Rube Goldberg lives on

When my son was little, he had a favorite toy which was a set of tubes and various other pieces which could be put together to make different forms of whistles or wind instruments. But he never used the toy that way. He would string the tubes together on a piece of cord or use PlayDoh© to stick the pieces to other objects. I asked him one time what he was making and he said that he was trying to see how many different things he could make with the pieces. When we moved several years ago, I found the case in his old room and then went looking for the pieces. I found them all, much to my surprise, but three pieces were part of a marble run, two were attached like antlers to a stuffed bear, and the remaining four pieces were on a shelf after being used as part of some construction project. 

Rarely did he ever use a toy the way it was designed to be used, he always tried to see how to use it in other ways. To this day, he follows the guidelines of Rube Goldberg, the cartoonist and inventor who tried to come up with outlandish ways of solving very simple problems. I’ve always been an admirer of Goldberg’s approach to problem solving, which involves finding alternative methods for materials. If you want to see what I’m talking about, this appeared on the CBS Sunday Morning show, and will show you what a “Rube Goldberg” is all about.

You’ll see that that there’s an annual competition to create a Rube Goldberg apparatus – and from the success this year, I suspect that it will continue. This is something that you and your children can really get involved with.  I cannot imagine a better use of a child’s time especially if his parent is helping than to try to solve such a challenge. 

The point of this sort of problem solving is that it helps children develop skills in seeing how things can be used in different ways – that is the essence of creativity. Those who use a toy the way it was intended are not thinking for themselves, they are allowing an adult to think for them. It’s the same reason that I want children to play sports by themselves without adult interference. When children only play soccer on a lined field with adults ensuring that the rules are followed, they are little robots.

On the other hand, when they get the opportunity to invent a game using a soccer ball, three traffic cones, a ramp built out of a spare piece of board and a block, and a tire swing, they learn to function cooperatively and to work toward a goal. Playing soccer with rules and on a proper field is supposed to teach those two skills, but doesn’t always. And, yes, I actually watched five boys one afternoon using those exact objects spend about two hours developing a totally new game. They giggled, talked, argued, and got a huge amount of exercise and all agreed it was the most fun they had had in a long time.

Doing things the way the rules say is important, but sometimes breaking the rules helps you learn why the rules exist. It can also help you understand when it is important to expand your horizons because if you never change, nothing ever advances. I’ve been making masks this year, and each time I do so, I’m tinkering with the design trying to get it better and better. My husband says that he has enough masks, but agrees that the latest ones fit better and have better coverage. It’s that Rube Goldberg approach of “how can I do this differently and would this be a better approach” that keeps me working on new ones.

See if you and your son can solve a simple problem such as the one in the video. I’ve seen children invent ways to put food in the dog’s bowl from across the room, turn on or off the lights in a different room, or some similar task. I know your child is back in school now, but this would be a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon and the various iterations could take several months. And, you might be ready to enter the competition next year.

Have fun!