Success: Kids, Lead the Way!

I’ve been living in a state of amazement the past few days. I’m sure that has something to do with snowmageddon, or Winter Storm Stella, which dropped record amounts of snow in my area. It’s no exaggeration to state we got close to three feet of snow within a 24-hour period. We’ve been digging, digging, digging. The cars are once again visible and the driveway is clear, and I can finally come in and warm myself by a fire. Stella was incredible, but my thoughts the last few days have been about my kids and their Odyssey of the Mind (OM) team, who just recently took first place in their regional competition on March 11.

My daughter is coloring; my son is gluing balsa wood. They are busy and independently self-directed for the moment, and I can write for the first time in a very long time. Life is hectic when you homeschool and coach an Odyssey of the Mind team. Our homeschool team is comprised of six members, a five-year-old still in PreK, two 2nd graders, two 3rd graders, and a 5th grader. My daughter is the youngest, and despite her age, she is quite a performer! Despite the eclectic age differences of our entire team, they worked well together and entered a division 1 (grades 3-5) competition in the Ready, Set, Balsa, Build problem… and won, beyond any of our expectations! They have earned the right to compete in the state tournament on April 8. It took me a few days to get over my disbelief, but now I think it’s time to be proud of what this team has accomplished.

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I won’t give many details, as it is against OM rules to share a team’s unique solution to a problem before world finals are over, but I can give you an overview of the problem they chose. Problem 4 this year is called Ready, Set, Balsa, Build. For this problem, teams were required to build a structure out of balsa wood and glue that can hold as much weight as possible. The structure must be at least 8” tall and it must weigh no more than 15 grams. The teams were also required to use certain sets of predetermined wood lengths and amounts (IE: six pieces of 2” long, two pieces of 8” long, etc.). The teams were also required to present a unique performance that dealt with the theme of precision. During that performance, the teams are required to build a large-scale replica of the balsa wood structure out of trash items, and one other creation of their choice.

Our team received high marks from the judges for all elements of their solution, and their structure was able to support every single weight that was available during the competition. Officially, their structure held 417.5 lbs. of combined weights that were placed during the 8-minute time limit. I have no idea what kind of weight limit is typical for division 1 teams, or what the record is. Most of the information out there is for division 2 and 3 teams. All I can say is that the structure our kids brought to competition this past Saturday far outperformed any of their test structures. Over the past several months leading up to the competition, our kids built many test structures before settling on a final design, and they used those test structures to practice choosing and placing weights, and also to get an idea of what weight limit they could expect. In fact, they expected the structure to break within the first half of the competition, and had even written dialogue for their team member who was placing the weights on the structure. I have to give the performers credit for improvising the last minute of their performance and ending it differently than expected. Even though some of them were caught a little off guard, they all handled it quite well!

Before I go any further, I need to say thank you to NYSOMA Region 21 for including us, as homeschoolers. Our own region would not. Everyone working to make this regional event a success was friendly and dedicated. The regional director is tireless and never once hesitated to answer any of my questions. I am in awe of the many volunteers who helped us register and the judges who volunteered many hours of time to train and officiate the competitions. Thanks is also due to the host school in Canajoharie for providing an amazing space for the competition and allowing the teams to use the classrooms as a home base for the day. We had such a good time, and are very thankful for the opportunity to be part of this community!

Odyssey of the Mind was a memorable part of my school days and I always knew that I wanted my children to have this type of creative problem-solving experience. The school district where we currently live does not participate in OM, so even if my kids were in traditional school, they would not have the opportunity. I began asking questions about forming a homeschooling team several years ago, and my region chose to ignore me completely. Last year, I reached out to OM on the state level and started to get some answers. Ultimately, I was directed to region 21 with the assurance that we would be welcomed. I remember hesitantly emailing the director, and not expecting a response. But to my surprise, I received an e-mail the very next day filled with welcoming words and excitement about our inclusion. From that moment on, we became the Homerkinds, the name we chose for our “district.”

Last year, our first Homerkinds team, an eccentric assembly of homeschooled kids ranging from 1st grade to 5th grade, competed and took third place for a problem in which they had to design and maneuver a vehicle. But after watching other teams compete in the balsa wood problem, they knew right away that that’s what they wanted to do the following year.

This year’s balsa wood problem was actually a perfect fit for our team. It seemed that there were elements suited to each member’s strengths. And for my third grade son, building is well within his wheelhouse. After testing the team’s first round of test structures, the team designated my son to be the primary builder of the competition structure. It didn’t seem to affect him when I told him that I too had once built a balsa wood structure for an Odyssey of the Mind competition…. And that it broke under the weight of only the crusher board! (The crusher board is a thick piece of wood that must go on top of the structure before any weights can be added.) Unlike me, however, my son has a slow and steady approach to building. I can’t watch him; I get impatient! He gets better with each structure, and learns from each mistake.

The spirit of Odyssey of the Mind is “…hands on for kids. Hands off for adults.” As homeschoolers, our kids have an advantage because they tend to be independent workers and thinkers to begin with. I think adults tend to underestimate the abilities of children. Many feel that children need to be guided and shown the “right” way to solve a problem. But OM doesn’t work that way. Children are the leaders, the thinkers, the solvers. It’s beautiful! One only has to eavesdrop on a group of children engrossed in their own game to appreciate how well they work together and how creative they can be as they embody different characters and personalities, devise rules of conduct, and interact with each other using various voices and dialogue. As homeschoolers, our kids tend to have more time and freedom to interact in this way without the strict oversight of adults. For OM, it’s our job as coaches to help facilitate an environment where this natural form of creativity can be directed toward specific problem criteria. And as homeschooling parents, there is definitely more time to do this.

Don’t get me wrong. There are moments when this freedom usurps productivity! Some days it’s like: Why can’t you just get that prop done??? You just took every box in the house and an entire roll of duck tape to build a 200 square foot elaborate Nerf fort and you can’t even apply a coat of paint on your prop!?!? I guess it’s all in how you define productivity.

Our children are often learning from real life experiences, and less from textbooks and other scripted sources of learning. Our days aren’t focused on preparing for tests, or following an ultra-rigid schedule. We have the freedom to shift our schedule around to accommodate a quick last minute spontaneous practice or an all day prop building session.

While we may not aid the kids in developing a solution to their OM problem (IE: we are not allowed to give them ideas or do any of the work), we may adapt our curriculum to strengthen certain concepts or advance certain skills, as long as our lessons aren’t directly related to telling the kids how to solve their OM problem. For example, for math we might take extra time focusing on measuring using a ruler and discussing fractions. We might research structural engineering and look at how it is employed in building various forms of architecture, bridges, or towers. We don’t shy away from discussing big terms like compression strength and tensile strength, and we encourage our kids to learn more about anything with which they are unfamiliar. Because real life is such a major component of our days, we might pause and reflect on the cell tower we just passed and why the builders were able to make it so tall. We might talk about the geometry of a bridge we just crossed and how it works to give the bridge such strength when carrying a load.

When our kids collected every sort of glue they could find in our houses, we turned their desire to find the strongest one into a science experiment that they led. They cut balsa wood into equal pieces and glued two pieces together butt to butt, using different glue for each one. We encouraged them to make predictions before testing these experiments. They took turns placing small weights in a basket hanging from the joint, and they recorded their findings to compare them scientifically! Through their own curiosity, they could make an informed decision what type of glue they would use! This type of curiosity became a fundamental guiding force throughout the journey to competition day.

While our kids were preparing themselves for regional competition, I found that I was plagued by the private thought: I hope they did that good enough. I remember thinking to myself it doesn’t look like this structure is going to be as good as the one he tested. I have no explanation for my thinking except that I tend to be a worrier!

Now they are preparing once again, this time for state competition. My son has decided to build a new structure as he feels the other may have been compromised by the weights even though it never broke. Our kids would like to rehearse some more because they felt they didn’t set up quickly enough. And spontaneous ALWAYS needs more practice. But now as they prepare, I find myself with different thoughts and more trust in their abilities. Now, I confidently think I know they will do just fine! I suppose I am learning and growing, just as much as the kids.

My son told me the yesterday as he was painstakingly gluing some of the first pieces for his new structure, “Mom, I actually don’t mind doing this. I’m really good at it, and I’m glad the team choose me to be the builder.”

I told him I was so proud of him.

He added, “I don’t deserve all the credit. I don’t do everything. My teammates deserve a lot of the credit for their hard work.”

He’s right.