Lessons on brainstorming from grade one

Three Lessons on Brainstorming from 6 year olds

Georgian RoomRecently, the City of Barrie renovated one of our traditional meeting rooms into a Group Brainstorming room.  It wasn’t a big renovation as the room was already equipped with a network computer and large display monitor, but we replaced the old stationary chairs and large boardroom table with moveable chairs and tables that could be set-up in multiple ways. We wallpapered one full wall with a magnetic whiteboard, and added a large whiteboard on another wall, and we equipped the room with table brainstorming supplies (post-its, dry-erase markers, inspirational quotes, etc.). While it wasn’t a big physical renovation, it represented a mindset revolution from presenting information to enabling a collaborative sharing of information, and from leading a discussion to facilitating group brainstorming. We are measuring the impact of the changes through the traditional methods of tracking usage and satisfaction surveys, however some of the biggest learnings came for me when we invited six grade one students into our space.

The primary department of a local school was doing their annual city visit when I bumped into
the students and their teacher outside our new Group Brainstorming room. Grade one brainstormers
I invited them into the room, equipped them with dry erase markers and asked them to spend 10 minutes “designing the perfect park” using pictures or words. They quickly got to work, and in just a few minutes, the whiteboard was covered with their creativty.As I spent the next few minutes talking to the students and asking questions about their visions, I realized I was learning more about facilitating brainstorming than I was about park design.

Here’s what I learned:

Think BIG

With no limits or parameters (especially around safety), the kids quickly drew parks with multi-story castles, secret underground hideouts and rocket ships that actually went to space – the sky was not the limit for these parks. However, when we talked about the items in their parks, they were also quick to moderate their ideas to something achievable – one boy had designed a TNT explosion park, and when asked how to make it safe, he said you could have candy explosions that were powered by air. Another student quickly added solar panels to a park that required electricity when he was asked how to power the park. The students could easily visualize the big ideas, and when it got down to it, they could adapt those big ideas for something that was feasible.

Ask Why

One of the students drew a castle with a multi-level ladder leading to different parts of his structure. The next thing that he drew was an elevator, which quickly drew negative comments from an adult observing about how an elevator at a park would defeat the purpose of the park. Undeterred, the child kept drawing the elevator, so I asked him why an elevator might be important for a park. “For kids in wheelchairs,” he replied. “They don’t get to go on the slides.” A profound insight into park design that we might have missed if we hadn’t stopped to ask a simple why.

Brainstorm Out Loud

The six students weren’t told that they had to design one park, so in typical parallel play fashion, they each started working on their own. However, as I wandered between them, asking about their parks, an interesting pattern emerged. As the kids heard each other’s ideas, they began to adapt the ideas they liked best into their own designs. No one copied another kid’s park concept, but the features that they liked from each design were adapted into their own – a castle dungeon showed up in the tech park as a secret underground bunker, a solar panel that powered an elevator became a solar array powering a rocket ship. While they were each working on their own pictures, their ideas were distinct, but as they started to share their ideas out loud, each of their individual parks improved by adapting the best ideas from other designs into their own vision.

Underlying all these learnings, was a common theme of deferring judgement during the ideation process, something many adults have difficulty doing in their day-to-day. When I am facilitating problem-solving or brainstorming sessions, I often have to remind participants to defer judgement and avoid self-editing their ideas out of fear of appearing ridiculous or unrealistic. The kids didn’t – they started from a big, bold idea, then adapted their concept to meet the restrictions and to incorporate the ideas they liked from the other designs.  The result was more than the sum of its parts, with valuable insights into park design that may not have come out of a traditional consultation process, and a reminder that “big ideas are little ideas that no one killed too soon” (Seth Godin).

For more information about our Group Brainstorming room, email dana.clarke@barrie.ca.


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