A few months ago, I was invited to the LEGO Idea conference. At first, I wasn’t sure if my schedule and finances would work out in a way that would let me go, but…suddenly it was April and I was off to Denmark. #WorthIt
Before I even got to the LEGO House for the conference, I’d noticed how the nearby hotel, restaurant, and park spaces were clearly designed to be accessible for children. The reception desk where I was staying had steps leading to it, which I watched a 6 or 7 year old confidently climb when he came in alone to ask directions to a specific playground, and these sculpture garden picnic tables made me smile:
Sometimes, other adults talk about “learning through play” the same way they talk about hiding broccoli in macaroni and cheese. I’ll show up to conversations excited to discuss empowering kids (and adults) to make choices in a context where we’re all learning from our experiences of being alive. I’ll show up excited, playful, intentional, eager to collaborate, clear that learning is interdisciplinary and that ‘student’ is a verb and…then someone will start talking about hiding multiplication drills in a video game. Let’s just say it’s disappointing.
Leading up to the conference, hearing the pop phrase “learning through play” coupled with the theme “Empowering Children to Shape Tomorrow” had me hopeful the LEGO Foundation folks *actually* got it. But I wasn’t sure.
As John Goodwin told the stories of the women in his family, reflecting on the relationships between their schooling paths and their career paths, my hesitation started to fall away. Then he put up this slide:
I grinned. The CEO of LEGO was speaking my language. And it got better from there.
My notes from the rest of the opening plenary are brief and enthusiastic scribbles about how Goodwin and then Jaime Saavedra were explaining to this room of 400 people–in much the same language I’ve used with much smaller groups–that our schools are expressions of education systems with outdated priorities, why that needs to change, and how the current research supports the new systems prioritizing nurturing creative and self-expressed humans. By the time they turned us loose to play for a few hours, the certainty that this was a crowd I’d find collaborators and friends in had me nearly dizzy with excitement.
I came back to earth pretty quickly. My first stop when exploring the LEGO House was an experiment group where half of us were instructed to be playful, half were told not to play, and we were all charged with making “ducks or creatures like ducks.” Being in the “playful” group, I made a well-eyebrowed hydra duck. When time was up, I was surprised to hear others in my group comment that they felt insecure about being less creative than me. When the facilitator of the experiment asked to interview someone from each side, my group nominated me “as the resident artist.” All in all, the experiment was interesting and fun. That said, rather than walking away reflecting on the difference in experience when an activity is framed as as a work assignment versus as play, I found myself reflecting on what impacts the amount of permission we give ourselves to be silly, how to re-teach adults to play, what alienates people from their creativity, and how my reaction to hearing someone else experience my play as devaluing theirs was an impulse to shrink that hasn’t felt that strong since junior high. It was fascinating…
Playing a few other games, finding adults who did want to play together, and talking to the “Play Guides” (the facilitator, play-worker staff) about their experiences pulled me out of my head, and I was re-centered pretty quickly. When I rounded a corner and saw a group of kids in the car-building space, the part of me that always protests after too many hours of adult-only sessions at ALC events and relaxes when the kids show up sent appreciation and thanks to whatever conference-planner thought to invite them.
The afternoon started with Sir Fazle Abed receiving an award and sharing about his journey growing BRAC. Hearing him cite Freire as inspiration and discuss how intentional he’d been about keeping BRAC’s operations community-based, I was reminded that ALC is part of a movement with a very long, rich, and encouraging history. I made a mental note to sign up for the session on BRAC’s parent and playworker education approach for the next day.
Chernor Bah spoke next. He shared about how his school teachers had complained about his playfulness, how his mom had encouraged him to keep playing, and how his ability to connect with others through play served him through war, displacements, and language barriers. He also talked about becoming aware that he’d been encouraged and able to develop his playfulness more than his sisters, which motivated him to think about and then found an organization to address gender inequality. Chernor didn’t really speak about his experiences as a youth activist, advocate, and organizer–which makes sense, I guess, since the topic was ‘play’ and learning journeys–but I’d read a little bit about his work before. Pretty awe-inspiring…
After the talks, we dispersed back through the LEGO House to hear other speakers’ stories of how they came to be who they are and do what they do. I ended up with my shoes off, in a giant pool of Duplo bricks, discussing the MIT Media Lab and how to keep misogyny from discouraging our teen girl gamer-maker-creators or convincing them to shrink themselves.
My last ‘formal’ session of the day was one recommended for first time conference attendees: “What do we mean by Learning Through Play?” One of the presenters has a hand in training most of the playworker/facilitator staff in the LEGO House, so I was curious to experience his facilitation.
The LEGO foundation has pretty illustrations of their 5 characteristics of play and 5 holistic development skills developed through play on their website, but it was fun to hear a bit about their research process. *And* I learned through that session that their whitepaper is available online. Excited to read that and share it with the SDE community.
Between all this, I’d gotten to chat with a bunch of rad and inspiring people who set up libraries and children’s museums, who worldschool and free school, who run maker-spaces and national education systems, who play and who parent. AND I walked around outside a bunch. Got back to my hotel tired, grateful, and curious about what I’d learn processing all my notes.