Systems Thinking for Kids, Random Notes Pt 1

A couple weeks ago I started thinking about what a book about systems thinking for kids might be.

I’m enjoying my #writtenonbart experiment, but was starting to feel like I kept coming back to similar topics. Rather than run from that, I’m gonna just run with it. I’m going to dedicate October’s BART rides to thinking out this one idea a bit more, publicly and possibly futilely. I don’t really have time for new projects at the moment, so will constrain this to just my commute time. But all these unknowns are part of the fun.

I spent a few BART rides already looking up information about various cycles: the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the phosphorus cycle, etc. I looked into how water treatment happens at our local water treatment plant near the Bay Bridge. I read a book called When A Butterfly Sneezes, by Linda Booth Sweeney, which is actually super interesting and catalogs many of the primary topics of interest in systems thinking and provides a list of existing children’s books that help illustrate each specific topic.

So why do I still want to do this? Personal curiosity, mostly. I want to see if there are even better ways to help expose kids (and adults) (and MYSELF) to some of the most interesting and useful frameworks for thinking that I’ve run across.

Where to start?

I have a long list of notes in Quip that I’ve started to compile. Lots of links, bullet points, random ideas about titles, story flows, narrative strategies, characters, etc.

I’ve stumbled on an idea that may or may not pan out: the choose your own adventure format. What if I start somewhere, with something simple, easy to relate to, and use a choose your own adventure style of navigation to allow the reader to explore different systems and cycles that this single simple object belongs to.

For example, say I started with a sandwich like that YouTube series I linked to previously. The reader could follow each of the ingredients back not only to their farms, but to their molecular levels, and even back to their formation in previous exploding stars.

The reader could also move backwards in time but instead follow the cultural forces that invented sandwiches, and the cultural forces that domesticated tomatoes, and lettuce, and pigs.

The reader could move forward in time and follow the sandwich through digestion, plumbing, sewage, and back to soil and water.

In my brief time thinking this through, I realized that one of the main reasons we’re so bad at systems thinking is because there’s usually one or more steps in any cyclical system that we as a society consider repulsive and undesirable. The water cycle includes sewage. The life cycle includes death. The carbon cycle includes extremely long expanses of time where nothing happens and things are super boring.

One of the challenges of this will be reframing these undesirable parts of systems I some way that doesn’t also repel the reader from continuing the book.

I also see an equal challenge to not make the tone of the writing overly flowery of pseudo-mystical. I’d like to walk a fine balance that’s enjoyable, somewhat neutral, but also sensitive to reactions to both the tone and the content.

Starting to sound daunting.

Perfect timing for my BART ride to end.


— written on BART