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Connecting the dots!

This is why your children need to know about Cassandra Lin:   She saw two problems in her community and connected them to create a solution.  On the surface,  climate change, large amounts of waste cooking oil, and keeping people warm during winter seem to be unrelated problems. 

But what if… we collected all the cooking oil waste from local restaurants to be refined as bio diesel and donated it to underprivileged homes needing emergency heating assistance in the winter?  It may seem like an obvious solution in retrospect, especially given the project’s success.  Still, Cassandra is hardly a climate expert… so how did she come up with such a practical and do-able idea?

Here’s what you need to know about innovative thinking: kids are excellent at it because it requires a fresh perspective on the problem plus the ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas.  Even if most of their ideas are outlandish or fantastic, they are worth your attention!  Especially around age 10, they develop their understanding of how the world works and start to temper their ideas with down-to-earth considerations.

So who is Cassandra Lin?

Cassandra Lin was 10 years old when she first began worrying.  She worried about climate change, she worried about endangered species, and she worried about local members of her community in need of emergency heating assistance. The world was getting warmer, yet there were people in her community who were not warm enough.  The common thread was clear: heat and where it comes from.

With the help of her friends, 10-year-old Cassandra started  Project T.G.I.F. (Turn Gas Into Fuel). This initiative would inform and engage local business owners, as well as empower them to make a difference in the fight against climate change.  “We even drafted and helped introduce a bill in Rhode Island, which mandates that all businesses must recycle their grease (the bill was signed into law in July 2011 and went into effect on Jan 1, 2012).  Our project is a win-win situation,” she says.   

“From a young age, I realised that sometimes you can't wait for change to happen. You have to make it happen and be your own hero. Think about it. If a group of worried 10-year-olds can make a difference in the world, so can you!” 


So what does this mean?

What might appear to be the random association of ideas among children (often in the form of stories that don’t make any sense at all) isn’t something parents need to worry about.  In fact, it might even be something that we, as adults, should be doing more often!  Random association is actually a potent method of creative thinking and problem solving.  It’s so effective that corporate teams will engage experts to host workshops themed specifically on this skill. 


Here’s a walk through of how random association works.  You can try it with the kids to pass the time while developing problem-solving skills!

Step 1:  Make a problem statement 
Describe the problem you want to solve in a single sentence to capture the essence of your challenge in as few words as possible.

Here are a few fun ones in case you’ve decided to take this method for a test run:

  1. How can we keep the plastic out of the ocean?
  2. Come up with a new title for a new murder mystery novel.
  3. How can we tidy up more efficiently?

Step 2: Gather random ideas
There are so many ways to come up with random ideas!  Here are a few fun suggestions:

  • Grab a dictionary (or an issue of DiscoveryBox), open it to a random page, and point to a random word. 
  • If you are outdoors or find yourself in an unusual location like a museum, you can name the item you see when you look: up, down, left, right, in front, and behind you.
  • Ask 5 people to give you 2 random words each.  You can even challenge them with requirements such as words with more than 6 letters!
  • Grab 10 random objects from different parts of your home.

Tip:  It’s important not to overwhelm yourself with too many random ideas.  Just the same, it’s also important not to box yourself in with just one or two ideas.  4-10 ideas is usually a comfortable range to work with.


Step 3: Expanding your random ideas
Take some time to mull over the meaning of the words you’ve chosen.  If your words are objects, think about what it is used for, where it comes from, or what it represents.  You want to make a mini word cloud around each of your random words so that each of them becomes richer in meaning.


Step 4: Connecting ideas

Take a look at your random ideas and their associations.  Do you see any trends, patterns, or categories? Take note of how your ideas could be grouped together or categorized differently.

Step 5: Connecting your random ideas with your problem statement
In case you inevitably run into the this-does-not-make-any-sense-at-all situation, try to ask yourself: How could this make sense?  Remember, your random idea doesn’t have to solve the problem.   

  • Your random idea could highlight an emotion that the problem evokes, or represent a particular obstacle that’s involved. 
  • Your random idea might need the assistance of another random idea to make sense.  
  • It’s possible that your random idea is SO random and disconnected from your problem statement that it highlights the inadequacy of the tools you’ve been given to deal with it. 

 Whatever the connection, it’s up to you and your best efforts to connect the dots.

Step 6: Stop and look at what you’ve got!
Did the associations that you make take you in a new direction?  Were you able to solve the problem or arrive at a conclusion? Did the random ideas shed light on the topic or change your opinion?  If you didn’t achieve any of the above, that’s okay!  The most important question of all is: did you have fun?

Random association can be awkward in the beginning.  When completed in a serious and structured manner, this method can powerfully and effectively facilitate creative ideas and solutions.  But not everything has to be so serious.  Engaging in random association for fun can get your brain into the practice of habitually discovering new ways to look at your subject and generate new ideas automatically.

Here are 3 examples for your amusement!

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