Systems Thinking For Kids, Random Notes pt 2

I’m spending my month of BART rides thinking about what I would write if I were to write a children’s book about systems thinking. See previous.

I have been going in circles on the best way to frame the story. Systems are inherently difficult to think about because they often have long stretches of boringness, dive into unsavory topics like death and poop, and are so intertwined that it’s difficult to follow anything through a cycle without being pulled in many different directions.

For example, you can’t follow an apple through an animal’s digestion track. Some of it stays to become part of the animal and other parts leave. Of the parts that leave, some parts (the seeds) may become new apple trees while other parts become dirt.

How can a narrative follow even a simple system without fracturing into hundreds of not thousands of sub-stories.

Hence why I thought a choose your own adventure style could work. Follow the parts of the system that you want, and because it’s a system there will likely be a way back to any fork in the road you couldn’t follow.

I’m not sure whether the story’s structure itself should be the primary method of illustrating systems, or if that complexity would confuse more than it would illustrate. On the other hand, keeping the structure of the book linear will force us to ignore certain parts of the system and possibly be counter-productive to its goals.

This makes me think that this problem (illustrating systems thinking via linear thinking) is exactly why we struggle with the concepts.

Putting that aside for now (I’m sure it will continue to come up during this month) I also wanted to talk about who the main character of the story should be.

At first I was thinking it should be a child asking questions about something, like a sandwich, or an apple, or a flower. Then we could follow it through its systems and learn how each of these things is part of a much larger set of interconnected systems.

I could almost hear the narrative immediately. But, I didn’t like the tone that it had. Of course we’re all connected. It’s the circle of life, we’re all part of Mother Earth, etc.

I don’t want to write in that tone. I need to come at it from a different angle that doesn’t already have those well-worn but fluffy voices haunting the narratives.

I need something less palatable, less fluffy, less wrapped in previous metaphors and stories.

Weeds? Nah, too easy to smell the pot fumes.

Grass? Nah, because Walt Whitman.

Oxalis / Sourgrass? Too Berkeley.


I like dirt because it’s both ubiquitous and invisible. We sweep it away, wash it down drains, and generally have 1001 ways to make it go away.

There aren’t many primary characters in children’s books that are dirt. Maybe an antagonist here and there.

That’s a starting point at least. I’ll see if it still seems like an okay idea tomorrow.

Crap. My BART train has a medical emergency and we’re stuck at Embarcadero. Gonna end this here and walk the rest of the way to work.

Have a great day!

— written on BART