What I Learned about the Power of Play from the LEGO® Idea Conference

Three weeks ago, I was planning my trip to Billund, Denmark– the home of the LEGO® Brick and planning every detail of my wow outfits for the LEGO® Idea Conference. Now, I have a work from home checklist to change out of my pajamas to ensure better work from home functioning. How times and mindsets have changed in three weeks!

The LEGO Foundation made the decision early on at the beginning of March to cancel the in-person March 9-11 conference and pivot to a virtual format. With only a week to prepare and pivot, the LEGO Foundation team put their money where their research was and showcased their team’s creativity and flexibility with this successful pivot. This pivot showcased the skillset the conference set out to highlight: creativity and why it matters. You can watch the online conference here.

This year’s theme, Why Creativity Matters — How do we cultivate creative skills for all children? is a topic I am very passionate about and is very timely as many schools and teachers are having to pivot rapidly themselves to a new format as the coronavirus spreads rapidly around the world and schools close their physical doors. This is why creativity matters — it allows you to see a solution where others may not. Creativity also helps you connect dots and iterate new solutions.

It was a dream come true and a career milestone to be invited to the exclusive LEGO Idea conference that invites 350-400 people worldwide to the home and headquarters of the LEGO Brick: Billund, Denmark. Moreover, the conference was going to be held at the innovative and inspiring LEGO® House, designed by Danish architect and founder of BIG, Bjarke Ingels.

Photo: LEGOHouse.com

The conference is hosted each year by the LEGO Foundation, which focuses on advocating for children’s development, curates information, funds and disseminates research, and shares resources to support the impact play has on the development and learning of children to reach their fullest potential. The LEGO Foundation picks a different theme each year to focus on and gather thought leaders, practitioners, researchers, academics, and organizations staked in that specific arena from around the world to participate in the LEGO Idea Conference. Below is the mission of the LEGO Foundation.

The LEGO Foundation aims to build a future in which learning through play empowers children to become creative, engaged, lifelong learners. We are dedicated to re-defining play and re-imaging learning to ensure children build the broad set of skills they need to thrive and succeed in a rapidly changing world.

I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams would think we would be dealing with a global pandemic like the coronavirus, but here we are as a global community trying to figure out solutions to work through these troubling times. If there was ever a time for creativity and the positive impact it can have on decision making, leadership, and thinking outside the box for solutions to BIG BIG problems, it is now!


I applaud the LEGO Foundation for how their team pivoted early on to not only make the decision to change formats– from in-person to virtual, but also to have the faith in their team to use their own creativity to innovate the original conference plan. This is what Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Chair of Learning through Play and Vice-President of The LEGO Foundation had to say about his team using creativity as a skillset to make the conference happen:

The rapidly changing situation made our promise and need to redefine play even more real. We approached the uncertainty by being open and positive towards the changing circumstances and worked collaboratively with internal colleagues and external partners to test and try out alternative ways of engagement. There was no perfect solution, but given the quality of the existing sessions and our excellent partners, we had to leverage existing opportunities and rebuild them like with LEGO Bricks; then obviously some technical expertise in making shorter, more hands-on activities, on an online platform to engage everyone remotely. – Bo Stjerne Thomsen

The LEGO Foundation team sure delivered and many people were able to participate in the conference, even more so than would have been able to attend than the in-person event. You can watch the 2020 LEGO Idea Virtual Edition Conference here. I will share links as well throughout this article to different sessions and the resources associated with the speakers for easy access as there were many great resources shared.

To synthesize this powerful conference, I chose to continue the message of learning through play by synthesizing the conference in different lego builds as well as using materials found around my home.  Some of the builds I created represent key information points of the conference, including the five characteristics of play represented here in the different colored bricks: joy, active engagement, social interaction, meaning, and iteration.

                   The five characteristics of play: joy, active engagement, social interaction, meaning, and iteration

I also created a storyframe to represent how the pieces fit together. My storyframe below highlights my synthesis of the conference.

It takes practitioners embedded in an invested ecosystem of supportive institutions, academics, administrators, researchers, and policy makers using creativity and purposeful playful learning to ignite the flame of learning.

The conference was a collage of experts, interactive playful learning sessions, research and information distributed in well-told stories and anecdotes on a down to earth level that felt not too formal and academic and not too infantile, but just right.

If you are not familiar with the LEGO Foundation and have a stake in education, as an educator, teacher, academic, professor of education, administrator, child development specialist, researcher, policy maker and/or parent, I highly recommend accessing the LEGO Foundation’s easy to understand research. They present the research and information in a way that feels welcoming and accessible for anyone. Here are some links to help you jump into the deep end of play.

The virtual conference started with an airplane landing at Billund Airport. LEGO Idea Conference host, Carly Ciarrocchi waited for a bus to pick her up and she entered an empty LEGO House. This scene moved to a large foamy brick-built couch Ciarrocchi created to entertain herself while waiting for LEGO Foundation CEO, John Goodwin to join her. Upon joining her, the two began to play, interact, and discuss iterating a footstool to make the couch more comfortable. The two discussed the five characteristics of play illuminating insight and elaboration on the five characteristics.

Ciarrocchi said, “This is fun,” while iterating with Goodwin a colorful footstool to match the colorful couch made of oversized foam building bricks. Goodwin chimed in with more insight:

Joy is often misunderstood because people think, Oh joy, people are rolling around laughing all the time when they’re playing and that’s not always the case. What we mean by joy is some of that euphoria at the end of accomplishing something– That was tough, but wow, I’ve achieved it. 

Think of the joy and euphoria of anything difficult you’ve achieved, whether it be a project or a task. There is often joy in what we work hard at for it puts us in flow. Flow is another aspect of play and playful learning. Flow is that in the zone feeling that happens when you are fully engaged and time seems to pass effortlessly.

Flow was first termed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and means when one is engrossed in a task at the right level as to challenge them and also not be too challenging as to create anxiety.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asks in his TED Talk, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

The LEGO Idea Conference team’s own joy in working through the challenge of pivoting to a virtual conference was apparent when you saw the engagement and innovation of the virtual content and added programs. The conference team created a 24-hour Create-A-Thon virtual workshop suite that overlapped some of the virtual conference and ran parallel to the two-day conference, engaging participants all over the world.

This is what conference host, Carly Ciarrocchi had to say about pivoting last minute to a virtual format and using her own creativity skills as an adult illustrating Why creativity matters.

In transforming the LEGO Idea Conference from an in-person event to a live-stream, we actually lived out a central piece of the LEGO Foundation’s mission. They believe in the iterative nature of creativity, and our experience fully inhabited that concept. We took the conference apart and reimagined it under new constraints. We found a way to turn an obstacle into an invitation. Kids can and do practice that perspective shift through play, but the hope is they’ll take the tools into adulthood. And it’s never too late to start experimenting with seeing the unknown as an opportunity. I see so many adults that don’t give themselves permission to iterate, evolve and course-correct. But everyone has access to creativity — sometimes they just need a little nudge. – Carly Ciarrocchi, LEGO Idea Conference host

The Create-a-Thon parallel track allowed participants to create with smaller break-out sessions and engage in conference workshops that were adapted from in-person format to virtual workshops taking place in Zoom rooms. This is what AnnMarie Thomas had to say about working with the conference team and their flexibility, creativity and agility in adapting the conference to a virtual format. 

The team working on the 24 hour Create-a-Thon had to be truly creative– creating an interactive global event with only a few days preparation. I observed them supporting each other as a team and accepting help from new folks (like me) graciously and openly. At a time of global uncertainty, the chance to be part of a team working, with clear focus, on something we all cared about was, amazingly, a joy. — AnnMarie Thomas, 2020 LEGO Prize Winner

One of the Create-a-Thon workshops I attended and admired how they used technology to adapt was the virtual chain reaction, which allowed participants to submit their own built at-home chain reaction, which the LEGO Foundation team synched together through an ongoing loop you can watch here. It’s not too late to submit to the ongoing chain reaction, so go ahead: create and play.

If you are at home with your child, an adult and child recess might just be the thing you need. If you need inspiration for a chain reaction, check out LEGO Idea Conference speaker, Damian Kulash and his band, OK Go as they simulate a chain reaction syncing exactly with the music in This Too Shall Pass. We think the title is definitely food for thought. Go on — it’s time for recess! Go play (but honor social distancing).

You can also see the recording of Damian Kulash and 2020 LEGO Prize winner, AnnMarie Thomas discuss and engage participants in this Create-A-Thon workshop, Playing in the Musical Sandbox. They discuss what happens when you use music as a starting point for playful exploration and their OK Go Sandbox project for educators where they share lesson plans for teachers aligned to Next Generation Science Standards, National Arts Standards and other learning standards that not only meet K-12 classroom standards, but moreover integrate creativity and problem solving. STEM, STEAM, Project Based Learning, Problem Based Learning, whatever the focus, this sandbox is sure to delight educators and more importantly– students in the classroom.

By the way, AnnMarie Thomas and Carly Ciarrocchi are supporting educators in a twice-a-day debrief via their co-creation support center called The Playline. If you are a teacher switching to on-line teaching and needing a group of supportive educators and knowledgeable support staff, check it out. They meet in the mornings via this Zoom link at 10 am EST and in the evening at 10 pm EST.

Another program under the colorful Create-a-Thon umbrella of activities was the jam session that utilized technology and recorded sounds participants submitted and were strung together to make a musical jam session. You can check it out below. If it makes you as happy as it does me, feel free to tweet link to your peeps and share the jam joy.

                                                   Video from LEGO Foundation, posted with permission

All kinds of sessions during the conference were recorded and available for the public to view here on the LEGO Foundation Vimeo channel. Check them out. It will be a welcome distraction. The brain needs breaks and what better way than to see how playful learning can make a vital and powerful impact on childhood development. By the way, their Vimeo channel has lots of great ideas for play.

A couple of sessions I’d like to highlight that I attended were Co-Designing their Future with Allison Druin and Jason Yip, Mitchel Resnick from MIT Media Lab on the future of creativity, and Shitty Robots with Peter Dahl, Manager at Fablab Spinderihallerne.

In Co-Designing Their Future, Allison Druin, Associate Provost for Research & Strategic Partnerships at the Pratt Institute and Jason Yipp, Assistant Professor of Digital Youth and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Washington led our group through a hands-on workshop where we explored how can we co-design together when we cannot be together. We played our way through this question using objects within reach and explored how to co-design with children in a virtual setting. Yipp’s University of Washington based Kids Team partners adults with children to design new technology for children.

The goal of co-design is elaboration. It’s not just the idea I have. It’s not the idea the child has. It’s not just Jason’s idea. It’s how we connect our ideas together. — Allison Druin, Co-Designing Their Future workshop

Some highlights of Co-Designing Their Future below:

Another favorite workshop was Shitty Robots – Creative Tinkering and Digital Fabrication with Peter Dahl, FabLab Manager at Spinderihallerne in Vejle, Denmark. Dahl introduced the framework around the “Shitty Robots” education programs and invited us to participate in hands-on construction of our own shitty robot, tinkering together with Danish lower secondary students.

We were encouraged to use materials we had nearby, whether they were robotic materials or not and instructed us to dream big, encouraging us to build a fantastical idea and bring it to life– no matter how absurd. My idea evolved over the 90-minute workshop into a mechanical writer’s block glitter glow spinner that dissolves writer’s block and induces muse with the quick spin of the glitter glow-a-nator. We were told to think big and dream big, even how ridiculous and shitty our robots from low-tech supplies may turn out. It was very engaging and fun to create and tinker with FabLab Danish students.

Worth pointing out is how Dahl encouraged failure and even held up a sign that read:    F.A.I.L. – First Attempt In Learning.

I created the T.W.B. Robot — Tunnel of Writer’s Block, which when robotically spun, the glitter transformed your writer’s block into writer’s muse.

My favorite sessions were the hands-on sessions where we gathered what materials we had nearby in our homes and followed along in a Create-A-Thon atmosphere where playful learning was matched with the underlining pedagogy of constructionism, which is vital to playful learning. In a nutshell, constructionism means as you build anything with you hands, you build that knowledge in your mind. That ties back to the five characteristics of play, in building meaning. As you create anything, you build meaning. That is why hands-on learning is so powerful. As you build that knowledge with your hands, you build that knowledge in your mind. That knowledge is brought to the surface to reveal an even deeper understanding.

And finally, what a pleasure it was to spend time with Scratch creator and LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab, Mitch Resnik and the MIT Media Lab team, also known as the Lifelong Kindergarten research group and their South American cohorts, Creative Villages program. In this hands-on, hearts-on session — Creative Learning Circle – Deep Dive 2.0 — the MIT Media Lab team led us on a learning adventure into the Creative Learning Circle approach. We met in small groups via Zoom and created models of a powerful learning experience we had growing up. I made my build using modeling clay and created a skillet representing Doc Hartick’s class, where I attended an alternative mixed-grade elementary class.

Doc, as we called her, was always a facilitator, leading us in a guided way towards something bigger. That is what I remember most vividly — was the quest and journey upon which we embarked as students on various ships, as if out at sea on our own maiden voyage, each of us at different grade levels. We could run in a sprint if we were keen on the topic and knowledgeable or take a slower trot if we needed to. We ran at our our pace, which I loved. Looking back now as an educator, I see how she scaffolded her lessons and differentiated her classroom– centering her students around complex and interesting topics. I can’t say for sure what pedagogy she identified with, but facilitator and community builder is what my heart says.

I don’t recall using textbooks in Doc’s class, but hands-on experiences and small group instruction. I was enamored with learning in her class. The way she taught and facilitated learning met each student where they were and gravitate towards her high standards, where all students learned. No matter what our level, we grew.

The model I created in Creative Learning Circle – Deep Dive 2.0 sure pushed me into the deep end. The skillet was a representation of a lesson we did to celebrate Hanukkah. Jacob was Jewish and Doc invited him to lead a lesson for us and teach us about Jewish culture. So we made potato latkes right there in class on an electric skillet. I can still smell the latkes and feel the texture of the patties as we prepared and cooked them in class. I can hear Jacob’s voice and the pride which he felt sharing about his culture.

Doc did this– her method did, but pedagogy also held a place. Doc understood childhood development, holding a PhD in it. She understood how children learn and that they learn through play and hands-on experiences. She also knew experiential learning empowered children.

After creating our models of a favorite playful learning memory, we broke into small groups in this session and told our stories. I kept having technical difficulties with my own equipment and kept exiting and entering the Zoom room, but was always greeted by the kindest moderator, who had the playful spirit the Lifelong Kindergarten emits.

All this, emerged from the Creative Learning Circle — Deep Dive 2.0 hands-on, hearts-on workshop. I am almost embarrassed to admit this so openly, but I honestly choked up sharing the story of my model with the group. But this is the power of play and hands-on learning. The hands know more than we think they do. And people connect with stories, especially when they build them with their hearts and hands (constructivism and constructionism). Did you know that people remember stories 22x more than facts and figures alone?

It certainly was a deep dive and definitely worth the splash. I highly recommend you read Resnik’s book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play and take the free six-week course for educators, Learning Creative Learning. You’ll be connected with a global cohort and dive into the deep end of all things creative learning. The next course starts April 13. Hope to see you there. Here is Resnik’s keynote, Future of Creativity recording from the 2020 Idea Conference, also worth a listen. It’s very insightful about the role of creativity in our current global situation with the coronavirus.

The Brookings Institute did a study of 152 countries to identify what are those things that countries believe are most important for education systems to develop for the future. The top four were communication, problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. And the Gallup 2019 study illustrates that both parents (77%) and teachers (87%) agree that teaching approaches that inspire creativity in the learning process have a bigger payoff for students. Moreover, the United Nations has issued an open brief to all creatives, asking for solutions to help spread public health messages in ways which will be effective, accessible, and sharable. Together we can flatten the curve, the brief says. For more information and details, you can view the Global Call to Creatives in this Google doc presentation published by the United Nations. AdWeek’s article, UN Issues Global Call to Creatives in Response to COVID-19 is framed nicely and has helpful links as well.

Below is Brick Scholars answer to the call. Tag us in yours if you create one, we’d love to see them and share them.

View this post on Instagram

#flattenthecurve #stayhome #socialdistancing #besafe

A post shared by Brick Scholars (@brickscholars) on

We must fight this fight together armed with supporting research and documentation that learning creatively is not only a luxury for children, but a necessity as we prepare them for a future that is both exciting and also uncertain. Creativity offers solutions that we don’t see necessarily. Creativity connects dots and like Carly Ciarrocchi said, offers “opportunities as invitations,” to not only think outside the box, but invent it. We are seeing this box invented right before our own eyes globally as we battle the coronavirus.

Together we can make a difference. You may be experiencing new opportunities and invitations to entertain and educate your own children as schools have closed their physical doors and gone to an online learning model. Parents and educators now have opportunities they may not see as positive invitations, but with play and playful learning, creativity grows for it is through play that fertilizes the soil of learning. Creativity is not only a crop, but also a pollinator. And you are the bee…

Some more resources for you, as I was only able to scratch the surface of showing you the entire content of the conference. Since you have swam with me so far, these expert panels, discussions, and posts are some other links worth checking out:

Creativity matters and research not only supports it, but boldly states it.

As the United States Ambassador for the Agency for Cultural Diplomacy, I am excited to hear that the United Nations is calling for creativity in contributions to help solve the Convid19 crisis. Here we are figuring out solutions we didn’t know existed, using creativity as a core skill. Creativity matters!