Exploration: Cultivating Curiosity

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In PLNU’s Early Childhood Learning Center (ECLC), there sits an unlabeled piece of play equipment.

“It kind of looks like a jeep, or a car maybe,” said Susan Rogers, director of the ECLC. “Because it’s unnamed, it can be a number of things. That’s what’s amazing; it can be absolutely anything to the children.”

It has been a bus and a spaceship. Four or five times a week, it goes to Disneyland. It’s gone to Paris. It’s even gone to the moon. And it can go anywhere imaginable.

Rogers takes time each week to leave her busy and at times stressful office environment in Evans and walk over to the ECLC to watch the children play on this.

“It’s so fun to watch children because there are always so many possibilities,” she said. “They’re trying to make sense of their world. It’s a constant chatter; they’re constantly talking to themselves. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks. And it’s constantly with a question: ‘Why?’”

Children between the ages of four and five are in a developmental stage optimal for questioning, according to Warren Berger’s 2014 book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. “They have gained the language skills to ask, their brains are still in an expansive, highly connective mode, and they’re seeing things without labels or assumptions. They’re perfect explorers,” he writes.

But for many of us, we grow out of that love of exploration. Whether it’s because we become more concerned with what others think, or we don’t have enough time in our days to slow down and imagine, many factors in adult life can keep us from approaching our day-to-day lives with the curiosity we once had. Because of this, both Berger and Rogers believe we can learn something from children. And this will not only influence us personally, but will influence our work as well.

A company that understands the importance of questioning and has taken on this perspective is IDEO, an international design and consulting firm that approaches projects as “human-centered,” encouraging designers to ask questions to better understand the needs of the people involved. Courtney Mayer, PLNU assistant professor of design, recently began implementing IDEO’s human-centered design research tools and methods in the classroom and has gained insight into this way of approaching work.

“IDEO seeks to better the world,” Mayer said. “Its process uses empathy to connect with people, focus on their needs, and understand attitudes and perceptions. This builds context which leads to thoughtful and often surprising innovative outcomes.”

Last year, Mayer collaborated on a project with two students, senior Brooke Hugus and junior Alexandra Bitter, and with San Diego’s Minghei International Museum, which wanted to make known to university professors and students all the great resources it has to offer.

“In order to help, we asked employees at the museum about the concerns and challenges they faced,” Mayer explained. “What were they doing to communicate on their website? What about social media? Did they create events to engage people? We also interviewed members of their audience, and as a result, we discovered untapped opportunities.”

Mayer and her team gave recommendations to the museum during an educator’s board meeting. The museum has since began implementing these ideas on its website, including the use of email marketing and social media, and events inviting professors to new openings—an outcome that has raised awareness, strengthened the museum brand, and grown its audience. Mayer and her team couldn’t be more thrilled.

“This is a process that takes the focus off yourself,” Mayer explained. “You are fully engaged with other human beings with needs and desires, and you can use your talents and gifts to help them make a difference. As a designer, my position is to serve. And it’s important that I serve with kindness, humility and empathy, not assuming anything, but by connecting meaningfully and asking good questions to ultimately make an impact.”

Mayer agreed that we could all learn this art of questioning from the children in our lives.

“When I was growing up, my mom made our basement into a huge playroom,” she recalled. “I spent hours there. It was full of books and toys, a real imaginative landscape. I try to approach all that I do with the spirit of that playroom.”

In the ECLC, a child once asked Rogers, “What do you think it was like to be mother Mary?”

“I replied, ‘I don’t know, why don’t you tell me what you think?’” she shared. “He went to put on the outfit of mother Mary from a nativity play the children had been working on, and he pretended his pillow was his stomach. Then he looked at me and said, ‘I’ve got the king of the world in my tummy. I’m pretty happy.’”

When we approach situations with this type of curiosity, there are no limitations to the possibilities we can imagine. By questioning and exploring, we are able to take the focus off ourselves and instead, be concerned with learning and understanding how we can make the world a better place. If we cultivate a spirit of curiosity, we will also cultivate openness in the way we approach work, our lives, other people and God. And who knows what we’ll come to understand and discover?

BY WENDY ROBINSON

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