by Jena Hengstler
Recently, while rushing around trying to clean the house, do laundry and pack for an upcoming trip, I found a pile of food scraps my 6-year-old son had left on the kitchen counter, rather than throwing them away: two watermelon rinds, a banana peel, a peach core and an unfinished sandwich. Naturally, I made a snappy comment about the discovery.
He responded by explaining that he’d left them out on purpose because, as he learned in school, they’ll all decompose. Rather than simply throwing them away, he wanted to put them back into the earth to feed the dirt.
I commended his great idea, but dismissed it, saying, “I love that you thought of that, but I don’t really want to mess with it right now,” scooping the scraps into the trash.
He was devastated.
And so was I.
What was I thinking? My son tried to apply something learned at school in a real-life way, as well as capitalize on an idea he had, and I threw it away.
As soon as I realized what I’d done, I dug it all out of the trash, apologized to my boy, and together we took it outside and fed the earth.
Soon after, we built a compost bin together.
Children are natural doers. Unlike most adults, children are outside-the-box thinkers, because the box hasn’t yet been built around them, holding their ideas captive within walls of limitations.
They aren’t thinking about the mess it will make, how it might not work, or if it should be color-coordinated; they’re only thinking about how great it will be.
Summertime provides the perfect opportunity for their busy minds to spring into action. It takes a little extra effort to dig into their ideas rather than flip on the TV or let them spend hours playing video games, but you never know what lifelong interests, potential career or hobby might be discovered.
This summer – encourage any and all new ideas, inventions and creative thought. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking.
- Tackle a building project together. Whether a birdhouse, a raised garden bed, a fort made of wood pallets or a doghouse, a building project is a phenomenal way to tap into skills learned in the classroom and bring them to life. Building requires planning (scale drawing), gathering materials (money), measuring (fractions) and patience to see the project through to completion. Not to mention the priceless time spent together, working toward a common goal.
- Gardening. Chances are your upper elementary students have already solved math word problems involving the length of fence needed to create a garden with a perimeter of X feet and an area of X square feet – but have they actually used a tape measure and learned how to install a fence? Gardening can be large or small scale, depending upon your space and resources. If having an outdoor garden is realistic for your setting, help your children research companion planting, learning which plants do best when planted together and which plants to separate. Let them help choose which vegetables to grow and watch tiny seeds flourish into food on their plate. For families with very little outside space, you can scale down and still explore horticulture. A popular project for young kids, especially, is to draw faces on styrofoam cups, then fill with soil and plant grass seed at the top. As the grass grows, your cup people will have spiky hair. Starting a small indoor herb garden is also fun. Use plastic cups or a leftover container, poke holes in the bottom for drainage, set in a sunny window and grow herbs such as mint, lavender or chives.
- Invent a new game. It can be a board game or even a new outside sport. Encourage them to think through the objective, rules, score-keeping, pieces or equipment needed, how many players and any other important details. Every existing game and sport started with an idea, so why not encourage that inventive power in your family. Help children bring their idea to life by being willing to play, problem solve and offer suggestions.
- Business ventures. At a certain age, children begin to understand the value of earning their own money and will naturally seek out ways to do so. Entrepreneurship is a perfect way to support your children’s ideas and take action on their ingenuity. Whether it’s a lemonade stand, selling homemade slime or friendship bracelets, babysitting, mowing lawns or walking the neighbor’s dog, these are all earning opportunities which turn into cold hard cash – which equals independence. Perhaps they need a loan from you to get started and together you make a plan of how much they will pay back each month and at what interest rate. They also might need your help with marketing or setting realistic prices. Celebrate their motivation to work and earn their own money and you’ve set them on the path to life-long financial literacy.
- Learn a new skill. Previous generations of children learned skills from their elders. Skills such as sewing, knitting, whittling, archery or even outdoor survival tactics. Adults took time to work with children over time to pass on these skills with care. If your child expresses interest in learning a skill – explore options for day classes, camps or even private sessions, if that is an affordable option. If you have a public library nearby or a local community center, they may offer those types of classes. Boys and Girls Club of America, Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, Big Brother or Big Sister programs or other youth service organizations are all good places to start looking as well. YouTube also has tutorials on almost anything you would want to explore. The desire a child has to learn how to play guitar or bake should not be ignored. Revel in the fact that your child has taken interest in something and do what you can to help them pursue it. A child’s natural curiosity will open doors for them and help build life-long skills.
Investing in our children’s confidence, perception of self-worth, ability to navigate trial and error and living a life of purpose and intention – is absolutely crucial. Listening to their ideas, taking them seriously and helping them see it through has ripple effects. There is much accomplishment and satisfaction in knowing that we can all be creators, or that we each matter in a way that our thoughts and ideas can make an impact on the world around us.
Jena Hengstler is an elementary teacher. She always knew she wanted to work in education and has had a 15 year career charged with just as much learning as teaching. Her teaching journey has been filled with successes, trials, love, heartbreak, celebration and humility – all for the love of children. Jena calls the beautiful state of Wyoming her home. She loves doing life with her husband, Larry and her son, Hudson. When she isn’t at school, she enjoys reading, writing, drinking coffee that is still hot, watching sports, being outside and will always make time to watch the sunset.