Economics: Fair?

We’ve had a long, lovely winter break, and now Dante is back to school. The year’s half over, and I’m realizing I haven’t written much at all about how 3rd grade has been for him. However, last time I asked him what I should write about for this blog, he said, “You should write about the economics fair!” So that will require some school context.

The short answer is that school is going very well indeed this year. He’s got some good friends, one of whom is in his same homeroom class. He’s got a teacher that our family loves, who really gets him and who tailors curriculum to meet his needs. And he’s got a lot less homework than in previous years, thanks to this same teacher’s approach — one of the reasons why we love her. It goes beyond his teacher, of course. That school is full of people who care about Dante and do whatever they can to give him the best possible experience.

Leading up to winter break, the whole 3rd and 4th grade had a big, multifaceted joint project: an economics fair, in which every child started a (very) small business. Each kid brainstormed product ideas, then did market research, chose one idea, made a prototype, and then made 25-50 instances of the product. They “rented” storefront space from the teacher (all the money was Stargate currency, of course — not real cash), and did cost analysis on how much it cost to create each instance of their product. They made signage and advertising, created a slogan for their business, and so forth. Finally, when all the products were made and the stores prepared, they became each other’s customers, as well as selling to the 1st & 2nd graders, teachers, and parents. The main requirement for the products was that they must be handmade — no value-added reselling allowed. 🙂

Dante’s ideas were all for paper products: paper puzzles, paper airplanes, paper pockets, paper Christmas trees. In fact, they had him do the brainstorming first, and then he was quite crestfallen to discover that he wouldn’t get to make all his products, but rather had to choose one. So he chose the paper puzzles, but decided that the pictures on the puzzles would be of the other products he didn’t get to make. So he created puzzles with pictures of:

  • Christmas trees,
  • paper pockets (basically a triangle),
  • paper airplanes (a longish isosceles triangle with a line down the center),
  • and finally, the words “Paper Products”
A sample puzzle as sold

A sample puzzle as sold

There was one picture per puzzle, so buyers had their choice of images. In addition to the different pictures available, he also offered a variety of difficulty levels — puzzles in 4, 7, or 10 pieces. The special twist he put on things is that his puzzles lacked the typical knobs and sockets of familiar jigsaw puzzle pieces. Instead, he cut straight edges (with some surprise corners) on the pieces, requiring solvers to match the picture up carefully based on subtle clues. (Surely this was his aim, rather than just avoiding the work of cutting out knobs, right? 🙂 ) In fact, his business slogan was, “Know no knobs.” Yes, the trademark Dante penchant for wordplay is alive and well.

He did his market research, and lo and behold, his potential customers were far more interested in Christmas tree puzzles than in pockets, airplanes, or “Paper Products.” Moreover, they heavily favored 10-piece puzzles over the easier ones. He made a prototype with tiny (Tic Tac sized) pieces, and then determined that the whole thing needed to be a lot bigger.

So he embarked on making his wares, with a considerable preponderance of 10-piece Christmas trees. The topper for our family Christmas tree is a dove (white-winged, naturally), so Dante drew a dove at the top of each of his Christmas trees as well. Except, he’s slightly obsessed with chickens right now, so each dove had a speech balloon containing some chicken vocalization. (Example: “bbok!”)

There were a lot of puzzles to make, and not enough class time to make them all, so he needed to branch into his home time to do it, much to his consternation. He’s drawn a bright line between home and school, and resents every intrusion of school into his home time. We talked about what he needed to do in order to have enough puzzles ready on the day of the fair, and settled on making 3 per night, including weekends. It was a big bummer to him to work on the weekends, but it was the option he selected rather than loading more puzzles onto weeknights.

Assembled version

Assembled version

Many times a day, he would remind us that he was feeling overwhelmed, and would seek validation with the formula, “Can you understand why I’d feel overwhelmed by this?” Laura was great at giving that to him. I had to remind myself not to immediately try to “fix” his feeling. Eventually, I settled on pointing out (over and over, as it came up constantly) that he’s got far less homework overall, that this is a big project, that he’s making the choices how to structure the work, etc. I also focused on making sure he understood the real-world value of doing a project like this.

Finally, the day of the fair arrived, and it didn’t go well at first. Not many people were interested in Dante’s puzzles, despite the bargain-basement prices he gave them. He got very frustrated based on how much work he’d put into making them, and the fact that he wouldn’t be able to lower the price any further without taking a loss. He compared his product to what other kids brought and said unhappily, “No one would take them even if they were free.”

Happily, the post-recess sales period went better. His teacher helped him with some ideas, such as having a demo puzzle out for people to try, and his mood picked up again. He was even more excited about the other students’ products than his own, and spent much of his time talking to potential customers about the cool items they could buy from other kids’ stores. 🙂

Then there was a second day of the fair, which parents and other teachers could attend. His teacher and others did a good job of sending business his way, and he did sell out by the end of that second day. I think he ended up proud of what he’d done, despite the somewhat unhappy experience of actually doing it.

I have some more thoughts about this fair, and about the state of his schooling in general today, but I think I’ll save those for a password-protected post in the near future…

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