Innovation Tactics from Childhood


April 11, 2023

Do you remember the magic and wonder of the world when we were kids? When we were little, we noticed everything around us. We paid attention to the smallest detail. Ants carrying bits of dirt one by one. How ice cream melts and runs down the side of a cone. Shapes we see in clouds. There was no end to our creativity. How we played even had a huge influence on how creative we are as adults.

The interesting thing is that you don’t expect this kind of detailed observation of the world around us from adults. We simply don’t make connections between things that are drastically different and come up with something new.

So how can we take the lessons of observation we had as kids and use them to be more innovative as adults? Let’s start by looking at how kids model our behavior, sometimes to our embarrassment.

Talk like a parrot

Perhaps one of the most humbling experiences of being a parent is when we hear our words come out of our kids’ mouths. They’ve carefully watched every detail of how we behave and then model that behavior.

My mother is still horrified over me doing this exact thing.

When I was four, I was over the moon to be in the community fashion show. Now, I grew up in a town of 1,000 people in rural Nebraska, so this was the local equivalent of fashion week in Paris, Milan, or New York.

My mother had stayed up nearly half the night making sure the matching dresses my sister and I wore were close to perfection. With my long blond hair in curls, I looked at my short white socks and black-patent Mary Jane shoes. I smoothed the skirt of my navy-blue dress with its red and white polka dots as one of the ladies from church shared her admiration for my outfit.

I was delighted and felt quite mature as I let her in on a little secret: “My momma poke her finger. Her say…dammit!”

I glanced at my mother with pride in being part of a mature conversation and felt puzzled as to why her face suddenly reddened. She abruptly turned the other direction and made faux adjustments to my sister’s dress.

Why kids are so observant

This ability to observe starts at a very young age. Babies do something called mouthing to learn about the world around them. This form of oral exploration is an important part of their development because it’s by putting toys and other objects in their mouth that they discover tastes and textures. The dead beetle in the backyard. The piece of fuzz on the floor. A fistful of dog hair.

As they grow into toddlers and young children, they shift their observational tactics from mouthing to play. Play may sound simple, but it’s an incredibly complex process through which kids learn to observe life and make use of it. It leads them to a chain of why-why-why questions that make most adults want to pull their hair out. 

The great thing about play is there’s no downside. It’s how kids learn to observe the world around them, connect the dots, and figure out what’s possible. Even more, play invites oxytocin and endorphins the same way a workout does. If you’ve ever had a “runner’s high” you know how exhilarating it can be and how many ideas seem to flood into your head when you’re in that space.

On the flip side, by the time we’re adults, we’ve lost that sense of light playfulness, particularly in our work. But it’s in that same headspace of light and fun playfulness that the best gold often lies in innovation and where the best ideas come from. 

The other key skill we’ve lost since childhood? We’ve quit observing like we did as kids. We become so distracted by our phones and never-ending to-do lists that we miss seeing the gorilla in the room. We can only come up with truly original ideas when we learn to be observant and connect the dots between totally unrelated things.

Watch like a hawk

So how can we cultivate better awareness of our surroundings? Start by thinking like a kid. When we were kids, we did everything with a single-minded focus. If we were playing tag or jumping rope, then that was our whole world for the few minutes we were playing. Everything else faded into the background. 

Remember to start slowly. It’s been awhile since we were kids and did everything with undivided attention. It may take a few tries before you can settle in and really open your senses to the wider world around you. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  1. Eliminate distractions. One reason that people aren’t as observant as they should be is that they’re distracted by phones, social media, or mental to-do lists. The fewer distractions you have, the more productive your time will become. Once you start to examine your surroundings, you may become hyper-observant.
  2. Seek out diverse stimuli. Something as simple as driving a different route to work or sitting in a different chair for your weekly team meeting changes your perspective. You can take small steps that don’t disrupt your life to get a fresh outlook on your day. Simply take a few minutes every day and truly notice your surroundings. 
  3. Use all your senses. When we look around us we do exactly that – look. But close your eyes and pay attention to what your other senses tell you. What do you hear? How does the bench feel that you’re sitting on? Is there a smell wafting from a nearby restaurant? Can you taste the salt in the ocean air?
  4. Keep a field journal. You can jot notes, draw pictures or stick something in it that caught your attention. You’ll start making connections between what you observe and problems you want to solve in other parts of your life. Write these insights and new ideas down, too. Some of them may help you right away, and you may come back to others years down the road.

You may not come up with a life-changing idea in your first few minutes of sitting on a park bench. But over time and with practice, you’ll begin to notice a whole world right in front of you that you’d been missing.

Want to read more on how to innovate like a kid? Check out: 

Learning Through Looking

The Museum of Play: The Connection Between Play and Innovation

The Value of Storytelling in Innovation

Dhiraj Mukherjee on How to Think Like a Kid

Image Credit: Tumisu via Pixabay

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.