What I learned from 40 kindergarteners

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I just got done helping to chaperone 40 kindergarten students at a field trip to the Brookfield Zoo in suburban Chicago. I feel wiped out physically but also energized by the lessons they taught me about my job as a marketing executive. Here’s what I learned:

* The importance of the journey. I was astounded at the many moments of discovery that unfolded even on the school bus ride to the zoo in the morning. Whereas the bumpy ride made me feel uncomfortable, the children simply pretended they were floating in the air as they bounced in their seats. They delighted in the way houses flew by and pondered how many ducks lived by a small pond we passed on the drive. By the time we made it to the zoo, they had reveled in a world of their own making.

* The power of pure joy. Have you ever heard 40 children scream in delight at the same time? It’s a powerful experience that occurred when the bus pulled into the Brookfield Zoo driveway. The kids broke into a spontaneous chant: “Yahoo, we’re at the zoo! Yahoo, we’re at the zoo!” When was the last time you surrendered yourself to such a feeling of joy during your day? Do you even know the experience in your job?

* The impact of the influential few. It was a moment that Malcolm Gladwell would have been proud to see: during the bus ride, a few children started getting rowdy, tossing wadded up paper balls and kicking the seatbacks in front of them. The behavior spread like a virus throughout the bus despite the stern admonitions of the adult chaperones. Then, I noticed a couple of the more articulate alpha children tell the others to stop kicking and find another way to play. That’s all it took: the suggestion of an influential few . . . at six years old. And they don’t even have blogs.

* Roll with it. At a time when marketers worry about grown-up consumers hijacking their brands, I learned that kids are capable of hijacking any experience at any time. During an instructional period with the zoo staff, a few adult volunteers were supposed to explain the wonder of birds by allowing children to touch some real feathers stacked on a table while we discussed the differences between birds and mammels. The children ignored our boring lecture. Instead, they grabbed the feathers and began imitating birds flapping their wings around the room. They completely hijacked the agenda — but I’ll bet they learned more about birds creating their own playful experience than listening to the boring adults. You have to wonder . . . how new is consumer-generated content, anyway? Is the urge to resist being told how to feel and act by the agende setters simply in our own DNA?

* Sometimes you are the punch line. At one point, during a snack break, the children decided to pretend I was a mountain that needed to be knocked over. I don’t know why they picked me, but one after another, they took turns charging up to me and trying to knock me over. I could have gotten tense and nervous . . . but I had a lot more fun just letting the experience happen and being their punch line for the moment. So the next time someone pokes fun at your brand or even your role as a marketer, don’t let ’em see you sweat. Relax. And laugh with them. You might even enjoy it.

If you don’t spend time around children, find a way. I think anyone in a creative or marketing discipline should be required to be a chaperone on a field trip. These kids are going to be your customer (and boss — already the case at my house) some day. Start learning now.

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