With its Jules-Verne-meets-the-Moody Blues title, Odyssey of the Mind sounds less like a children’s educational exercise and more like the jacket quote of a Carl Sagan book.
But to parent Kenneth Allendoerfer, the creativity competition represents a valuable learning opportunity that benefits the development of the young mind (grades four through seven).
According to the official Odyssey of the Mind website, the curriculum was developed in 1979 by Sam Micklus, an education professor at then-Glassboro State College, today Rowan University.
It has been kept alive by a nonprofit group called Creativity Unlimited in New Jersey (CUinNJ), which coordinates northern and southern regional and state competitions.
Allendoerfer says several school districts, such as nearby Haddonfield, include an Odyssey of the Mind curriculum as part of their elective offerings. When he led a group that proposed to establish it in Collingswood, he says district leaders asked them to demonstrate a proof of concept in a club format first.
“For the time being, it’s going to be a parent-driven activity,” he said. “It’s hard to get that critical mass of kids when you have one class-per-grade schools.”
To work up to that level, the Odyssey of the Mind club will hold open practices throughout the summer to simulate problems and recruit judges and coaches for the real event.
Challenges include engineering, performing arts, artistry, speculative thinking and more. Kids earn style points for the creativity of their solutions to any variety of problems, Allendoerfer said.
“The problem I was judging last year was writing a Hamlet musical on the theme ‘to be or not to be,’ replacing the word ‘be’ with something else,” he said.
“There had to be a costume change, a set change, elements in the show in addition to the plot," he said. "It sort of forces everybody to learn a little bit of each other’s worlds.”
Allendoerfer hopes that open practice opportunities will attract enough participants to field a team.
“The hope would be to get a team, go to regional, and if lightning strikes and one of the teams comes in, I would be thrilled if we could go to states in the first year or two of the program,” he said.
Meant to be “hands-on for kids, hands-off for parents,” project solutions for the competition can’t even be inspired by suggestions from mom and dad. That’s a hard thing for parents, especially those with gifted students, to approach, Allendoerfer says.
“You have to step out of it because they’re going to want your approval,” he says. “Teachers would correct wrong answers. The adults can teach them how to sew, but they can’t sew it for them; they can teach you how to use a table saw, but they can’t cut the wood.
"Kids lose points if [the judges] see something that clearly not could have been done by a kid,” Allendoerfer says. “But if you give the kids that freedom, they actually do things that I don’t know I could do."
“I think what makes Odyssey of the Mind so special is that it plays to the strengths of kids with so many different talents,” said Zane North Elementary School PTA member Rob Lewandowski.
Lewandowski, a father of three, says that the creative nature of the competition encourages collaboration among students of all skill levels who may not necessarily be equally successful in the classroom.
“I hope that every kid can find an ‘a-ha’ moment when there’s something that interests them through the process,” Lewandowski said, “and that they build confidence in their own abilities by being a part of creating something.
“It’s not one kid at the desk taking the test,” he said. “It’s about everyone coming up with a common solution. The idea of giving kids these opportunities, this exposure in life, is hopefully going to develop good habits.”
To find our more about Odyssey of the Mind or to participate, visit the group's Facebook page.