Once the relief of being on Spring Break has worn off, what does everyone do with 168 hours of free time? Here are five suggestions for fun diversions your teenagers can do in the few hours or a day’s time. I’ve chosen these projects because they recapture the delight in learning something new because it’s intriguing or novel. (But these projects also secretly build creative and critical thinking skills. It’s like putting squash in cupcakes.)
#1: LEARN BASIC DESIGN SKILLS
We have somehow developed a myth: ‘creativity and good design’ require inspiration and genius to implement. But anyone can understand the basic aesthetic and organizing principles behind design and they should. Why? Because design is essentially about asking ‘what is in front of me?’, ‘what is it similar to?’, and ‘what could it be transformed into?’ and so thinking about good design practices encourages critical thinking. Design skills are problem-solving skills.
The following two resources give kids and teenagers projects that engage with real-world design needs: design a sports team logo, redesign the book cover for your favorite book, build a bridge with items from your pantry, create a plan for a local park or playground.
*Kidsthinkdesign (free) offers ten different design sections about everything from graphic design to environmental design. Each project asks teenagers to think about how design permeates the world we live in and how they can creatively change that world.
*Chip Kidd recently released Go! A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design an introduction to graphic design principles, such as: typography, image presentation, visual organization, and so forth. His website, Go the Book, offers practical projects and displays student work.
#2: LEARN TO PROGRAM (In just a few hours!)
Not everyone wants to be a computer programmer, but the logical structures that underpin coding offer important lessons. And who doesn’t want to show off the magic 8 ball application they coded themselves? A number of start-ups are trying to teach the necessary patterns of thought that govern programming, its logical progression of ideas, without having to worry about mastering a programming language. Being able to code successfully means being able to think through the process your user goes through: when they click on this button, what happens? what if they click here instead? etc.
MIT’s AppInventor (free) invites students with no coding background to experiment with the building blocks of coding: linking specific user inputs with specific outputs. Instead of having students write a programming language, they create blocks of code that students manipulate to make their phone talk back to them. They do this by helping students quickly make fun apps: an app that will talk back to you.
And if your teenager loves video games, there are a number of websites that enable kids to easily create interactive game play. MIT’s Scratch (free) is one of the most popular, but Games for Change also lists further options here.
#3: PUBLISH YOUR WRITING (or just write for fun)
Does your teen write whenever he or she has a chance? Has he or she ever sent anything out for publication? There are dozens of small magazines that exclusively accept work from teenagers (and even younger children too). Here are two fantastic resources: one from Teen Ink and another from New Pages.
Even if your teenager doesn’t write for publication, the regular practice of journaling improves mental health and academic success. People journal for many reasons: to recount their experiences with or as vampires (the Vampire Diaries is a show about journal-writing), to reflect on and work through events that stress them out, to make plans, to explore tentative new ideas, to become more self-aware, and so forth. Plus, the practice of regular writing helps students write more naturally on exams and papers and helps them develop more confidence in their ideas and how they express them.
#4: LEARN IMPROV
Improv has grown beyond its acting roots — while actors use improv to create memorable, one-time-only performances, it’s also used to help people become more comfortable extemporaneously speaking or learning how to tell a story. More surprisingly, businesses are using it to help their employees think outside the box, think and act collaboratively, and so forth. It benefits, then, everyone from students who need to be able to communicate who they are to a college admission committee to business teams who need to create a product together.
How do you learn improv without taking a class? Three steps: first, grab some good friends; second, learn the rules, and, finally, practice them. (Yes, practicing improv is important because that’s how you learn how to think on your feet when it matters!)
These days, we’re all over-scheduled and our kids are feeling the pressure. But when we’re always racing around, it’s hard to find the time to think — and it’s this reflection that breeds creativity. Instead of thinking about relaxation as ‘wasted time,’ encourage your kids to unwind in ways that refresh them and stimulate new thinking. Encourage them to spend an entire hour of unscheduled time — time in which each of them has to entertain himself. Remember when they were young and you cld throw them in the yard and they would do that? Help your kids recover that self-sufficiency: send them outdoors (the nature deficit is real), encourage them to daydream and stare out into space (this will help them focus when it matters), and so forth. And let them take naps — not only will make them smarter, but most of teenagers are sleep-deprived (because they need more than 9 hours of sleep each night and rarely get it).
Looking for more ideas? Each day this week I’m posting an additional way to hack your spring break on Facebook and Twitter. Add some of your own — tweet to #hackspringbreak or post on Hacking Education’s wall!