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LEGO Idea 2018: Day 2

So the second day started like this:

I could have watched Arvind Gupta for hours. His presence was gift enough. But then he mentioned that his project is open-source so 100s of his and others’ designs are available for free on his website. When I got to http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/, I discovered he also has work on there about John Holt. Kindred spirits and teachers everywhere I look these days…

The next lecture was Rebecca Winthrop sharing her work on Leapfrogging. From the sounds of it, Brookings is naming something that individuals have done for ages–learn from others’ processes and opt to skip steps of development where possible–to help organizations and systems intentionally look for opportunities to do the same, accelerating their development. Examples of leapfrogging would be countries opting not to lay cables for landline phones and organizations opting not to build brick-and-mortar bank buildings (presuming they haven’t already done these things), focusing their resources instead on cell phone service and mobile banking. The question I wrote down was “What have we assumed is necessary but we’re actually just emotionally attached to and can release to accelerate positive change?” Our industrial model schools, perhaps? Then Rebecca went on to show a rubric for gauging where an alternative education practice/system’s teaching and learning are in relationship to our conventional models versus the “breadth of skills” (aka 21st century skills) model the research says we should be reaching for. We did an exercise where we got into groups and discussed where each of our projects would be on the rubric. I laughed…ALC was so clearly it that my group was urging me to share if Rebecca called for volunteers to talk about their group’s conversation. “Leapfrogging,” a gentleman phrased it to me later, “would be a country going straight to building centers like yours and training facilitators instead of developing a school system.” Usually I’m not into men I just met telling me about my work, but in this case it was affirming and exciting. I’ll be reading the Brookings research before the summer season of trainings starts, for sure.

Next I went to a session on BRAC’s practices. I learned that they involve community members in setting up their centers from the start, asking them to help find a location they feel safe sending their children to and asking them for suggestions of which local young women to train as staff. I made a note to share that practice with some of the start-up groups in Mexico who had been asking about parent safety concerns…It makes a lot of sense to me. I learned that their training for the young women playworkers (they intentionally pick girls and young women from the community, to develop their skills, empower them, and offer them work experience) typically includes about 5 days of theory, practice, and monthly check-ins with other playworker/facilitators. Sounds familiar 🙂 Finally, I learned that they include parents and other family members by offering workshops, encouraging volunteering, and organizing space-work days where they provide materials for parents to come in and make toys together. Clearly the approach was carefully designed to empower and enrich whole communities, and I was delighted to learn how successful it’s been. It’s the kind of approach to change-making that I’d love to see way more of in the world…something I thought about when at one point I turned around to start an activity and saw that Sir Fazle Abed and his wife were both in the session with us, participating.

The afternoon kicked off with a panel discussion about global scaling. Sharath Jeevan of Stir offered an illustration of nonprofits working to influence governments as ants biting an elephant, powerful only if they’re strategic, that I’m going to save for when we get into the work of advocating for SDE-friendly policy changes as a network. My notes on this conversation are a bit fragmented, but I highlighted ’embracing complexity while seeking simplicity’ and ‘build platforms so people can do the work of applying your idea on the ground where they are’ as themes. Saku Tuominen of HundrED said near closing that one of the reason innovations don’t catch on and spread is that those doing the work don’t take time to broadcast. He’s right…It’s something that’s been on my mind in relation to ALC for a few months now. We have to share generously, and that means valuing sharing enough to intentionally protect time for doing so.

My last workshop of the conference was one I sort-of ended up at by accident. My brain was too full, and I got the numbers of the sessions I’d signed up for all mixed up. It worked out though; I ended up at the South Africa Cares session on “6 Bricks” exercises for kids and teachers. I hadn’t been looking for a session on classroom exercises, but I’m really glad I ended up at this one. First, it sounds like their organization does some really cool work, and I’m excited to now know about them so I can read more once I’m settled back home. Second, I recognized that their exercises incorporate Brain Gym movements, so I got to have some really interesting conversations about that and am back to wondering if I should find someone to teach me more about their therapy model. So cool.

We went back downstairs to hear from a panel of observers sharing harvests from the sessions they’d been in that day. Then Kiran Bir Sethi shared a framework her schools use that sounded so much like the ALC 4th root that I sent a photo to the facilitators who have been working on re-wording that root (it’s the principle about learning being a process that includes intention, exploration, iteration, reflection, and sharing). She also shared an adorable video of her kids doing their project-based-learning stuff and being awesome, remarking that once a kid experiences being a catalyst for change, the way they relate to their world changes. It’s so good to know there are people all over the world raising empowered kids. Gives me hope.


And just like that, we were at the closing session. I committed to record a video reflection, but I’m writing two blog posts instead (I’m recording a video on something else tomorrow…). Made some music with everyone to close the event out, video-called the NYC kids (just like I did from Mexico! Gotta love tech…), took a silly selfie with Liam under the giant LEGO tree, said good-bye to new friends I’ll hopefully cross paths with again someday, and prepared for the long journey home.

LEGO Idea 2018: Day 1

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.