As much as it may pain some fire officers to hear it, some child’s play at the station may actually be healthy and beneficial. I was reminded of this today while playing with my daughter. This moment of reflection came as I was teaching her the ‘right’ way to play with her Legos. I remembered the words of Ken Robinson, though, and quickly let her return to her unorthodox approach. If you have never heard of Ken Robinson or seen his presentation on creativity, please do so now. It will be well worth 15 minutes of your time.
This revelation got me thinking about whether we as fire service educators are killing the creativity of our firefighters. Now before you brush off that possibility as absurd, be clear on what I mean. I don’t believe firefighters are not creative people. Hardly. I’ve witnessed my share of fire service pranks and contraptions that far surpassed my own imagination. Firefighters can be an ingenious little group. My concern is based on our operations, on our firefighters’ abilities to use this same imagination to determine creative solutions to new problems.
Research has proven the need for play, even in adults. But as we get older, we (as society) systematically become more structured and view play as immature. The cost of this transition is a decrease in our mind’s ability to invent new ideas. A child’s mind, in contrast, contains imaginations that are near limitless because society has not placed the boundaries of maturity. According to the buddhist Shunryu Suzuki’s, “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
We as fire service leaders and educators must ensure that we do not train the solution out of our firefighters. We must be ever-vigilant in keeping our training outcome-oriented rather than task-focused. Rote repetition of a skill only prepares the firefighter for situations within the parameters they were trained. However, if those same firefighters are given the latitude to explore various alternatives during training, they will be better prepared once they hit the trucks.
Don’t be afraid to leave some flexibility in your training program. It may seem at first that you’re unprepared for the class, but with experience you’ll grow more comfortable with the new approach. Your job is to keep the group focused on the end goal while leaving flexibility for them to find different solutions. You’ll be surprised what they’ll come up with and what you as the educator can learn in the process.