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Part I: My Experience with the OC Fair Imaginology

Part I: My Experience with the OC Fair Imaginology

For ten of the fifteen years I have been a homeschooling parent, my children and I have enjoyed the hands-on, project-based learning that occurs by participating in the OC Fair Imaginology (formerly called the Youth Expo). The OC Fair Imaginology is a S.T.E.A.M. youth event that is free for schools and families to register and attend. It takes place at the Orange County Fairgrounds, in Costa Mesa, over one weekend in April. Children create projects to showcase their talents and work during this weekend. Schools and educational organizations host S.T.E.A.M. activities in booths at the fair, which are free to participate in. This creates an educationally enriching and stimulating environment that is fun, and free, for the whole family to participate in, all weekend long (Friday thru Sunday). My children and I have been immersed in this wonderful fair over many years, and we look forward to being immersed and attending for a few more years (until my homeschooling years officially conclude).

While fun and free are appealing and accurate to describe registration and attendance at the fair, these words don’t relay the commitment of creating an OC Fair Imaginology project. Nor do they relay the excitement that homeschool parents can experience when planning one of these projects, to incorporate into their yearly homeschool curriculum.

When the OC Fair Imaginology Competition Guide comes out each year (in January or February), I get very excited. While sitting with my trusty cup of coffee, at my computer desk in the morning (that special time, when my teenage homeschool household is mostly quiet), I enjoy scrolling through the new, exciting S.T.E.A.M. entries that the OC fair staff do a phenomenal job of creating.

I smile as happy, uncomplicated visions of my kids engaged in project design and execution unfold in my mind. I imagine my homeschool children excited to wake up, so they can start their day engaged in imaginative and challenging projects. This does not usually happen, (food is usually the first thing to be engaged with!) but these fantasies still persist. I see my kids encouraged and inspired by feeling the force of their own mental muscles; applying critical and creative thinking towards project design, in tactile ways, using a variety of simple and novel materials, resulting in the execution of (multiple) amazing project builds. This part of the fantasy actually becomes real for me once I adjust my expectations, and realize that my children do, in fact, flex their intellectual and imaginative muscles quite fiercely when they are engaged in kinesthetic learning. They also learn organically from their mistakes this way, when it’s hands-on and they can viscerally feel the impact of a mistake. This is a big part of why I like hands-on learning so much; the negative stigma of mistakes is removed when we use them to help us. We begin to move away from the fear of making mistakes, because we observe that when we are engaged in learning, mistakes are our tutors, and our mentors. We realize that mistakes have been unfairly characterized as things to completely avoid all our lives (although some mistakes should definitely be avoided, and this is not to minimize that). Key mistakes can actually function as our most important teachers, a fact that continues all throughout our lives. It’s good for kids to learn this positive tenet now, if possible. This is something that geniuses like Einstein, fully embraced. In fact, it’s Einstein’s mistakes that lead him to the discovery of deeper truths. While I do like fantasising about the OC Fair Imaginology, I must be completely honest and admit that I do not fantasize about my children making mistakes. I am simply reassured knowing that a mistake wouldn’t shut them down from completing a project, after having learned how to work around, and with mistakes, in all their years of project building.

Perhaps though, I take the OC Fair Imaginology fantasizing too far, when I imagine that the projects of my older teens will all fit seamlessly into the fair entry guidelines without the need of any help from me. While this is a great fantasy in some regards, I remember that I like to help, and I like to be involved. Homeschooling has awoken the inner Maker in me. I enjoy creating projects of my own, alongside my children. This has become a hallmark of our homeschooling experience. I am learning all the time, too, and sometimes my children are the ones teaching me. :)

One thing that never gets reversed or dulled, in all of my project imaginings, is the excitement I get from envisioning all the materials, art supplies, and books I become instantly convinced I should buy in the name of education. As a homeschool mom, I love these purchase opportunities. These are the shopping venues that excite me. Well that, and Ikea (many great projects have been designed around trips to Ikea!). In order to help facilitate greater opportunities for learning around all of this fantasy project building, I start visiting online arts and crafts supply stores, and dropping things into shopping carts; Michael’s, Amazon, Dick Blick. This could easily take up another hour of my morning, if I didn’t stop and remember a few things...

As fun as all of this fantasy is, a sober reflection (once my cup of coffee has been finished) on the previous years of project building, forces me to remember that I am not really in charge of this journey; my children are. So, I decide it’s better to talk to them later in the day, at least after they have woken up. If I time it right, maybe this year they won’t need my help finding reserves of excitement for project design? This is my great hope every year. My hope persists because the process of creating is a redeeming and meaningful experience, not just for S.T.E.A.M. projects but purely art-based works, too. I am seeking excitement and engagement in the process, for my kids, not a purely results based experience.

The reality of what my kids create, and how they choose to participate in the OC Fair Imaginology, may not leave rainbows of inspiration in their wake each moment, or even win them blue ribbon awards each year. The main objective is that my kids get engaged when they create. It can be messy and unpredictable. Something homeschool parents get accustomed to. But sometimes this prohibits us from providing enough opportunity, because we are overwhelmed about creating the space to do the projects in, or we can’t logistically host messy project building in our homes, for one reason or another. Kids should be able to be free to be messy, when they are creating, if they want to (although some kids don’t want to). This freedom to structure their creative environment how they choose, can truly help them create authentically. This is why I decided to host S.T.E.A.M. project build days for our Inspire families (see the next blog post for more on that!), so parents can also be free - from having to create a creative (aka messy!) project environment.

Over our years of OC Fair Imaginology participation we have had mixed experiences, with the results. Sometimes my children are proud of what they have created. They want to have their pictures snapped next to their creations (especially when my son won the Lego division award for his age). Other times, even with the proper space and the proper supplies, my kids aren’t happy with the outcome of their project. And that’s ok, too. I remind them that they might be the most critical of what they have made. Other people might see it in a different light. There have even been a few times when my children have confessed that they wish they would have put more time in, to have created a better project. This has worth, too. It’s a lesson in consequence and humility for them. All of our combined experiences with the OC Fair Imaginology -the fantastic, the average, and the disappointing- have infused each of our homeschool years with valuable experiences and lessons. This is part of the joy of our homeschooling life.

I think I can speak confidently for most parents, when I say that if something is helping our children think, and learn creatively and critically, then it’s ok if it doesn’t fit in perfectly with our fantasy. While fantasies are wonderful, they are not everything, simply because they aren’t real. Grand designs and seamless project executions lead by bright-eyed children using each letter of S.T.E.A.M. perfectly, with a kinetic focus to their minds and unwavering engineering dreams in their hearts, is a motivating fantasy. It’s a great one! Use it, as long as you are prepared to fully embrace the reality; your children will create projects in ways that stimulate and excite them, and this may not be what stimulates and excites you. Our homeschool children teach us about what is real, and help us adjust our expectations so that we can appreciate the beauty of the reality of our fun, quirky, cool, exciting and enriching homeschool lives. We are all blessed to have such an awesome reality. Homeschooling is truly an amazing journey, for each of us.

Words of advice for future OC Fair Imaginology entrants

Don’t give up hope if the first time your children participate in the OC Fair Imaginology S.T.E.A.M. event or any project for that matter, and it doesn’t result in blue ribbons and total bliss. Forget about the ribbons, really. The judging system used for the OC Fair Imaginology is the Danish system, which supports kids doing the best they can to meet the standards of the competition. It is not about judging kids against one another. Blue ribbons don’t make everything about the experience. Getting engaged in the process does! So, have fun!

Don’t break the bank. Get unique and novel supplies. They don’t have to be expensive to inspire young minds. Encourage your children to use things around the house in different and unusual ways. Encourage them to consider the art of design, not just the function.

Be patient, the redeeming moments will make themselves known to you. Be present, so you can appreciate the redeeming moments as they unfold. And be supportive. Creating projects, submitting them for judging and competition is not everyone’s cup of tea, and even if it is, it can be a new experience for young kids. So, keep it simple, and let your children guide you along the way. Our children are incredible guides, when we allow ourselves to really listen to what they have to say, and not let our own ideas and fantasies completely take over the whole show. :)

Thank you for reading this blog post, Inspire families! It inspires me to share with all of you. Please check out our other blog posts, too. We have Informational as well as Inspirational blog posts. Check them all out so that you can find your Inspiration.

Paige McKinney is an Inspire Family Liaison serving the Orange County area.

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