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My son has been participating as a member of a team for Destination Imagination. It’s a pretty interesting organization, which I think of as a kind of sports league for geeks, culminating in a giant nerd Olympics (being a nerd myself, this is something I can get behind).

As a part of this activity, they compete in “Instant Challenges,” where they might be given a couple of straws, mailing labels, craft sticks, and a tissue, and have to work together in a short amount of time to engineer a bridge or tower or autonomous drone (I made that last one up myself). Or, they might be given a hybrid challenge, where they improvise a performance incorporating a supplied scenario and materials. My husband is volunteering as one of the team coaches, and he came home this weekend exhausted from the mental energy of watching over the kids as they practiced the challenges.

I have to say that, while fifty percent of me was sympathetic, the other half was thinking how much of my daily life as a mother, professor, and administrator can be described as a series of instant challenges.

Need to persuade four children out of an indoor hotel pool so you can be on time for an event? That takes strong improvisational skills. A child hurts her foot in the middle of a party, and you have to find a way to calm her while creating a substitute for a bandage out of cocktail napkins and stamps? Instant challenge. Students in your class switch from a respectful debate to personal attacks on each other over a heated topic? It’s an Instant Challenge incorporating key improvisational and problem solving skills. I’m sure most jobs have tasks where these skills come in handy, but I think mothering and teaching have to be near the top of the list.

I think this is why watching reality programs often can be so engaging. Watching Top Chef is more than enjoying a cooking completion; its appealing to me as a mom who has to engage in her own battle after coming home from work to prepare a healthy dinner with little time and random ingredients, all with the knowledge that much of it will be rejected by critics (my kids) as soon as I finish. In some ways it’s cathartic to watch contestants who think they have so much at stake, but you know it’s little compared with your own life of daily instant challenges.

When my son began this activity, I wondered how much it would help provide him with useful skills. Now, I’m wondering whether instant challenges shouldn’t be a part of all children’s curriculum? Surely, being forced to be a part of a team with people who think differently from you and learning to solve random problems with limited time and tools at your disposal might be the best way to prepare for a lifetime of work and family life that often are their own set of instant challenges.

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