A planet's life is a vast, tightly interwoven fabric. Vegetation and animal changes will be determined at first by the raw physical forces we manipulate. As they establish themselves, though, our changes will become controlling influences in their own right - and we will have to deal with them, too.
-Frank Herbert in Dune (1965)
Is that what you'd be thinking of if you were seconds away from being eaten by a giant sand worm? Probably not, but in Frank Herbet's novel Dune, "planetologist" Kynes does allocate his precious last moments to reflect on the grand terraforming vision for his desert planet of Arrakis.
Dune is a novel that throws you into a world that feels real as everything is interconnected: the planet's ecology, economics, politics, religion and technology. The characters' stories play out a broader context of change and creative destruction that is not always within their control. In the book, not seeing the big picture (i.e. not thinking in systems) is the quickest way to get wiped out for good.
Things are not that different in the real world. Delving into catastrophic threats like climate change, wars, and pandemics isn't necessary to understand this. Instead, consider the individual level: to live a healthy, happy, and meaningful life, one must navigate and interact with various systems. This ranges from understanding one's own body to engaging with society and the planet. Hence, teaching your kids systems thinking becomes crucial.
How do I start?
The approach shared in this article are pretty much what worked best for our son between the ages of 2 and 4. Every person is different so some of these ideas might just not resonate with you at all and that's fine! Feel free to cherry-pick what's useful to you.
It is also likely that you already a lot of what's outlined here. If you have tried something else please let me know in the comments.
What I've done in this article is start by outlining the main areas to focus on. These don't need to be done in any particular order. Further down, I've listed a few examples of systems along with sample questions and activities you can do.
Important: don't expect this to happen overnight! You need many reps of the sort of activities that I describe, to start seeing sparks of systems thinking.
Focus Area 1: Identifying interactions
One key feature of systems is the fact that they are made of different parts that interact with each other. The first thing to focus on is highlighting the connections among "entities" within a system, one at a time.
How can we do this? Take any particular thing you kid is interested in. Let's use a bird as an example. You see a bird outside, "a bird! how cute!" etc. What you can do then is just highlight how that bird is connected to something else. For instance "a bird! how cute! birds love eating worms, yum yum..". That's it! - you've laid out a single connection.
A few days later you see a worm, and you can bring up the bird again (reinforcing the previous "connection"), and also talk about how worms eat leaves (laying a new connection).
At this point you've connected the bird, with a worm, with leaves. If later that day you have to water your plants, you might causally mention that you are feeding them water to grow and that you hope the worms don't each it.
What worked for me was to make this way of talking very casual. It gets effortless over time. As your kid starts to recognize these connections, you can start to have conversations about how stuff relates (e.g. "look there is a lot of rain water there! I wonder what's gonna happen to it").
Not sure where to start? Take whatever your kid is interested in the most, and start connecting this from there onwards. For instance, if they are interested in trucks, you can talk about what materials they are made of and where that comes from (e.g. "they are made of metal, we get that from the ground with big diggers").
Focus Area 2: Identifying sequential order
A similar approach that is perhaps a bit easier is to talk about where things come from, and where they go next. This is not a hard one to grab for kids.
There are a lot of systems in our daily life that have a very sequential nature. When you open the tap, where did that water come from? Where is it going next?
Just like with first focus area, you can start mentioning (from a very early age), in a casual manner, where things come from. Over time, these will become actual conversations. Examples:
- Where does this apple come from?
- Where does rain come from?
- What happens when animals die? ("they go back to nature", they become soil and the trees eat them)
- Where does money come from? ("work or sell stuff")
- Where does rubbish go after the truck takes it?
Initially, you might focus on the immediate before/after "state" of the system. For example, "the water goes into those pipes under the house", but you can also talk about subsequent steps: "the pipes take the water to the treatment plan, where it's cleaned and released into the ocean".
Focus Area 3: System dynamics
Systems are dynamic, alive and complex. Changes in one part of a system can affect other parts as well. This might seem not as straightforward as the previous sections, but when you start thinking about it, there are a lot of mundane examples you can pull from.
Once basic connections have been identified, it is not hard to come with "what happens if" conversations aimed to flex precisely those system dynamics muscles. For instance:
- What happens if you eat too much?
- What happens if the car doesn't have enough fuel or energy?
- If you don't share the toy, how will that person feel and will they
- How will I feel the next day if I don't sleep enough?
- How some things are health foods and others are "sometimes only foods"
Focus Area 4: Connecting separate systems
As you start drawing connections between things, you'll start connecting different systems and that's bound to happen pretty early on.
Going back to one of the previous examples about water: "Water ends up in the treatment plant where it is cleaned and released into the ocean. Huge diggers and trucks will take the waste to the dump" - you've essentially connected the water sewage system with the garbage system. If your kid is into excavators or garbage trucks, you can connect this with the stuff they are into and get their attention.
One of the earliest signs that I got that this was making sense was when my son was barely verbal (2 or so). We had been making "slurp" sounds when we watered the plants (as they were "drinking" the water). A few days later, when it rained, he was making that "slurp" sound indicating that the trees were gonna drink that water. This is the type of signs that you might see if you start at a young age, but even at older ages, you are bound to see them build systems intuition rather quickly.
Example 1: The Water Cycle
Since water covers 70% of our planet, it is not hard to find opportunities to talk about it:
- Conversations around where water comes from and where it goes next
- Can be brought up in multiple places: bathrooms, around drinking water, rain events, lakes and oceans
- Lack of water (if you live in a desert)
- Going to lakes, beaches or rivers
- Discuss who uses water (plants, animals, us), what happens if there is not enough and why we should use it responsibly
- Easy to find water cycle printouts on your search engine of choice or in books
Example 2: Waste Management
Garbage seems to be a popular interest among young toddlers and happens to be a great topic for system thinking conversations:
- Where does rubbish go after the garbage truck takes it?
- Creating toys or arts & crafts out of (clean) garbage such as boxes and containers
- Making recycled paper (lots of tutorials on YouTube)
- Connecting with the water cycle: where does the dirty toilet water go?
- Imaginary play with toys
Example 3: Construction
Like many kids his age, my son is really into construction and its machinery. While I've never been too much into it myself, what I really love about construction is how strongly encourages the feeling of optimism for human enterprise and ingenuity that I want my son to growth up with.
As much as the noise and road closures were annoying, we were lucky to have had a massive construction nearby for over a year. We spent countless hours looking at the whole operation and the machines that were involved.
From a systems thinking perspective, construction can be incredibly enriching (provided your kid is into it!).
- What are the different machines, what do they do?
- What are they building and who is it for?
- What are the stages in a construction?
- Visiting a construction site regularly to check on the progress
- How do workers collaborate? Do they all do the exact same job?
- Lego / duplo / megablocks building
- Imaginary toy play
Example 4: The Human Body
One of the most important systems for obvious reasons. Even at my current age, there little that pays more dividends than investing in and learning about my own body and health.
From a systems thinking perspective, it's about understanding how your body works, and how different things will affect your health. It is also about developing self-awareness to identify the current state of your body, and troubleshooting yourself out of negative states. These are some things that we do (with varying levels of success) with our son:
- Describing what foods are healthy or necessary and why (e.g. "milk has protein that will help you grow", "oats have complex carbs that will give you energy")
- What happens after you eat? All things toilet training..
- Encouraging walking, exercise and good habits. Doing it together or providing a role model (e.g. walking when possible, going to parks and pools, swimming lessons). Explaining what happens with exercise ("you are tired because your muscles break a bit, but then they will grow stronger")
- Don't be afraid of using technical terms, they'll start repeating them over time (e.g. "you are bleeding but the plaquettes in your blood are building a wall to stop the bleed", "my hips flexor muscle hurts because I was sitting all day, so now I'm stretching it", "you are stick with a virus but the white cells in your body will kill them")
- Help them identify bones in their bodies. What happens if we didn't have them? (clue: you might be slimy like a jellyfish)
- Have them feel your heartbeats
- Show them where their veins are, talk that bloods travels in there. The red ones (arteries) carry the clean blood, the blue ones (veins) carry the dirty one
- Connect sleep with energy levels ("I'm tired because I didn't sleep well"), and other connections (e.g. "I feel energized because I went for a swim").
- Importance of hugging for feeling better. Connection of body-mind.
- Imaginary play (e.g. doctor or dentist)
The examples provided here are by no means an exhaustive list. In an initial draft, I had several other systems such as society, the economy and the solar system. After doing the first 4, I felt like the main points had been properly conveyed. If you'd like me to expand on any other system please let me know in the comments and I'll do my best to address it.
My goal for this article was to "download" all of this from my brain before my son leaped further and I forgot what was done in his first four years. While we've done really well by our customers at Zenva with dozens of new courses, and even launched a complete new K12 solution Zenva Schools, I must confess that most of my raw creativity output during this time has gone into raising my son. I wanted to be able to capture at least a fraction of that and share it with the broader public.
As my son grows, his needs evolve and what I write in a year's time will probably be quite different to what I've written now, and would cater to a different audience as well. So I am quite glad that this content has finally seen the light! I hope you find it helpful and useful in some way.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments!