Large Lessons from Little Learners

As the pandemic continues and many of us work from home, our families have in some ways become our coworkers. Moreover, a whole new category of coworkers has been born (sometimes, quite literally): children! While children are most likely playing the role of the annoying coworker who won’t stop interrupting your focus with their irrelevant commentary, that’s not the only way they can impact our work lives. There are actually many lessons to learn from children in our work. Here are just a few.

Explore With Curiosity

Children learn through exploration. This study on children’s exploration of the natural world terms this activity “curious play.” Children naturally invite more curiosity into their interactions with the world because they know they have much more to learn, but that’s a skill from which not only children stand to benefit. Anyone approaching a novel situation at work should take some time to get curious. Ask questions. Explore the situation from all angles. As this study on children encountering new technologies found, there’s value to exploring something new open-endedly in addition to considering what’s already been explained to you. Children can teach us to approach unknowns with a genuine interest to learn something and with the motivation to invest time in exploring the newness.

Experiment With Boundaries

Children not only approach new situations and objects with curiosity, they also generate them. This study of children’s play considered two different kinds of play and noted several differences in how children interacted with one another based on the kind of play in which they were engaged.

Some children played imaginatively together, inventing the rules as they went along. In those groups, new ideas were more likely to be embraced and integrated into the game. Researcher Signe Juhl Møller described some of these new ideas as “transgressive,” meaning that they challenged the existing rules of play. For instance, in a game of house, a child suggesting that one family member could fly transgressed the implicit assumption that people in families do not fly. In groups engaged in imaginative play, when one child introduced a transgressive idea like that, other children communicated right away about how to engage with that idea and often integrated it into the existing structure of the game.

The approach these children took can teach us how to approach boundaries with an open-minded perspective. First, consider introducing your own new ideas to an existing situation. Just because the team has approached a problem the same way for years, doesn’t mean there isn’t room to integrate a new suggestion. And on the flip side, if a team member or coworker introduces their own new idea, take some time to discuss it. Even if the idea might not seem to make sense right away, consider whether you can take an example from children and find some creative way to include that idea in your work successfully.

Experiment Within Boundaries

On the other hand, some kinds of work require quite strict boundaries. Children recognize that as well. In that same study of children and play, researchers identified a second group of children, distinct from those playing imaginatively. This second group played with creative-construction toys, like blocks, that implied a particular goal, such as building something. These children, unlike those in the first group, largely rejected transgressive contributions from each other and actually used suggestions as opportunities to reinforce the necessary rules of play.

This isn’t the only evidence that children know how to engage in exploration and play with a set goal in mind. This study of children teaching one another demonstrated that preschoolers can tailor their presentation of a new object to different audiences. Children in the study explored a new object and then taught someone else about it, and researchers noted that they shared different information with different listeners. Thus, the children recognized that a seemingly similar task had to be approached differently when the goal was different. Likewise, in this study about how children respond to instruction, researchers found that children explored new items freely without prompt but responded to instruction by restricting their exploration to what had been taught.

Sometimes, we need to behave like these children in the workplace. Even very young children know to modify their own and others’ contributions to a group in response to a set goal. Although we may be tempted to experiment freely and constantly provide new ideas, we too need to be able to identify when there is a need to remain within given boundaries.

Experiment Thoughtfully

Finally, children do not just explore and experiment randomly. This article from MIT describes how children carefully approached questions of causality in a study and considered alternative causes for an effect when one cause seemed to work only part of the time. This demonstrates a very intentional approach to experimentation. Likewise, this article in Nature describes how children methodically tried different solutions to a problem one at a time, in scientific terms, holding all other variables constant. They also only explored where they believed there was a potential to uncover new knowledge. In other words, although children engage a lot in exploration and experimentation, there is a method to the seeming madness. Likewise, before you just start questioning everything in the workplace, consider where this kind of open-mindedness and creativity can be most valuable. Which problems are most in need of creative solutions? What structures could most benefit from a fresh perspective?

Moreover, as described in this fascinating TED talk, children have the unique advantage of avoiding power plays and readily accepting constant feedback as they work. Don’t be afraid to take their lead and accept others’ contributions to your efforts to explore and experiment. Happy experimentation! Here’s to learning as constantly and voraciously as the littlest of learners.