Mama Madison: Problems, solutions

A problem-solving bowl-style competition for kids also encourages teamwork

This past weekend, my husband and I drove to a conference center on the shores of Green Lake to watch our two younger children, ages 13 and 10, participate in the Wisconsin Future Problem Solving (FPS) State Bowl. For those of you unfamiliar with FPS (as I most certainly was before my oldest child got involved years ago as a fourth grader), the program's mission is to stimulate the critical and creative thinking skills of young people by challenging them, either in teams or individually, to come up with innovative solutions to complex global problems.

Truth be told, the idea of my kids and their peers being "future problem solvers" has always made me giggle a bit, especially when it comes to international matters. How can a bunch of pre-teen and teenage kids like mine, who can't seem to remember to unpack the dishwasher or match socks correctly, be expected to generate meaningful solutions to heady and challenging issues like pitfalls of the culture of celebrity, the difficulties of managing megacities or, in the case of this past weekend, how to help offset the Garbage Patch in the north Pacific.

If contemporary sociologists, urban planners and scientists haven't been able to crack the code on alleviating these sorts of problems, I question if my kids will genuinely be able to provide much help.

But over the years, I've started to better understand the power of the Future Problem Solving program. And I've developed a healthy respect for how the organization's solution generating process provides solid grounding on how to intellectually attack an issue.

But, perhaps even more importantly, the program has also allowed my kids and their peers to exercise their creativity in some very meaningful ways.

For example, in preparation for State Bowl, the students involved create large banners to be displayed at the competition. It's a true exercise in visual communication, as the works of art need to be not only aesthetically pleasing, but also informative on the issue being tackled. And every year my volunteer contribution to my kids' FPS teams is to take them shopping for the supplies they'll need to whip up impromptu costumes and props for the skits they will write and perform on the final day of the Bowl.

The list of approved supplies - I assume compiled by someone with stock in Target - never fails to make me smile. The kids need things like multiple empty cereal boxes, fly swatters, plungers, and clothespins. And duct tape. Lots and lots of duct tape. I am always amazed come performance time what creative things the kids have been able fashion out of aluminum pie tins and paper cups.

But when I really try to tease out the biggest benefit the program offers for my kids, it's been the opportunity for them to leave school a bit early on a Thursday and jump on a bus headed up to Green Lake to spend three days, not only with classmates, but also with like-minded kids from all across the state. They meet students from Luxemburg, the Village of Casco, and Blanchardville - all places my family isn't likely to travel to anytime soon.

They also get the chance to get to know some of their truly exceptional teachers in new and different ways, by hanging out with them outside of a classroom setting. And, perhaps best of all, my kids get to escape from the watchful eye of their parents for a few days - I have been banned from ever being a chaperone by my middle schooler. He (probably correctly) believes my presence would most certainly cramp his style.

So while my kids may not have found the ideal solution to combat Pacific Ocean pollution this past weekend, they have uncovered something almost as important. They have now discovered that some of the very best school memories, moments that will never be forgotten, can be made while sharing a room and pre-bed giggles with some of your closest friends on an extracurricular adventure in rural, south-central Wisconsin.

That, and that there are lots of cool problems, both present and future, that can be solved with plenty of duct tape.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Young love

Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (Near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.

Mama Madison: What a mother fears most

All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.

Operation Fresh Start's Youth Conservation Corps helps kids, and kids help parks

Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.

Mama Madison: Summer stress solved by yoga

The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.

Mama Madison: The greatest fans of road repair

Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.

Mama Madison: The alarm sounds

As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.

Mama Madison: My summer book list

For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.

Make Music Madison gives young artists a chance to perform

The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.

Mama Madison: Watching talent grow

Last week, for the first time, I made my way up to one of the open gallery nights during Madison West's Fine Arts Week, the school's annual showcase for all things creative. The scope of the event is huge, with nearly 1,600 students participating, and the quality of the presented works is phenomenal. It's almost as if the school had been lifted off its perch on Regent Street and traveled back in time to Belle Époque Paris.

Mama Madison: Writing time at Olbrich

If you have aspiring authors in your house, this summer offers a fabulous opportunity for them refine their writing skills. For its second summer, the Greater Madison Writing Project, in partnership with Olbrich Botanical Gardens, is sponsoring two week-long camps in August for young writers entering grades 3-8.

Mama Madison: When UW-Madison's semester is over, the kids want out too

There are lots of benefits to living in a college town. First and foremost, there is always something going on -- a lecture, a film series. Maybe even a protest, if you're lucky. And since becoming a Madisonian, I, for the first time in my life, find myself interested in college football.

Mama Madison: Another amazing talent show

My passion for the talent show clearly runs deep, but I'm more than just a fangirl. This year marked my second as one of the "Ziegfelds" of the Follies, Hamilton's annual showcase for singers, musicians, dancers and other varied forms of entertainment. Trust me, when you are part of the spectacle's "producing/directing" team you get a new-found appreciation for how hard the kids worked to get up on stage.

Mama Madison: Preserving children's stories

My daughter, who turned twelve just this past week, is not legally "of age" when it comes to social media. But I guess, in many respects, especially in those that involve screens, I am a permissive pushover. I've allowed her join some networks.

Tenting tonight? Not so fast -- take the time to prepare for the first family camping trip

What adults love about camping -- sleeping under the stars, getting away from it all, the sounds of nature -- can be scary for children. It's dark in a tent. Nothing is familiar. Of course, camping with kids is more work for adults, too. Stay cool, live in the moment. Forget about that lost fork. Making s'mores, spotting wildlife, that's what kids will remember.

Mama Madison: It's time for the college tour

I have just returned from a whirlwind, five-day, four-city college tour with my son. You know those "101 Things to Know Before Visiting Disney World" guidebooks that experienced theme park travelers have written to help the uninitiated? I think I am now officially seasoned enough in information sessions and campus tours to give some serious thought to penning a similar "insiders guide" for the junior-year parent.

Mama Madison: When mom gets a new roomie

This past week, against both my will and better judgement, I accompanied 50 or so middle school kids to the Future Problem Solvers Wisconsin State Bowl, a popular academic and skit-writing competition.

Mama Madison: Earth Day awareness

It may be a bigger waste of breath than electricity to ask my kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room. If I've nagged them once, I've nagged them a thousand times. No, I've never noticed anything amiss with their fingers. But it appears they are physically incapable of flipping a switch to the "off" position.

Mama Madison: Parents should know and understand school codes of conduct

I want to say thank you to the Board of Education for allowing Maia to return to class, unquestionably the place she belongs, as well as to thank them for adopting the new policies. But just as importantly, I also want to thank Maia and her family for their willingness to come forward with their story.

Helping your kids stick with music lessons

Some clever-clogs is playing Rachmaninoff on the piano at a party, and there it is again, that oft-heard adult lament of lost opportunity from a dejected onlooker: "I wish I could play. I wish my parents hadn't let me quit music lessons. I was just a kid -- how was I to know?" It's a reasonable complaint.

A summer camp quiz for parents

If you're checking out summer camps for your child, there are many issues -- some obvious, some less so -- to keep in mind. Here's a list to keep handy when you contact camps and camp directors, looking for the perfect spot for your kids to have fun, relax, and learn this summer.


Emails from Isthmus Parents feature event highlights, story links, site updates, and occasional special offers from trusted sources. Name and email address are required. Thanks!