The Serious Use of Play and Metaphor: LEGO® Models and Labyrinths

The Serious Use of Play and Metaphor: LEGO® Models and Labyrinths

Alison James (London College of Fashion, UK) and Stephen Brookfield (University of St. Thomas, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0929-5.ch007


In this chapter we examine kinesthetic forms of learning involving the body and the physical realm. Despite the increasing pervasiveness of technology-enhanced learning, certain learning experiences cannot be replicated online, although they may be shared and added to through digital encounters. We look at two particular techniques; using LEGO bricks to build metaphorical models and living the physical experience of metaphors in the shape of labyrinth-walking and its attendant activities. The latter has become particularly important in higher education and other contexts as a form of contemplative consideration; a gentler kind of kinesthetic learning. We begin by discussing our experiences using LEGO building bricks as a reflective tool. Such bricks lend themselves particularly effectively to constructing metaphorical models, being widely available, easy to connect and are globally known as an iconic toy. However, the process can take place using any set of objects that are used to represent something other than their real nature. This will be apparent to anyone who has sat in a restaurant and used the salt and pepper cellars to describe a relationship, car maneuver, choice between two options, altercation or offside rule in Soccer. Buttons, sticks, candles, pots, peas, matches, or any other assortment of items which the user finds sufficiently rich to embody their ideas and convey their intentions work just as well. The point is that the user assigns specific meanings to the materials to illustrate some sort of process or relationship. What is important to bear in mind too is that the kind of materials used, and the user's attitudes to them, will also affect their engagement with, and the different things they might take from, the activities. In both our following examples the unusual nature of the learning experiences means that sensitive and skillful facilitation are important.
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The Concept Of Lego® Serious Play®

The name LEGO is an abbreviation of the two Danish words “leg godt”, meaning “play well”, described on a LEGO-related discussion list as the company’s name and ideal. Play is not just about amusing oneself but about developing understanding and communication. The singer and author Pat Kane (2004) argues that play is a driver for radical social change, while Huizinga (1949) sees play as part of human survival. Brian Sutton-Smith (2001) went so far as to argue that the opposite of play is not work, but depression. Play as a concept is often misunderstood in higher education, as it is seen as something relegated to childhood, or childish and trivial. LEGO SERIOUS PLAY was developed in 1996 by Kjeld Kirk Kristiensen, the owner of The LEGO Group, and Bart Victor and Johan Roos, professors at the Swiss business School IMD. Their purpose in so doing was to generate more engagement, imagination and playfulness in staff meetings. The ethos and history of LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is set out by Kristiansen and Rasmussen, (2014), while Gauntlett (2007, 2011) has authored many publications on the method including an open, online guide for new users (Gauntlett, 2010). Our use of LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is heavily rooted in the principles Kristiansen and Rasmussen outline for how it should be applied, but we adjust these for the time, context and interests of higher education participants.

Since its inception LEGO SERIOUS PLAY as been adopted by numerous high profile organizations (Google, eBay, The International Red Cross, Roche and NASA are some examples) as a business development process and alternative to traditional planning meetings (see also Nolan, 2009). In the five years since we first shared our thoughts on using LEGO, Alison has also used it extensively in many different corners of higher education, and in the corporate sector in Europe. You can find additional information on her experiences in the free online report commissioned by the UK Higher Education Academy Innovating in the Creative Arts with LEGO (2015). As we write, she has just delivered a talk on the relationship between LEGO SERIOUS PLAY and visual thinking via Skype to colleagues in Colombia. Although developed in the physical realm, LEGO SERIOUS PLAY approaches can also inform or feed into work in digital formats.

It is important to stress that while the context in this chapter is an arts and design one, the practices we describe are entirely transferable and open to adoption in all disciplines. The only prerequisite for these LEGO activities is that there is an issue to explore which has no obvious answer or course of action. Another important characteristic of the LEGO SERIOUS PLAY approach is that no “usual business” is conducted in the workshop. So if the key question is “how can we make our university more sustainable?” the workshop provides a free, open space in which to build and explore all aspects of the issue. Any writing up of a strategic plan, set of actions or allocation of duties is kept strictly outside this event. In this way the creative engagement with the process – thinking outside the bricks, rather than the box, perhaps, or certainly through them – is not diluted or stunted by getting functional jobs done. The intent is for the physical building process to unblock habitual thinking patterns that prevent solutions from emerging.

As we begin to build with LEGO we emphasise to our students that we are not creating literal models; rather we are constructing metaphorical and symbolic creations that represent people, issues, events and moods, among other things. Of equal importance to building, and almost impossible to extricate from the activity, is the ensuing discussion of how different models connect with each other, and how they can be adjusted. It is important to build models with fingers first, rather than to design in your head and then build with fingers. As the nerve endings situated in your fingers send messages to your brain, you are literally thinking through your fingers during the building process.

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