Posted in Thoughts

What I learned from children that has changed the way I work with adults

This post is based on a lightening talk I gave at Agile Nottingham in 2018.

The talk I gave focused on what I learned from working with the children in previous jobs. Children are honest, sometimes brutally so, which taught me a lot about interactions and ways to try getting the most out of people, even when they are having a strop.

My Background

During and after leaving University I worked as a Theatre Technician specialising in sound engineering but also working with props, set, lighting, and stage management. I worked with children as young as ten in schools up to professional theatre groups.

The importance of ‘why’

Children will tell you when they don’t want to do something. I’m sure we all remember when we were at school being told to do something merely ‘because I said so’ and then overexaggerating our body language to really tell you that I don’t want to do it. Maybe drag your feet, make a big point of rolling your eyes which apparently meant the need to roll your whole head and folding your arms tightly, and then putting the minimal amount of effort in to get the teacher to stop asking.

The most popular question that children ask you when you request they complete a task which I am sure we’ve all heard is ‘whyyyyyyyyy’ normally said in a drawn out way whilst making big eyes at you to show how hard this task would be at you to get you to give in and do it yourself.

As we get older we seem to get better at doing stuff we don’t want to do without making such a big fuss about it. And most importantly we stop asking why as sometimes it is just easier to get it done without asking. Or we can predict the response from someone senior still of ‘just because’. As adults we still do the bare minimum on a piece of work, just like the kids would do, just to pass the mark and move on, we just don’t make it so obvious that we are dragging our feet.

This vital question of ‘why’ is not one that I think we ask of our own work or what we are doing in our teams nearly enough. Knowing why we are being asked to do something, or why this particular thing is the most important feature to this stakeholder is a really important part of motivating us. And I think we should ask more.

I have in the past for example, and wave at me if you have been through something similar, thought the stand ups I was part of were going well because everyone turned up and said what they needed to say and we stuck within the 15 minutes. But then in the retro someone says ‘what is the point of the stand up?’ and suddenly you realise that every morning is just a show to say that the stand up is by not addressing the ‘why’ we do stand ups, it had absolutely no value whatsoever.

So knowing why is super important. I mean if explaining why can change 100 ten year olds on stage dressed as victorian orphans singing about food into a synchronised, harmonious, and rich scene, rather than 100 ten year olds looking like they are in an assembly and occasionally whacking each other with the wooden spoons out of boredom, I think it’ll be a much better show.

Fun and Focus

And the other way that school shows manage to avoid scenes turning into a play ground is probably the best thing I learnt about working with school children. And it is from watching them go from bouncy ten year olds sitting restlessly, whacking each other with spoons, to having fun as a whole production, to getting into the zone and ready to give the performance of their lifetime. They taught me the importance of warming up for every occasion. Ranging from the high pressure pieces of theatre which would decide the results of their exam or when there were scouts in the audience, to just a good old fashioned pantomime with lots of silliness and no pressure whatsoever to get it perfect. Each theatre performance that I was involved in started with a specific set of warm ups.

They would warm up vocally and physically, as you would expect for theatre performers, but then they would always do something fun and freeing as a group. One school I worked with had a tradition of always dancing to ‘Build me up Buttercup’ before every show with their favourite drama teacher leading the moves. The fastest they ever moved to stage was when they heard that music playing! An activity like this helped them to feel a part of a whole, to come together as a team, to all do something a bit silly, and to feel at ease in what could be a very stressful environment for them.

The last thing every cast would do before going on stage would be a focus exercise. A common one was for everyone to stand in a circle holding hands and to pass a pulse around the circle by squeezing the person next to you’s hand. They stood in silence whilst they did this, no laughing, no fidgeting, and just thought about what they were about to do and get themselves in the right frame of mind to give it their all.

I love to start a workshop or a retro with a warm up. I don’t ask people to sing or to stretch funnily enough, but I do get them to do something silly to show that the space is safe and we are all in this together, and I do get them to focus on what we want to achieve and how we can put on our best show in the session.


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