RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS: Creative Problem Solving in the Home of the Gifted & Talented

Published in the Journal of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children [IAGC], March, 2013. This article is reproduced with the consent of the Editor of the IAGC Journal, a nationally recognized forum for the education of gifted children and related issues. More can be learned about this organization at

Harry T. Roman
Distinguished Technology Educator

“If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them, and half as much money.” — Abigail Van Buren

Every day, we solve problems around the house, we just don’t think of them as formal academic problems, but rather a regular part of life. So why not inculcate your children to think of all problem solving activities as a natural part of life? Why make them something onerous, to be feared or tense about? Humans are wonderful problem solving machines. Our brains are built for it and the more we do it, the better we become at it. Stretch your children’s “brain muscles” with lots of home-based activities. Use the ones here as typical examples. I am sure you will be able to think of many more.

Home Renovation- A Wealth of Creativity

My wife and I enjoy getting great ideas from the creative interior designers we see on cable TV. As a lifelong inventor, I am continually amazed at the ideas these folks seem to conjure up out of very simple materials, sometimes transforming “junk” into gold, right there in just a few minutes. As we slowly have re-decorated our 80+ year-old home, one room at a time, Nancy and I have tried out all sorts of interesting things. Sometimes we like what we create and sometimes we have “a re-do” if it does not come out as we had hoped; but failure is an essential part of the creative process and it is as natural as falling down and getting back up again. And by the way, this is an incredibly valuable lesson to teach your G&T child. It is OK to fail with an idea. My lifetime hero, Thomas Edison believed in “failing his way to success”. He never gave up, and neither should you and your kids. Always use failure as an opportunity to learn something new. Let’s take a look around the house for renovation related ideas where you can harness your gifted child’s creativity, and help them appreciate the fun and power of problem solving.

1) Painting
As you get ready to re-paint that bedroom, there are some natural ways to engage your daughter Kate’s creative input:

  • What colors would be ideal for the room?
  • What about trim and accent colors?
  • Should all four walls be the same color?
  • Should two wall colors be used?
  • Is the ceiling going to be white or another color?

Take the opportunity to teach Kate about the color wheel and contrasting colors. Use the Internet to look at decorating ideas for the kind of room being considered for re-painting. Are certain colors best for certain rooms? How much paint will be needed? How do you know how much paint to buy? There is some very useful math involved here. A can of paint will generally cover 300-400 square feet of surface area. So how can you and Kate figure out the surface areas to be covered, and how many cans will be needed? What about whether you want one coat or two to be applied? Encourage Kate to learn a little bit about paint by using the Internet to see what kinds of paints are available and how these have developed over the decades. Was water-based paint always available? When and why did it become used more widely than oil-based paints for indoor painting?

Plan an outing to the local paint or home supply store to see the many different paints and colors that can be used in today’s home. Read the paint can labels and talk about what they mean, and the importance of following directions. Walk down the aisle and look at the many different tools, brushes, and appliances that make painting possible. And of course, if you have selected a paint color, let her see how the paint is mixed using a color formula that the paint specialist instructs a computer to make automatically.

Think about getting Kate her own brushes and joining the fun when the room gets painted. She can learn how to spread paper or old cloth on the floor to prevent drips from staining the floor and furniture. Afterwards she can clean her brushes so they can be used again. Do not shy away from letting Kate use her hands! This is most important. The hands are a tremendous tool for learning, with over 50% of the capacity of the frontal lobes of the human brain dedicated to the use of the hands. Let Kate learn through her head and hands. It is how the human form was meant to be used.

2) Wallpapering
Like painting, wallpapering is another related activity where your gifted son Erik can be involved and his natural creativity engaged:

  • What design pattern would Erik choose?
  • What contrasting paints might he use to accent the paper?
  • Which type of paper is best for the room being re-decorated?
  • How much paper will be needed? (some math again!)
  • How many rolls of paper should Erik get? (more math!)
  • How much is all this going to cost? (even more math!)
  • Why must the walls be cleaned and prepared for the paper?
  • Why kind of glue or wallpaper paste doe Erik think he will need?

Another trip to the supply store is in order to look over the wide array of products and designs available. Take the time to look around the store, do some Internet searches about the history of wallpaper, and of course, involve Erik in the re-decorating project as it gets underway. Get that head and hands stuff working together.

3) Their Own Re-design
Of course you can be very daring letting your creative daughter Emily re-design her own room, weaving together perhaps what was learned from helping with other rooms in the house. Why not challenge her to build a diorama of what the room might look like, using perhaps a small shoe box as a paper model of her room, painted and decorated the way she envisions; and picking the colors and perhaps wallpaper to suit her thinking?

Three-dimensional model making is valuable for Emily to visualize what is to be created in her mind. It is important later for such STEM fields as engineering, architecture, structural engineering, and related activities. Again, engage Emily’s head and hands; and allow both to engender a physical construct that helps her to develop a model to explain and embellish ideas. Of course, you can have Emily price out the cost for suggested re-decorations too, to provide valuable experience with planning and organizing a project before beginning. Incidentally, such skills are highly prized in the workplace. Project management is well-paid, and a respected job function in most industries; and nothing could be more appropriate for Emily to learn early in life for the workplace.

“Parents and families are the first and most important teachers. If families teach a love of learning, it can make all the difference in the world to our children.” – Richard W. Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education


Problem Solving in Your Backyard

1) Re-designing a Backyard
So how would your son Cody like to see your backyard re-designed? Would there be formal areas devoted for favorite family sports and activities, or would there be several themes combined into one general area? Start by having Cody measure the yard for the available area that could be devoted to play and recreational activities. A plot plan of the yard showing the house, the available play areas, location of fences and any storage sheds or other obstacles is a basic way to begin organizing and planning this project. How close will neighbors be to this proposed play area? Could this be a problem with noise and proximity?

Once the area is measured and mapped, have Cody determine if certain games or sports are ruled-out for lack of space to play. This will involve knowing and perhaps researching the amount of space necessary to effectively play certain games and activities. Where could he go to learn how others have transformed their yards into family fun areas:

  • Books dedicated to this topic?
  • The Internet?
  • Local libraries?
  • Other sources?

What are the key concerns with renovating a backyard as a place to play family games? What games do the majority of family members prefer to play? Can Cody try and develop a cost estimate for this project?

2) Perhaps a Pool?
Maybe your family has discussed the possibility of a swimming pool for the backyard. Well, this sounds like an ideal topic for your gifted child Alexis to sink her problem-solving teeth into:

  • What kind of pool might be possible…in ground or above ground?
  • What other amenities would be possible:
    • Surrounding deck?
    • Concrete patio?
    • Grass?
  • Would there be a diving area?
  • Outdoor evening lighting?
  • Location of pool pump and accessories?
  • A place to change/cabana?
  • Fence around the pool?
  • Barbecue/eating area?
  • A pool heater?
  • What about a pool cover for the evening?
  • Who cleans the pool and maintains it?
  • Are there special permits needed from the city?
  • Can the necessary materials and machines be gotten into the yard?
  • How does this impact mom and dad’s home insurance and taxes?
  • How is the pool filled and emptied?

Surely there are plenty of resources that could be consulted via Internet and such to learn about the many different types of pools that could be accommodated in your yard. I can see Alexis making lots of pictures, drawings, diagrams, and sketches that portray ideas for all family members to look over and discuss. Maybe a trip to a local pool company would be a great way to get some ideas? How much does she think this might cost?

This is exactly the kind of project a person could be involved in on-the-job. She may be charged with planning and organizing a new company structure for a special purpose. Giving Alexis the opportunity to tackle something like a new swimming pool is very similar to the real world of work; and I can tell you, company managers like employees who can think through, plan, and organize a project.

3) Landscaping and Gardening
Perhaps your family is thinking about landscaping your backyard? You can make this a design challenge for your son Josh to think about, and also help him prepare for a world full of problems that will need to be solved. Allow plenty of room to let his ideas germinate (no pun intended). What kind of garden would your gifted child Josh want to show in diagrams and pictures:

  • Flowers, shrubs?
  • Vegetables?
  • Mixture of types?
  • Native plants and local features?
  • Flat landscaping or multiple levels?
  • Decorative rocks or stone/brick/wood elements?
  • Small trees?

What about a watering system and perhaps evening lighting? Would there be areas for sitting and relaxing? What might this cost? Involve Josh in all aspects of backyard projects. If he “owns” or has a stake in a specific problem, Josh will be passionate about how he solves that problem [this is what companies do when they create teams to solve problems–situations that all team members can identify with]. Help Josh visualize and understand how such projects have many components that must be considered. In this way, you will teach him to break large problems down into more manageable smaller ones, so the whole problem does not seem so daunting at first.

“That’s my own concept of my job – Arming her with the tools she needs to succeed on her own, and making course corrections along the way. When you think about it – if I taught my daughter only what I knew, no matter how knowledgeable I was – I’d be limiting her severely.” – Joan Taylor, homeschool mom


Kitchen Creativity

With the incredible popularity of cooking shows and the emergence of many well-known chefs and kitchen gurus, why not use the kitchen of your home as a creativity venue with your child? After all, a recipe is nothing more than a chemical formula, so do some fun chemistry. Relate the food ingredients to complex chemicals that produce delightful tastes when mixed properly and cooked. Let your gifted child and budding chef Melissa get in on the fun and create some of her own delights. For your next party, challenge her to create some nibbles for guests to enjoy with wine and soft drinks. Give Melissa a starting group of foodstuffs such as:

  • Olives
  • Cheese spreads
  • Crackers
  • Cold cuts
  • Pickles
  • Celery
  • Tomato slices
  • Chopped onion

Let her create some tasty treats.

One of the useful things to do is show Melissa how to take a basic recipe for 4 people and enlarge it to work for a bigger group, say 6 or 10 guests. How much ingredients are needed? And by the way, a quickie review of the measuring cups and math involved couldn’t hurt either. Let her do the measuring, under your watchful eye of course. Explain the difference between stoves and micro wave ovens, and how each has cooking advantages. Why not a little Internet research for her to understand how microwave ovens actually do work? Perhaps the same two foods can be cooked, one by oven and one by micro wave, to see if any differences can be discerned. Watch some cooking shows together as a family and discuss what the show hosts are doing and whether Melissa thinks the family would like the menu being prepared. Might she have some other ideas about how the food should be prepared? Does the food being prepared resemble something else she has tasted or helped prepare in the kitchen?

This brings to mind another way to have some fun with Melissa, and to get those creative juices flowing. Have her take a look at the history of the kitchen and the many inventors who created new cooking and culinary devices that have come down to us through the centuries. How might she improve the kitchen? What might be the next step after microwave ovens? Invention of the common culinary products of everyday use is no different, nor less valuable than inventing micro- chips or other high-tech products. Look at what Tupperware® has done to innovate upon the kitchen environment? What about all those products made for holding foods that are cooked in microwave ovens? What might tomorrow’s refrigerator look like?

“In general the best teacher or care-giver cannot match a parent of even ordinary education and experience.” – Dr. Raymond Moore, Home Grown Kids (1981)


Lessons in Concrete-a Relevant Story

I still remember how hot it was when Dad and I put in a concrete walk in the backyard of the old house we first lived in. That was a long time ago. The first thing we had to do was clear out an area for the concrete walk, which was about 30 feet long and perhaps 3 feet wide. Then we had to build a wooden frame within that area to contain the concrete. Then some math was needed to figure out how many bags of cement we needed, and the sand and stone also required. This was the intellectual, planning and organization part, and it proved to be far easier than the muscle power I would soon expend!

The really interesting things I learned were:

  • Properly mixing the cement and sand and stone to the correct consistency;
  • Placing pieces of steel bar (reinforcing bars) into the cement to give the concrete stretching strength;
  • Floating a wooden board across the top of the concrete so as to level the surface;
  • Roughing the surface of the drying cement to give it a surface that would grip the soles of your shows and not be slippery; and,
  • Cutting the entire length of the concrete into 3 foot sections so it could expand in the summer without cracking.

While he was working, Dad explained how cement is made from stone and ash and other components. He had worked in a big cement making mill during his youth, and proceeded to explain the various parts of the process. As the concrete hardened, Dad cut the names of the whole family into it so we would remember the day, and the hard work we did. Dad and I also received a “Grade-A sunburn” for our hard work as well!

The point here is that I learned a fabulously useful skill, while also building something valuable for the whole family. I also received a verbal tutorial about how cement is made. It wasn’t an impersonal teacher who gave me that lesson. It was my father; and I could ask all the questions I wanted. I did not have to compete with other kids for his attention. I could come back anytime later with more questions. Today, whenever I mix some cement for a home repair project, I think of my father, that day, and the joy of seeing and walking on our finished product.

My dad happened to be good working with concrete, but I bet every one of you reading this article is good at something through which you can teach your child– some valuable skills, lessons, and general information. As parents we must strive to involve our children in everyday things because not only will we teach them something useful and how to solve real problems…..we will teach them how to be patient, caring, and memorable parents.

“Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.” – Roger Lewin


Vacation Creativity

Here is a happy topic to spur some creativity….let your inventive child Connor plan a vacation for the family. Help him break the vacation down into convenient chunks to be managed, like:
1) Destination
2) Hotel or living accommodations
3) Transportation there and back
4) Things to do and see
5) Costs
This will assist him in organization and planning skills so important in the adult world; and what it takes to make an enjoyable experience happen for the entire family. For instance, let’s explore the items above in greater detail and list some of the major questions Connor should be thinking about during the planning:

1) Destination:

  • Will it be a winter, spring, summer, or fall vacation?
  • Is it a popular family destination?
  • Should we go on an off-season?
  • Is it easy to get to?
  • How long should we stay?
  • What will the weather be like when we arrive there?

2) Hotel or living accommodations:

  • Is there a hotel at the resort or destination?
  • Are other hotel choices nearby?
  • What are the rates to stay at these places?
  • Do we qualify for any discounts at any of the hotels?

3) Transportation there and back:

  • Do we have to fly?
  • Can we drive there?
  • Is there a train that goes there?
  • If we go by car, could we take some side trips?

4) Things to do and see:

  • What things can we see and do?
  • Are there other things to do nearby?
  • Side trips?
  • Are any relatives nearby we could stop and visit?

5) Costs:
What are the costs of each of the four major areas above? Where will the money come from?

This is certainly going to be an eye-opener for Connor to do the planning and organizing. He will come away from this exercise with at least a better understanding of how to think about the “vacation problem”. You might have him iterate several times on this exercise, like imposing a cost limit on how much the family can spend on a vacation.

If it proves to be too big a project for your child, look at perhaps a day trip by the family and have Connor more generically plan that activity. Maybe the family can use the car to visit a national park, the beach, an amusement park, or relatives. Get out a map and help him understand how to read it. Connor can try planning an actual route from home to the destination. As you or dad drive, you can discuss how road signs show drivers how to get where they want to go. He can try and track the family’s progress along the route by referring to the map…..making the whole activity fun, and a learning opportunity too. Do not use Internet mapping sites. Let Connor learn about maps, geography, and points of the compass.

“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” -Albert Einstein


Organization Solutions

The standard joke around our house is how I turned our daughter Alisa into a clean-up freak. As a child she had a messy room and completely disorganized closet. After repeated attendance at my “school of attitude adjustment” she eventually graduated with honors and now has this incredible organization mindset. In fact, it works quite well for her as Alisa is in charge of making sure everyone gets accurately paid at her company … and there are not many complaints from what I hear.

I can always tell when Alisa has been around. The house is neat as a pin and the upstairs hall linen and housecleaning closet is in order. Another telltale sign is a neatly arranged refrigerator. She was not always like this. Alisa was born with multiple learning disabilities and small victories like mastering organization and planning skills were very big and important victories for her. Teaching her to solve her own problems was a huge chore as you might expect, and a major inspiration for this paper.

I too benefited from an early dose of organizational tutoring both at home and at my first job. Apprenticing in Dad’s workshop gave me an intensive course in organizing jobs in my mind, and selecting the right tools. When old enough to work, my first job was a clothes wrapper at a large retail clothing chain. I soon learned to fold and neatly fill boxes with purchased clothes and wrap them quickly with string. This skill later became valuable in another unexpected venue.

As a research engineer, I was often traveling to all sorts of interesting places to meet with colleagues to discuss projects, attend conference, and present technical papers. Airlines, being the supreme pain-in-the-neck they have always been, were a problem with getting bags on-board and retrieving checked luggage on time. But they did allow briefcases as carry-on to be placed under the seat in front of you. Employing my master clothes packing skills, I was able to pack 2-3 days’ worth of clothes into a rather standard briefcase, and almost never checked any baggage in the traditional way. I traveled light as they used to say. Even my wife was impressed with how wrinkle free all the clothes came out after being in there for a whole day. (I re-packed the worn clothing the same way for the return trip.) When checking into hotels, the clerk was always looking for my bags, and I just said I have it right here, pointing with pride to my briefcase. Old habits die hard.

Those packing skills have re-surfaced over the years in many different ways. You should see me pack a shopping cart when my wife and I go to our favorite local bulk purchase store. The check-out clerks ask if I want a job there! The point of all this is organization skills produce dividends in all sorts of ways, both in personal and on-the-job activities…because it forces you to think logically and in three- dimensions (spatial visualization).

So here are some ways you can promote simple organization skills and help your child become more familiar with problem solving:

  • Daily organize their room, clothes drawers, and closets
  • Organize the food shelves and refrigerator
  • Pack grocery bags at the store
  • Pack the car trunk or back deck with bags or purchased bulk goods
  • Prepare boxes of things to be mailed or shipped
  • Laying out plants or seeds for a garden
  • Helping to arrange a design for outdoor potted plants or a block patio
  • Arranging tables and chairs for a family party or get-together
  • Arranging furniture for a room re-design
  • Re-arranging books in a book case

Organization (and planning) skills also manifest in other forms that you can try out like:

  • Plan a shopping day, with stops to be made in a logical order
  • Prepare the family food shopping list
  • Determine a family escape route in case of fire
  • Plan a friend’s or sibling’s birthday party
  • Organize and plan a classroom project that must be done
  • Organize when homework will be done
  • Determine a schedule for vacuuming the house
  • Organize a schedule for watering and trimming shrubs and plants

“Parents are like shuttles on a loom. They join the threads of the past with threads of the future and leave their own bright patterns as they go.” — Fred Rogers


Alternate Energy and Conservation

A most interesting subject for discussion among young folks today is green energy, and how we can use more solar, wind and other alternate energy forms to save conventional forms of energy. Completely relevant to our times, this is a fascinating way to engage your children in some problem solving.

1) Saving Energy
Turn your daughter Amanda into an energy and waste reduction detective; and develop ways to conserve energy. All good problem solving involves the generation of raw ideas about how to solve it … so why not have Amanda start listing where energy might be saved….such as:

  • Home heating
  • Hot water
  • Electricity
  • Natural gas
  • Propane

How can your home be made into a more efficient energy user, such as:

  • Tighter windows
  • Better wall and ceiling insulation
  • Heating pipe and duct insulation
  • Reduce hot water faucet leaks
  • Keeping the home heater running efficiently
  • Use high efficiency appliances?

This is an ideal opportunity to talk to your gifted child about energy efficiency labels and how to read them. Discuss how energy is billed every month. Using past energy bills for electricity and fuel for heating, make some graphs to show Amanda how energy use varies during the year by the activities going in inside your home.

2) Reducing Waste
Explore ways to reduce waste in your home. How can your son Taylor measure what your family throws out in the garbage? Why not use a simple bathroom scale and weigh every garbage bag that leaves the house? I can see an interesting experiment being conducted where your child monitors the family’s garbage output over say several weeks or months and can then make some recommendations for how to reduce waste.

Think of the many ways this information can be portrayed with your help in charts and graphs and maybe pie charts. Maybe some other families can do this as well and the population sample of the experiment gets larger and Taylor sees how waste generation varies among different lifestyles. Maybe Taylor can also generate an average value of waste generation by family and by each member of the family. Can these numbers be compared to national figures that would be researched via the Internet? Look at how your community recycles materials like glass, plastic and paper. How does this save materials? How does it keep the city landfill from filling up too quickly? How does it save energy? What other materials should be recycled?

How can your home reduce water waste? What solutions can Taylor come up with to reduce and conserve water use …

  • Fix leaking faucets and toilets?
  • Use collected rain water for watering the garden?
  • Take shorter showers?
  • Use water saving shower heads?
  • Make sure the outdoor hose gets shut off?
  • Other?

3) Adding Solar Energy
Investigate how solar energy systems work and how they can be used on your house. How might they be used:

  • To generate electricity?
  • To heat domestic water in the home?
  • To space heat the home?
  • To cool the home?

Is there a best application for your particular home and the lifestyle of the inhabitants? Are there any installations in your neighborhood that the children can see? How might a solar system look on your home? Perhaps you daughter Marie can draw pictures and diagrams showing how solar systems may be added to your house? How about adding a simple greenhouse to the home to bring in sunlight and heat on bright sunny days? There is a huge amount of information available for Marie to read and research in this area. Look at the history of solar energy and how it progressed over the years. Take a hard look at your home. Is the roof shaded by trees during a portion of the best solar hours of the day? Does the home roof face the sun, or will the solar panels need to be specially mounted on the roof or ground? Can the existing heating and electrical systems inside the house be connected to a solar system. Stretch Marie’s first-hand understanding of solar energy and how it can be used.

“When you want to teach children to think, you begin by treating them seriously when they are little, giving them responsibilities, talking to them candidly, providing privacy and solitude for them, and making them readers and thinkers of significant thoughts from the beginning. That’s if you want to teach them to think.” – Bertrand Russell


Solving Problems in Your Own Town

If your town or city is like most others, there are lots of interesting things happening with new construction, neighborhood restorations, empty lots being developed, and all sorts of interesting problems. So why not challenge your child Jacob to think about these problems or opportunities and see what he can creatively come up with as possible solutions?

Is there an empty parcel of property, or perhaps an abandoned train line, nearby? How would your child recommend that property be developed? How could it be:

  • Privately developed?
  • Publicly developed for town citizens?
  • Used as a bike path or a small park?
  • Is there a need for a new school?
  • Could a recycling center be put there?
  • Is there a need for another fire station?
  • Would some neighborhood stores be useful there?
  • How about a neighborhood police station?
  • Should the land be preserved for local ecology?
  • Maybe a small museum or learning center could be built?
  • How about a day care center?

Let Jacob develop some ideas, sketches and drawings to illustrate his thinking and solutions. A little searching on the Internet or using some available local town/city information sources may disclose some other valuable data he can use. Maybe there is a dangerous intersection in town… one that everyone agrees is a real problem? Perhaps Jacob has some ideas about changing that situation?

This is an excellent opportunity to explain how city government works and how new ideas are brought to the attention of elected councilmen, aldermen, or supervisors. Discuss the various aspects of your town’s government, the committees and how city residents serve on these organizations. Take Jacob to a town council meeting so he can see how:

  • Meetings are held and conducted
  • Citizens may petition their concerns
  • New proposals are presented
  • Public comments are heard
  • Voting on ordinances is conducted
  • Rules and procedures are carried out
  • Budgets for the various city departments are determined
  • Taxes are determined for all citizens

It is a superb way to see how local problems are handled. It does not get any more relevant than this. Solving problems at this level affects everyone in town.
Perhaps there are other parents like you that can get together and all the kids can form a team to address the problem(s). Perhaps you can convince your local councilperson to hold a kids contest where all the kids in the voting district can submit ideas for solving problems right there in your local neighborhood. Think of the opportunities this could mean for young folks to learn not only about problem solving, but about citizenship as well.

“If you raise your children to feel that they can accomplish any goal or task they decide upon, you will have succeeded as a parent and you will have given your children the greatest of all blessings.” -Brian Tracy, TV host



Thomas Edison openly acknowledged his mother Nancy Elliot Edison as his reason for success. When young Thomas was diagnosed, by the then one-room schoolhouse teacher, as “addled and probably backward”, Nancy took the boy home and educated him….imbuing him with four basic and powerful paradigms in which to frame his learning:

  • Read everything, not just what you like.
  • Not everything important comes from books-experience the world.
  • Learn with your head and hands.
  • Never give in to failure, learn from it.

These paradigms he stayed true to his entire adult life. Her care, love, and guidance gave us the world’s greatest inventor and a man who gave the world more value than any other living human.



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