This article first appeared in Wired magazine 10 years ago - but the sense of wonder and excitement still remains the same.
MIND BLOWING. THAT’S really the only way to describe Destination Imagination.
My kids participated in the Destination Imagination program for years. Ask them, and they’ll tell you that it’s been the highlight of their school years. And yet, when it comes down to it, they have a hard time explaining just what the program is about, saying the right words to make people "get" it.
It's definitely one of those things best understood from the inside, but let me give it a try for you. Because you should know about Destination Imagination. It's priceless.
Working in teams (2-7 kids), participants choose a challenge, devise a plan, and develop a skit or presentation to showcase their solution.
Starting from zero, teams debate the possibilities, determine their plan of action, and get to work. And they do it without any outside interference. Teams sign a "Declaration of Independence", the hands-off rule that applies to parents and team managers. Team managers are allowed to offer guidance, but no answers, no suggestions, no input. Ideas offered to the team get thrown out as unusable and can ultimately sabotage their production. (This is much more difficult than you might imagine.)
The solutions are completely kid-powered, as are the drills, saws, soldering irons, and paintbrushes often required to complete their solution, their way. And perhaps the fact that kids are allowed to operate such equipment is part of the big draw. Or maybe it's the crazy hats.
Much to the amazement of those new to DI, kids can solve these complex problems. And their solutions? Out of the park. I mean, moving a team-made Trojan horse large enough to accommodate a team member eight feet across the floor using a can opener? That’s clever!
Participants gain knowledge in structural, mechanical and technical engineering; cooperation and teamwork; budgeting (teams are limited in what they can spend); communication skills, and creative problem solving. The problems, released each year in September, include:
Technical aspects – Create a timing device that opens a door (at a specified time) or move a vehicle from one point to another, for instance.
Structural elements – Perhaps you’ll be asked to build a structure from wood and glue that weighs as much as a box of tea. Oh, and it must hold weight. Lots of it.
Improvisational challenges - Teams might be surprised with an item to incorporate into their presentation just one minute before they begin.
But the lessons transcend the challenge. Look at the Destination Imagination program and you’ll see astounding stories everywhere. Take the painfully shy ten-year-old who, after his DI experience, boldly volunteered to teach at his martial arts program. Take the sixteen year old, abandoned by her family, whose first year of participation in DI has unearthed an incredible artistic ability. Or take the team who pulled together to make it through the unfathomable death of one of their teammates.
Dare I say that participating in the program can be life changing? Giving kids the freedom to creatively solve a problem without adult interference is truly a gift, and one that can (and will be!) applied throughout life as they face tougher and more serious challenges.
But for now? It's all fun. After four months or so of prep work, teams present their solution at a regional tournament. Destination Imagination tournaments are a whirlwind of activity as kids prepare to present their solution and reconnect with DI friends from past years. The costumes are zany, the props are oh, so clever, and the energy is HIGH.