to tell you stories; write these down and share them

IDEA #90. Find your oldest living relative and ask them to tell you stories. Write them down in “nice” form and give copies to other family members.

It is hard to imagine a more pleasant or interesting pastime than this activity. All families have stories, short, long, funny, sad. Too often, these stories are only told as half-remembered anecdotes at wakes and funerals, when the actual participants and original tellers are no longer around to give them context, richness, detail, and meaning.

A number regional and national projects currently exist for the purpose of collecting family narratives, and some, like Storycorps, even go so far as to provide equipment so that the stories can become part of the rich fabric of American oral history. For families who can take part in such projects, the satisfaction of participation must be enormous, and their addition to the national treasury of memory rewarding in all respects.

But such work can begin on a much smaller, more personal scale. A child of almost any literate age can sit at the feet of a grandparent, aunt, or uncle and take down an anecdote or short reminiscence; computers and smartphones can also be used to record video or even just audio for later editing and transcription. Perhaps with the editorial guidance of an older hand, this narrative can be transcribed and improved into a final draft and then bound or even framed accordingly. (We would warrant that there would be some photocopies made and sent around to other family members before that final version went between covers or under glass.)

The child who begins to focus on the nature of his or her family stories will, if nothing else, connect more deeply with those who tell them. In time, perhaps, the child will even take on the responsibility of family archivist or griot. One imagines that more than a few professional authors began in just this way, and the family reminiscence is a structure that has served many novelists well.

And think of the appreciation from other members of the family, including the teller.

#85. Participate in a big local citizen/amateur sporting event; you can participate as an athlete or a volunteer helper

IDEA #85. Find a big local or regional citizen or amateur sporting event you can participate in: a running race, state or local “games,” a tournament in your community. If you don’t want to participate as an athlete, go (take some friends!) and volunteer, or just cheer for the participants—they’d love to have you!

Around the world more and more “citizen” sporting events pop up every year. Runs long and short, indoor and outdoor, bike races, triathlons, canoeing races, and tournaments in sports of all kinds are everywhere; even some of the larger charity “walks” and fundraising bike-athons are as much about sport and exercise as they are about their worthy cause.

Manimagesy events emphatically welcome beginners or others who want to develop some skill and confidence in competing (and many events also have adaptive divisions, so that a physical or mental disability need not prevent someone from participating.) It is important that any prospective athlete in one of these events have trained in preparation, and any sort of training should never be undertaken unless a doctor has certified the athlete’s general health.

Timed events involving movement—running, bicycling, swimming, boating—may intimidate the novice athlete, but the key idea here is “personal best”—to do as well as the individual can possibly do, perhaps setting a personal mark that may be HeadOfTheCharlesbettered the next time out. Other events, in team sports, should be entered into with the idea that the fun is in the participation, not just winning. The athletes will soon have an idea of how competitive they are in the field and what they might need to do to improve their performance, and debriefing on performance is an key piece of the thinking athlete’s preparation.

If the whole idea of competing does not appeal, it’s a safe bet that any such event will make use of as much volunteer time and talent as they can recruit. Courses need to be set and monitored, registration and refreshment tables need to be manned, times and scores need to be kept, and hundreds of other chores need to be done. Volunteers who are alert and above all responsible make these events possible, and the young volunteer who takes on a role in one of these events will gain skill, confidence, and respect, even if there is no trophy or ribbon at the end.

But perhaps issues of age or other factors will limit the child’s interest to spectating. That’s just fine, as the athletes will appreciate another cheering, supporting voice. And watching might spark some subsequent interest in playing or doing.

A Serious Interlude: Issues of Security and Privilege for Interested Children

The Interested Child proceeds from a number of assumptions, but then so does the way we speak of childhood in our society. “We believe that children are our future,” we sing, and we like to believe that this belief is common across the spectrum of humanity, especially in the industrial democracies that have defined the world we live in and shaped the way in which we envision childhood. Children are special, are learners, are to be protected and nurtured and looked after as they make their way through an educational system designed to prepare them for the world they will inherit as adults.

But the fact is that not every child in our society is on this path. Millions live in poverty and attend schools that are underfunded and underappreciated in every way. Segregation has returned to the American public school system, holding hands with an over-reliance on standardized testing and an under-reliance on the good will and dedication of teachers. We are gripped by reports of events in which young people, in particular young men of color, are gunned down by forces allegedly representing law and order while going about their business, unarmed and unprepared for the swift violence that escalates in the blink of an eye to end their lives.

Some of my friends on Facebook tell the story: How as parents of color they feel increasingly insecure allowing their children out in the world, how every parent of an African American male must have “the talk” with their son about how to comport himself when confronted by official suspicion, how to channel, nearly 60 years after Number 42 took the field for the Dodgers, the patience and resilience of Jackie Robinson when stalked or harassed or accused. While self-deluded reactionaries congratulate themselves on living in a “post-racial” society (whatever that even means), people on the front lines of building a multi-racial society—parents, teachers, children—know that the struggle for equal opportunity and equal rights continues undiminished.

At the heart of this struggle lies the matter of privilege—call it race privilege, skin privilege, whatever. It may be distressing to have this brought up on a blog site devoted to developing the curiosity and intellectual and creative passion of children, but events this week in Missouri, whatever the “facts,” are a reminder that interested children, even if they may be created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, are not always treated equally. It’s far too complex a topic to address here in great detail, but parents of the economically and socially dominant races and classes owe it to themselves and their interested children to take up the question of the unearned privilege that comes with race and class, privilege that some us of gain only by accident of birth and lineage.

Part of the recognition of what this unearned privilege means is an acknowledgment that not everyone has it, and that the assumptions and presumptions that we make about the world and how it works do not apply to everyone. To teach a child this, to help him or her develop the humility and circumspection to move through the world fully invested in and open to their own experience as well as the experience and perspectives of others, is to give a gift of inestimable proportion.

Some readers will take offense at this suggestion, I am sure, but what better way to help a child develop the habits of mind and soul to navigate and appreciate the many cultures and possibilities of this earth than by opening his or her mind to the idea that not everyone does or can expect the same things of life, regardless of their intelligence or interests or will? What better way to help a child develop the empathy and understanding that can help him or her contribute humbly and fully through a lifetime toward making this world a better, safer, and even more wondrous place?

#70. Go to the offices of your most local newspaper, and see if there is anything you can do there as a volunteer

IDEA #70. Go to the offices of your most local newspaper, and see if there is anything you can do there as a volunteer. Hang out and be helpful, if they’ll let you. The more polite and positive you are, the better your chances.

The heart of public discourse in our nation has always been the newspaper. Although the number (and page count) of great city dailies continues to fall, many communities continue to depend on a local newpaper (or two) to chronicle local evprinterents and local issues. Display advertisements draw citizens to local businesses, classifieds keep jobs and personal goods in circulation, sports pages and education features herald the triumphs of local youngsters, and editorial pages (especially those renowned for courage or contrariety) lead and model public discussion on issues both great and small.

Newspapers come in all sizes, from city dailies with legions of writers, printers, and delivery drivers to one-person small-town weeklies. Many of the larger papers have internship programs, some quite formal and reserved for journalism students and others less so. Smaller papers may either want or resist a helping hand, even that of a volunteer, depending on circumstances.

Perhaps the aspirant can approach a particular office at the newspaper and inquire about volunteer opportunities. At the very least, ask if someone might be able to show the youngster around; larger papers may even have scheduled tours. If there are opportunities to become involved, take them, no matter how trivial they may seem. In earlier times, the newspaper business was often learned literally from the bottom up, with the young Benjamin Franklin inking type and pulling paper on his way to becoming the chief writer and publisher of the influential Pennsylvania Gazette.

For some people the figurative smell of printer’s ink has an irresistible draw, and young people who discover this about themselves at an early age may see a lifetime in the world of words and ideas beginning to unfold in the pages of their first newspaper.

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!


#63. Choose a household chore or responsibility to take on without being reminded or even thanked

IDEA #63. Choose a household chore or responsibility to take on without being reminded or even thanked. This could be some form or repetitive daily drudgery—putting away the clean dishes, walking the dog, folding your own laundry—or it could be an occasional major task that you are willing to monitor and do when it needs to be done, like weeding or replacing the batteries in the smoke detectors. You could take this idea one step further and offer to do these for an elderly or infirm neighbor.

Along with making sure that needed work is done, the development of dependable habits of mind and action is a main goal of assigning household chores. Doing household work without having to be asked or without the expectation of reward is, in many families, not only an obligation of membership but also an important learning experience. If this is already the case in your home, then perhaps adding still another chore to the child’s list is unnecessary, although experience suggests that there is usually time for one more thing and also that an important alternative goal to just getting things done is simply to wean the youngster of the need to be reminded to complete the task.

Whatever chores are assigned, it is important that they be developmentally appropriate and do-able by the child, although the historical experience of farm children suggests that even eight- or nine-year-olds can accomplish almost anything with a bit of instruction. The child who invokes child labor laws as an argument against doing chores should be referred to some of the literature on young workers in nineteenth-century coal mines of factories, an instructive research project that could provide useful perspective on the relative difficulties of cleaning up one’s room or vacuuming the living room as opposed to working twelve-hour shifts underground.

The child who is already an exemplary chore-doer at home might be encouraged to find an opportunity to perform some regular household service for a neighbor or relative in need. Help of this sort is always much appreciated, and the chance to develop a new relationship is itself always a positive learning experience.

#55. Take care of an animal—as a volunteer at a zoo, an animal shelter, or a veterinarian’s office

IDEA #55. Take care of an animal—as a volunteer at a zoo, an animal shelter, or a veterinarian’s office. If you can’t find such an opportunity, put up signs offering yourself as a volunteer dog-walker or a pet-sitter for neighbors on vacation. It’s a big responsibility, though, so you must do it consistently and well.

Some children are drawn irresistibly to animals, and vice versa. For such fortunate children, service in animal care can be a natural match. What matters most of all is the ability to regularly assume responsibility for the health and welfare of other living things.

Some zoos, animal shelters, and veterinarian’s offices are happy to have volunteers who can come regularly to look after the basic needs of the animals, although there are often age limits; some clinics are uninterested in amateur help. It would be important for the young volunteer to have all inoculations up to date and of course for him or her to be able to commit to regular hours.

If making a long-term commitment to a zoo, shelter, or veterinarian is not feasible, shorter arrangements can often be made with neighbors who work or who are headed for vacation. An daily dog-walk or a week or two looking after household pets can provide owners with much-needed relief, and youngsters will enjoy building relationships with new animal friends.

Although pet-sitting and dog-walking often become paying jobs, there is no harm in the child undertaking some duties of this sort on a volunteer basis, at least as a first attempt; this might be especially true if the youngster’s reliability is not fully established. If more opportunities for this sort of work present themselves as time goes on, then it would be perfectly fine to go professional.

#49. Find a sports league for younger children in your community and offer to help officiate or coach

IDEA #49. Find a sports league for younger children in your community and offer to help officiate or coach.

If a child has any interest in sports or athletics, one way of “giving back” to a community is through participation in youth sport programs–not as an athlete but as an official or coach. Little League baseball and town soccer in many places could scarcely exist but for the participation of teenage umpires and referees, and the experience of applying rules and making those difficult judgment calls can help prepare the young official for more difficult challenges in other fields.

Officiating presupposes a solid knowledge of both the sport and its rules, and moreover most programs that use non-adult officials offer some form of training; this no doubt includes advice on how to handle the occasional obstreperous player or parent. Even so, these young officials are usually dealt with quite decently by players and onlookers, as after all their presence makes play possible. Well-run leagues will continue to provide guidance for their younger officials throughout the season.

While adult coaching is the norm in most youth sport programs, a younger and skilled “assistant coach” can be a valuable asset to a team’s training regime, running drills or working one-on-one with players on particular skills. While the student-coach does not have to be a nonpareil athlete in the sport, a good skill base and, most importantly, an understanding of how skills can be broken down for teaching are essential.

The young official or coach gains unparalleled experience in exercising judgment and leadership; the fourteen-year-old who can manage a field full of scrumming eight-year-old soccer players is probably ready for most anything. And if that fourteen-year-old can confidently call balls, strikes, and outs, he or she may be set to take on the world.

#41. Make a project of picking up all the litter on a single block of a street or section of a road every day for a set period of time

IDEA #41. Make a project of picking up all the litter on a single block of a street or section of a road every day for a set period of time. (Be careful of traffic, though!) If you want to make this into a science and math project, you could even keep a careful record of the weight of the litter or of exactly what sorts of things you are finding. Write an article for your local paper (or at least a letter to the editor) about the things people throw away carelessly.

Roadside signs across the nation proclaim that businesses and organizations are eagerly joining adopt-a-highway programs, but there is no reason that such arrangements cannot be scaled down. If the young person were to decide at “adopt a street” or even a block, there will no doubt be, sad to say, a steady supply of litter to be picked up; perhaps it might even be possible to engage a few friends in the activity, or even a school or youth group.

Selecting a place to perform this service may be a challenge, as a busy street or highway may just not be appropriate. There are obvious safety considerations here, and some adult supervision might be needed; at a minimum, bright-colored clothing should be worn. If no plausible place presents itself, perhaps a local hiking trail or park would be a worthy substitute.

Another safety-related issue has to do with sanitation, and this might well be an activity best done while wearing rubber gloves. Direct contact with litter should be avoided, as should contact with other roadside hazards—animal droppings or certain plants like poison ivy, which thrives on many roadsides all over North America. A good scrub after pick-up duties have been performed is highly recommended.

This activity can be done once, as a Clean-Up Day kind of event, or regularly, while walking a dog or just taking a stroll after school. A whole other issue is that of quantity of material to be picked up—some places may require multiple trash bags; perhaps deposit cans or bottles can underwrite the purchase. Even in no-deposit states, aluminum is recyclable and can be turned in to scrap metal dealers for a small premium.

For what it is worth, the study of trash and litter is actually a sub-specialty in the study of material culture, and there might be something to be learned from taking a systematic approach to collection and analysis. Counting cigarette butts or classifying beverage containers may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but the information may be of interest to some young people and perhaps of real interest or value to someone else in the community.

An excellent complement to this activity would be the composition of a letter to a municipal body or local newspaper, either decrying the behavior of the litterers whose carelessness one has learned about first-hand or urging broader community clean-up efforts.

%d bloggers like this: