Neoteny, one of my favorite words, means the retention of childlike attributions in adulthood. Childlike attributes include learning, idealism, experimentation, wonder, and creativity. In our rapidly changing world, not only do we need to continue to behave more like children - we can teach our children to retain those attributes that will allow them to be the world-changing, innovative adults who will help us reinvent the future.
Time To Notice The Little Things
Avoiding The Rush
Imagine a child wandering along through a bustling village market, an environment replete with a layered richness of noise, smell, textures, colours, for all our senses to soak up and experience. Or picture the CBD where it appears people are all going somewhere in a hurry and not even noticing what, or who, is around them anymore- taking everything for granted.
If you watch a child in any environment it’s fascinating to observe what they notice, what stops them in their tracks. Often we hurry them along from an apparent dawdling state, but they are in fact taking it all in. They notice the little things. Kid’s listen, learn, observe, think and question. They use all their senses and in a different way to us. They don’t want to be hurried along like adults in their busy, rushed lives. They want to stop to explore, to absorb, to discover as they go. Mini researchers quietly in action. They are interested in what’s new to them- experiences they want to understand.
We in contrast are often preoccupied, not stopping to take it all in- instead meeting deadlines while sometimes missing the obvious- that a ‘child’s mind’ would otherwise see. I try to let my kids slow me down and focus on the little things that can actually mean so much and are so easily forgotten or overseen.
Observation Skills For Innovative Thinking
Innovative thinkers must notice what needs a solution- the problem, before they can attempt to solve something. An ability to slow down a little and observe even familiar things with a fresh ‘child like’ mind.
In an earlier video post, founder of IDEO David Kelley speaks about the power of a ‘Child’s Mind’ and elaborates on having a mind that notices things that can be improved. Observation skills are valuable if we are to be innovative thinkers, but actually allowing the time to observe is something else all together.
We want our kids to have time to discover- while they still have the freedom to. They crave unhurried experiences to practice these observation skills, helping to understand what is around them and where they are. I hope my kids will take every opportunity they can to explore their world.
Pearls Before Breakfast
Time-pressured means making priorities- we know we miss out on some things. I hope you find time to read this widely circulated article from the Washington Post, if you haven’t already- it’s fascinating. In the context of a ‘child’s mind’, I don’t think it’s even relevant who the musician was, It’s just a wonderful example of how children can remind us what we’re missing out on. So when will kids get to experience these things? Sooner or later they too will be just as busy as we are…
The following is a summary of the original article.
A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Three minutes went by, and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.
A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk.
A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.
The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.
Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?
One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?
Tinkering, Deconstruction And Discovery
I’m remembering my childhood like it was just yesterday… when I find my son’s bunk bed wobbly and discover that he has an allen key under his pillow to unscrew the framing and to take apart his sisters highchair. I’m not sure how many kids sneak screwdrivers and allen keys to bed at night, but just as long as the house doesn’t collapse I think it’s ok…
We all did it- tinkering and taking things apart as a kid. Wondering how things work. I have fond memories of taking apart a large heavy old transistor radio that once lived in the basement. About 9yrs old, I sat with newspaper laid out on my bedroom floor with a few simple tools and screw by screw took apart casings, right down to dissecting the internal components, all pieces carefully and individually removed. I enjoyed the fine detail work, driven by fascination of what was inside to make it work.
With many pieces on the floor I had discovered what was hiding inside- not exactly knowing how it worked, but I had made some learning progress on my own already. Fast-forward many years later and not surprisingly my interest in creative and technical things lead me to a career as an industrial designer, working for big innovation think-tanks such as IDEO, working alongside all sorts of creative minds, mechanical and electrical engineers to name a few, gaining even a few of my own patents… and so my fascination with ‘design thinking’ and ‘stuff’ continues…
Motivated To Learn How Things Work
I was not at all surprised when my son asked for his own tools to take apart an old phone he found. One thing lead to another and he now has a full box of electronics which he spends hours on just like I did.
But he has taken it a few steps further and built miniature cities of circuit boards and what he calls ‘robot’s’ by connecting internal components and has even tried searching on the internet about how some things work or what he could make with those components. His curiosity spark has been engaged.
He now looks at a DVD player and tells me how the drawer mechanism works because he enjoyed the motion of the internal parts once he could manipulate them from the inside. He kept button pads and showed me how they connected to circuit boards. He laid out the layers that made up an LCD screen. In his own way he was seeing how things connect and how they are built.
Discovery = Learning
Tinkering is hands-on-learning. Sure I could give my son all the answers, tell him what all the parts are called and what they are for, or buy a book to explain it, but I let him ask and discover this on his own which is much more fun than coming from me. Stepping back a little lets him look for what he wants to know and when he’s motivated to, he can refer to the internet or the classic ‘how stuff works’ books to find out more. He know’s the resources for finding out more are right at his finger-tips.
Modern Technology, The Digital Age And The Future
If anyone has tried taking apart an iphone or ipad, these are insanely difficult. How are modern electronics changing the way our kids learn through tinkering? Will their focus turn to hacking rather than just deconstructing the physical product? Will tinkering like we used to know it, become tinkering of software, re-programing and all things digital? Does having access to all the information on the internet give our kids so many more opportunities to explore?
It’s sometimes hard as parents to understand why, but kids will destruct their toys, pushing the limits of what a toy can do, take things apart, mess up computers and explore digital interfaces- it’s all effective self-learning. That’s got to be why the kids are so good at setting the clock on all the electronics that their parents can’t set- children are innately more confident and motivated through tinkering to discover how things work.
Fostering innovative minds is about letting kids tinker to discover how something works and maybe even trying to improve on it, re-build it another way or even fix it. Taking things apart is the learning and does not require one to have to try to memorise and reassemble it like a puzzle- unless of course repair is a fun challenge too.
Repair Is Recycling
I personally get great satisfaction from fixing things. Anything. I want to try to fix it if I can. It’s practically a daily task for me and the kids know to come to me if something needs repair and they can’t do it. There are also lots of books out there for resalvaging components for reuse if it’s beyond repair.
There is also the concern about making things last longer. Repair, fixing, and reusing. Reducing the impact on our environment of increasing landfill with toxic electronics. The lifespan of our electronics are getting shorter. People don’t know how to repair them. Repair is recycling. An incredible initiative called ifixit are creating a repair manual for everything. yes everything! It’s well worth taking a look at their site and getting addicted to it.
My son posted me a letter a while ago and it contained deconstructed and decapitated lego men, carefully organised into groups of which body parts belong together and taped to paper encompassed by circles so I could reassemble them with ease. He obviously assumed that would be fun for me to do…
How Can Childhood Play Inspire Future Innovators?
I wrote a bit about Biomimicry in an earlier post. There are so many discoveries and inspirations to be found in nature, just being in the great outdoors provides a limitless array of things for children to explore and experience.
I read an article recently regarding research findings about children spending less time outdoors. Whatever the reasons, it makes me think about how the digital age has pulled us inside to our screens too. We can access the world from our devices, but just how many innovations occur from what we find sitting inside on the internet compared to what we find outside in nature?
Discovery = Inspired Learning
My three year old found a butterfly at a nearby park that had completed it’s life cycle and was lying on the grass. He was sad to learn it had died, but that emotion soon turned to excitement to be able to hold it, to look at it more closely than usual when they flutter off in fright. He took it home and I left him outside to play with it.
After several minutes he exclaimed with disbelief that his butterfly was like a ‘dart’ or paper plane. I watched him as he stood at the top of the steps and let it go. The butterfly with wings still spread, gently glided along just as if it was alive. We shared our surprise, a discovery I had obviously never made myself. My son pointed out the way the butterfly floated or glided along because of it’s shape. In his words he spoke of it’s delicate fine form which resembled the folds of a paper plane and the motion of gliding.
He was recalling previous experiences- memories, and relating them, in a way categorising information in his mind for future use. I think of it like an ‘inspiration bank’ that he can draw on at any time, similar to a designer connecting knowledge in many innovative ways.
Natures Design Inspiring Innovative Solutions
This butterfly experience made me recall an experience from my childhood, a wonder of nature’s design- helicopter seeds. Seeds from the Maple tree. What can these seeds teach helicopter’s about flying?
These wonderful ‘whirlybirds’ as some called them, are just begging to be played with. Designed to spiral delicately and gracefully down from tree tops to grow, they are also terrific fun collecting up piles of them to throw- like the delight of launching a paper plane over and over again.
My six year old often invents his own versions of paper planes, trying out different designs he folds himself, when an adult is not available to help construct pre-designed ones. It’s fascinating to observe his process of evaluating his own designs, refining and re-testing. It’s obviously more rewarding for him to be creative than following the instructions in a book.
I’ve always been curious how the famous Wright brothers as children played, and if anything inspired their interest in flight. Interestingly, I’ve since discovered they referred to a ‘toy’ given to them by their father which mimicked an early helicopter design, made from paper, bamboo, cork, and a rubber band. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke and then built their own. In later years they pointed to their experience with this ‘toy’ as the initial spark of their interest in flying.
I wonder how many other famous innovators started out this way- inspired as a child during play?
Children spending time outdoors opens up so much for them to discover and a lot of which we take for granted. We can never underestimate the learnings children have when simply mucking about outside. I did get a laugh recently before Easter when my three year old shouted out in excitement that he had discovered what he thought was an early delivery of easter eggs but were in fact huge mushroom-like fungi… I have never seen such wide eyes before!
Drawing - A Tool To Communicate Thoughts And Ideas
Children learn creative thinking skills by working from their imagination, developing and thinking through complex ideas. Drawing or sketching helps the mind to organise and communicate thoughts and visualise ideas. Children often draw from imagination where they create or invent things, or from memory- telling stories from remembered experiences.
The Not So Perfect Drawing
There are many talented artists that can draw perfect portraits, but it’s another skill to be able to quickly visualise thoughts generating a visual brainstorm of ideas. This is exactly how designers work- exploring many concepts, being divergent in thought before focusing in on the selected concept to refine.
The board-game Pictionary encourages something similar, getting players to think and draw quickly on the spot- taking the fear of ‘the perfect drawing’ away instead focusing on a sketched communication process. The new highly addictive and top selling App Draw Something is the digital age version of Pictionary. It isn’t always about how perfect the drawing is. Many of us worry about the quality of our drawing and refrain from using this fundamental skill, but if someone understands what your communicating through your sketch then you’ve succeeded. Confidence grows the more you practice and create conversation around drawing.
Critical Thinking And Story-telling
Young children love to explore paint, crayons, felts, any media combination they explore with excitement. There are no reservations about how accurate their giraffe looks, they know the line-for-the-long-neck does well at communicating that. Pictures tell a thousand words, and that is exactly why drawing is such a good method of story-telling.
Children typically have no inhibitions about their drawing skills, but as they grow older they become more sensitive to being judged and fitting in. Keeping their confidence alive with plenty of opportunities to draw without pressure or criticism helps develop this skill into a natural ability.
At our house we have loose paper, felts, crayons, pens, pencils and simple stapled books of paper all over the house for the kids to freely access. My 6 yr old son is certainly not the best at refined drawing and colouring within lines compared to his classmates, probably the least tidy, but instead of perfecting his style and worrying about the messy scrawl he is very good at drawing elaborate ideas. He creates new inventions and stories which involve alot of critical thinking skills and a great deal of story-telling. It’s fascinating to see him go back and ‘extend’ his thinking and add to a drawing the next day with a new layer of complexity.
Because there is never any pressure to draw, or how to draw, our kids get right into it whenever they feel like it. Fully focused and absorbed into the activity I’m amazed at how their body language shows just how involved they are with their thoughts and drawing. Intense concentration, full body movements spread-eagle across the floor, I can see just how much they enjoy the experience of drawing.
Sometimes kids feel stuck with drawing. I try to refrain from drawing something for them when they need help, because then my drawing is the answer and they loose confidence with their own ability. Instead I spend time with them asking open questions rather than directions to help guide their thoughts.
The kids prefer not to use colouring books simply because they are adding colour to other peoples ideas and that to them is pretty boring stuff. They do enjoy using The Anti-Colouring Book (which I purchased for myself many years ago because I liked the approach) is full of fun open ended questions encouraging children to draw.
Being able to express ideas in a non-verbal way makes thoughts and ideas more compelling. It helps clarify problems and opportunities that discussion may not reveal.
Manufactured Play Vs. Free Play Opportunities
Last week I watched my children prove that they cannot be fooled with a man-made toy compared to a natural free play opportunity. We stopped at a park on the way home from school, something we don’t often do so they were excited with anticipation when we pulled up at a playground. All of two minutes on the play equipment, before they noticed something much, much more appealing… a pile of sand and another of smooth pebbles neatly poured in the adjacent carpark by the road, obviously for improving the sports ground nearby. My kids knew pleading was not necessary with me as they bounded over straight away to a much more exciting free-play-ground. I observed as a few other children begged their parents if they could join in too, and while I felt guilty for a fleeting moment of leading their children astray- I also knew it was doing everyone good. Concern about the messing-up-and-spreading pile of stones and proximity to the traffic turned into squeals of delight and laughter as parents relaxed and sat back smiling at the complete and utter enjoyment their kids were having. I think I counted twelve children by the time my kids moved on to roll down the steep grassy banks and then climb the trees.
Designing For Creative Play Experiences
The playground was eerily empty, a sign of a failed attempt of adults trying to instruct children’s play by the design of the equipment. I often see play equipment where designers were trying really hard to provide open play opportunities, but some are burdened by the more important need for safety and durability. Sometimes man-made toys are just not going to make the cut. Objects that do not dictate their specific use but allow kids to use it as they please, encouraging kids to imagine their own way of playing, provide the greatest opportunity for a creative growing experience.
Lego is a well known example of a toy that provides open ended play opportunities as would the Bilibo. A shell shaped object that allows children to decide how they play with it. The kids will never ask what it’s for, but the parents might. Children intuitively know they can use it for whatever they want it to be.
We will be visiting that park again, but now I know to park next to the grassy hill and climbing trees rather than just by the play equipment.
Building Empathy Through Dress-up And Role-play
Children don’t just want to watch or play with super heroes, they want to be their super heroes, they want to feel what it’s like to have the powers to do many things. They gain confidence through role-play.
My boys often pull out various random dress-up items, combining unusual pieces to become unique characters imagined by themselves, or maybe a widely known character from a storybook. When they play dress-up without my interruption they can play for hours on end…..
During their play children discover empathy and grow an understanding of the role- what their make-believe lives may be like, how heavy it is to wear a fireman’s hat, how important it feels to be a king on his throne.
As a designer, role playing is particularly useful for prototyping interactions between people, for example in a service context. Physically acting out what happens where users interact with products or services. Taking the role of the user and acting out their interactions with a design can prompt more intuitive responses and innovative solutions when refining the design.
Children learn what it feels like to explore various aspects of their own personalities. They are experimenting with emotions, tones, how they move their bodies. With such a strong imagination they have trouble differentiating make believe heroes from reality. The heroes may be their role models, they relate to them and are drawn to trying out how it feels to be their hero. They think they will be just like them once in costume.
When children dress-up without adult interference they are at their most creative. I often observe my kids choosing outfits that appeal in the moment and acting out spontaneous scenes created in their own minds. Imaginary play happens when they create pretend and make-believe scenarios.
Once children begin to explore the magical world of imitation and make-believe they are drawn to it. trying out how it feels, exploring a new place- where they can be anyone, anything and have new abilities and powers.
Role-play takes the act of just dressing up deeper into the creative mind. Children enjoy being creative, it helps them to make sense of the world.
Seeing With Your Imagination
One of the oldest and best ways to see with your imagination, to use your ‘beginner’s mind’, is to look up at the clouds and imagine what we see.
The Limit Is Only Your Imagination
We all remember the experience of lying on a grassy hill as a child, gazing up into the sky for hours watching as clouds drift by, morphing and expanding like slow motion animations creating different shapes and forms- cloud-animals, dancing fairies, expressive faces, sailing pirate ships, an elephant wearing a hat, upside down trains with carriages full of treasure, swimming frogs, racing mice… the limit is only your imagination.
I found myself once again enjoying the experience of this childhood memory with my boys, who were so excited by the endless supply of funny animals that they would jump up to get a better look at the whole sky to see which clouds were coming next. They literally couldn’t wait to use their imagination. It was even more entertaining watching the gradual change as the elephant’s hat turned into a magic wand, or the boat exploding into many little baby boats, stories unfolding right in front of us.
Story Book In The Sky
Like the old psychologist’s ink blotch test we see in cloud shapes what’s already in our imaginations. Like a story book in the sky, fairy tale cities with layers of fanciful towering castles, climbing, stretching, clouds like rolling hills, growing and shrinking, shredding, merging with others, creeping along the brilliant blue sky and eventually disappearing back into the atmosphere to begin over and over as new cloud shapes appear in a never ending ‘made by me’ imagination storybook.
Drawing On Clouds
Using our finger we outline our imagined shapes in the sky, drawing with giant arm gestures our one-of-a-kind creatures. I stumbled upon a free web application called *Klowdz that allows us to experience something similar but actually ‘draw’ on the clouds and save or ‘collect’ what we imagined- maybe we can turn it into our very own storybook too.
I enjoyed experimenting with Klowdz, it’s a wonderfully creative application with never ending opportunities encouraging open creative based play. But nothing beats the joy of lying back in the long grass surrounded with the sound of cicadas and warmth of the sun, while taking in the world around us… I think this application is just perfect for the kids on rainy days stuck indoors playing with the clouds. Now if only I could just project the clouds onto the ceiling… the closest I got was discovering this artist’s wonderful installation.
*Klowdz is a web based application so you will need a compatible browser. Firefox 3.6+, Chrome 4+, Safari 4+ or 10.5+
Up To Mischief Or Simply Creative?
As parents, many of us have photo evidence of the mischief our kid’s get up to, but these photo’s are actually a very good and simple example of a 4 year old’s explorative mind. I went to use the soap in the bathroom and noticed it missing, then glimpsed something under the soap dish. My son was obviously washing his hands very well because he say’s he ‘wanted to see if my comb could cut the soap because he thought it was a nice idea to make smaller pieces for everyone so when we all needed to wash our hands at the same time we had a piece each’.
I’m not so sure that’s actually what he was thinking as he was doing it, but he was thinking while he was experimenting.
I wish he had cleaned my comb before he put it away, but I dismissed what he thought was going to be a telling off. I can see now why he hid the new mini soaps.
Over the following days I noticed how proud he was when there were actually a few occasions when we both used the mini soaps together.
Such a simple example, but sometimes I myself need to be reminded how easy it is to jump on them for ruining things, but more often than not it’s obvious they are just exploring and trying things out.
The resourcefulness of children’s culture has eroded, as children appear to have become less skilled at transforming everyday objects into playthings.
Imagination is more important than knowledge.