Play is the most productive way children can spend their time. They excel at this job, so what can they teach us about being great at ours?
Give yourself a blank slate
Sometimes, past experiences do not apply, you need to move head-on. Children thrive in unfamiliarity as they learn through new experiences. They do not have so much previous experience to revert to in every situation of their life. So they are constantly making new connections and solving problems.
They don’t really have a box to be stuck in, so it’s a natural approach.
Adults approach the problem by discussing plans, picking one, and then delegating responsibilities to accomplish it. That approach isn’t bad when the project at hand is a known one—when it’s similar to other tasks you’ve worked on or in line with workflows that your organization has used before. Sometimes, however, the challenge is completely new so try not to force your prior knowledge onto it.
The drive to learn
Children’s drive to learn is the basis of everything they produce. Children are devoted to learning about the world, instead of just focusing on getting things accomplished. It is important to note that this kind of exploration makes kids better than adults at finding unlikely solutions to a problem.
Having established “theories” of how a project is going to go or the purpose of a task, we limit ourselves to what’s already known. We don’t know what we don’t know. By assuming that there’s always more to learn, we can follow the childlike drive to develop new ideas about familiar things.
Children’s skill development follows these progressive stages:
- Initial exploration
- Intentional manipulation
- Production and/or representation
Children first play with items, they begin by simply handling. They explore texture, shape, size, colours and everything about whatever item of their interest. It isn’t until more expertise has been developed that they attempt to make representational structures or moulds. This progression holds true in all facets of their growth.
The tendency to engage in hands-on exploration—without a specific outcome in mind—leads to new knowledge that improves children’s skills in the later stages.
It’s both natural and useful to take time to explore a task before committing to one path forward. While children tend to do this automatically, adults may need to plan ahead for their exploratory time. When taking on a new project, avoid jumping right into outlining and planning the next steps. Instead, explore: Consider multiple solutions, ask questions that may seem tangential, and be open to discovering unexpected ways to tackle the project.
Taking mental notes
Children instinctively pursue knowledge by actively moving around their environments, observing what’s going on around them, and taking mental notes about what they experience. As they do all this, they start developing working theories about the world.
As adults sometimes the premonition of having all the theories figured out gives rise to less observation. Less learning and making new connections.
Bring imagination into the workplace
Children not only find unusual uses of existing objects, but they even invent new objects and ideas through imaginative play. Though it may seem unimpressive that a child can see a block and pretend it’s a phone, or that a toddler can quickly become an elephant in their mind, this kind of symbolic representation in thinking is a form of innovation. This makes children more productive in their play by allowing them to achieve the goals of their game without the restrictions of the limited resources at their disposal.
As adults, we often get stuck on the obstacles caused by the “reality” of a task. We need to leave a little room for that “anything is possible” mindset that children have; try to balance realism with a bit of imaginative play.
As adults, we sometimes feel we’ve mastered self-regulatory behaviors. We often rest on the laurels of one strategy that’s been previously successful. To-do lists, schedule management which has become so reliable.
Children are consistently using all strategies to make their play as good as it can be. They control their own actions, thoughts, and emotions through so-called self-regulatory behaviours—what the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard calls our “brain’s air traffic control system.” And because these behaviours aren’t quite as developed in children, they naturally practice all of them. A lot.
Be responsive to help, even when it is unsolicited
Adults are very likely to cast off—or even get frustrated with—what is considered unsolicited advice. Young children, on the other hand, are responsive to spontaneous help. And it’s not because they need it; in fact, they respond even more to intervention as they develop more strategies to work independently.
Everybody has two levels of development at which they can perform a task: their actual developmental level and their potential developmental level.
The actual level is what they do completely independently—like working alone in an office. The potential level is what they do with a little help, called a “scaffold,” that doesn’t give the right answer but just nudges them in the right direction. The space between those two areas is called the Zone of Proximal Development. This is the received coaching from people who are more expert than them to help them achieve more than they would have on their own.
Taking that advice—even the unsolicited —could very well push us to be even more productive.