The Building Blocks of Playing to Learn - with Bo Stjerne Thomsen

Bo Stjerne Thomsen of the Lego Foundation discusses how play-based learning will change the world.

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The Building Blocks of Playing to Learn - with Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Lego Foundation

This week we're joined by Bo Stjerne Thomsen - Chair of Playing to Learn at the Lego Foundation. We cover a plethora of topics including how Lego Foundation aims to change early childhood education globally, why assessments suck, and if Siri is an all knowing being that can solve animal death mysteries.

A transcript of the episode (generated by AI, so there are mistakes!):

Antonio Santiago: [00:00:00] if you're listening to this podcast, chances are you have some interest in education and play-based learning. You're probably also familiar with the fact that teaching children through memorization methods and standardized testing is not the way to go enter Bo Stjerne Thompson, the vice president and the chair of learning through play at the Lego foundation.

In this episode, we touch on many subjects, much of this discussion focuses on bringing play to low income communities and the importance of blowing up assessments as we know them So without further ado, let's get into it.


Antonio Santiago: you know them, you love them. And you've dropped four letter words at some point, because you've accidentally stepped on them Legos. Yes. Those Legos, our guest today is from the Lego [00:01:00] foundation and the Lego foundation is on a mission. Now we know that play-based learning is incredibly beneficial to children.

That's a fact, it's a strong statement to make, but a true. Another true statement. There are educational discrepancies in the world and today's guest really wants to help bridge that gap with play-based learning. 

Bo: So my name is Bo Stjerne Thomsen. I am the chair of learning through play in the Lego foundation.

Antonio Santiago: Both CV or resume for our listeners in the states is wild. We had a virtual discussion across the pond because he's currently in Boston as a visiting scholar at Harvard. He actively writes as the chair of learning through play and is just genuinely passionate and interested in play based learning.

Bo: My interest in play-based learning or learning through play, as we begin to articulate it is from my background in design-based research and the industry of [00:02:00] architecture and technologies and robotics systems. I figured out that when I was developing something new, whether it was. Design piece furniture, lighting systems or buildings or embed robotic systems.

Actually, when I was creating something new, also learned a lot, you had to find new information. You had to figure out new ideas. You had to come up with, new solutions to challenging. So that actually means that these kinds of processes where you engage in uncertainty, design are creative and so forth, is actually something where you are playing because you're testing and trying out things.

But you also learn a broad range of skills and knowledge of why we do that. And then later that led into my PhD work at the MIT media lab, where I studied the relationship between physical environments and RPX our relationships and how we learn. So I was particularly fascinated at the implications of, manipulation about RPX what does it mean to create and make things and what do we learn?

And then lastly, I came into the Lego company at a point where there was a huge interest in [00:03:00] bridging the research, the academic expertise and getting that into practice. So my, my key interest in learning through play is to make sure that we can make use and implement the based amount of knowledge that exists in development and play and learning and make it a good use in indication, but in new products and in changing educational systems.

Antonio Santiago: Bo is a big deal in this field. I mean, he's got a PhD where he studied the relationships between physical environments and how we learn and did work at MIT. On the subject, Bo you're adequately prepared to answer this. What is learning through play in your words?

Bo: When we talk about learning through play, the key starting point is that we learn, throughout life. And what's most critical is that we not only think about learning as academic and knowledge, But it's really about a broad range of skills that we need.

We need to learn to be more creative, to be collaborative, to be critical thinkers, because that's what we [00:04:00] need in the workplace. That's what we need in real life and play is an ultimate vehicle for learning, not only knowledge, but a range of different skills. So when we learn through play, it's not only about the activity.

We usually tend to think that, you go outdoor and climb trees, or you do sports or you play games, or you build the Lego bricks, all of these are great playful activities, but what's unique about learning through play is a few key characteristics, which transcends any kind of activity in your life, which means that you are active,

not passive that you are testing and trying out things in your environment that are inherently interesting to you, meaningful to you, and that you really enjoy that process, which sometimes it's alone and sometimes with others. So what really is learning through play is that you can develop a range of different skills and knowledge by being actively engaged in testing and trying out things.

And that's something that happens, from early years into schools and into adult life 

Antonio Santiago: [00:05:00] So let's sum that up quickly, Bo and I are talking about the same topics. We're just calling it a different name. Here at That's Child's Play! We call it play-based learning. And the Lego foundation calls it, learning through play. He's saying there's a few characteristics inherent to play-based learning first is that you are actively doing something testing and trying things out.

And the second is that you are enjoying the process. What you're doing is fun, and it doesn't feel like What we typically associate with academic learning. Third is that you're developing skills and knowledge . Think about when you were a kid playing with something like, well, Legos sure.

On the outside, it can look like not much as being learned, but when you're a super little one, you're learning fine motor skills. When you're a little older, you're learning about problem solving by putting the pieces together. And as you get even older things like design narrative telling structure, building, And a plethora of other little things that really, really add up. And the thing is when people study the way children [00:06:00] learn, it's kind of incredible. The sheer amount of skills and processes they're able to glean by just being children. The Lego foundation owns 25% of Lego. And has a comprehensive research base and network.

they've worked in over 20 countries to change the systems and ways of thinking about education. 

Bo, I'm just curious. Lego foundation wants to essentially change the world and the way we think about education, how do you go about achieving those goals?


So we work with a parent engagement strategies. Which means, how do we practically support parents with activities in their daily life, where they can have opportunities to have greater social interactions with the children. So what can they do if they only have 10 minutes, half an hour, what can they do?

To take a new way, a new route on the way to school, to be a little playful with the things you do in your everyday life? What can you do when you are baking or, making breakfast. And so what can you change one ingredient in your meal to invite children into [00:07:00] that process?

So it's all about parent engagement strategies that actually supports their understanding that positive, responsive interactive relationship with children is something that not only values that children's developing and learning, but also.themselves And then we work with teachers. So there are two strands of our work with teachers.

One is on teacher education and one is on teacher professional development. And in many ways, teachers are doing an extraordinarily good job and they really know, what does it mean to cheat and the pedagogies? But sometimes we also have learned to teach only through instruction t o convey knowledge through one end of the classroom.

And what seems to be changing right now is we need to think about a broader range of skills and more interactive and innovative pedagogies. So what we are really supporting in the teacher education is play labs so in Denmark, for instance, we have physical hands-on materials in the teacher colleges where teachers can learn to also handle uncertainty, to develop their own activities, to use materials and technologies in new ways.

Antonio Santiago: [00:08:00] And these labs, aren't only in Denmark, the Lego foundation also supports teachers in impoverished areas using Play Labs in 2016, they had an initiative that created 120 play labs in Bangladesh, Tanzania, and Uganda, all of which were made to promote early childhood play-based education.

Bo: And then in teacher professional development here we support ways to engage teachers in using their everyday materials, particularly for guidance. One of the challenges sometimes in education, is we think about learning and teaching as other instruction of free play. In the classroom or when we really need to convey something really important in the curriculum

you instruct things and then you give children free choices to go out on the playground, but actually where the research serves the most value is in guidance. It's in the middle. So where you stage particular key challenges or key problems for children and students to think about, but the students can, approach that in with multiple strategies or [00:09:00] experiential learning, where you take children outdoors or explore a particular topic where they do the research.

And then they figure out and reflect with the children on what are the kind of strategies to learn from these type of experiences. So it's really about embracing the full spectrum from instruction to games, to guidance and free play in the pedagogy.

Antonio Santiago: Do you like walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to learning through play? Like, do you have children that you implement playful learning with?

Bo: . Absolutely. I find great opportunity and joy in using these strategies, my children, but I also learn a lot from my own children and I think that's the most important as a parent. It is to be. Keeping curious and open-minded to the opportunities that exists around you.

Sometimes we get stuck in a certain mindset of a structure or things we have to do, but you're not really good at looking at opportunities and try new things or so I get a lot from being inspired by my own children 

Antonio Santiago: As mentioned part of the Lego foundation's work is research. [00:10:00] And one of the research areas they're working on right now is measuring, measuring the effectiveness of play based learning.

But why has this become a priority for the Lego foundation

Bo: Measuring is so critical right now to our work for a few different reasons. I think the starting point is that in order to convince adults and systems particularly educational systems and policy makers who make decisions on behalf of a lot of different people

The key thing that seems to be really getting at the core, this in measurement is to measure and appreciate that joy of learning. We want to have, tangible ideally quantifiable outcomes but what seems to be a relationship between what is pre and post and can be tested

to what really matters right now is something like a joy of learning. And it's a characteristics we look at right now. So actually we have a rubric where You can observe directly, are children curious? Are they attentive to exploring things around them? Are they actually having [00:11:00] pleasure in overcoming things that are difficult?

That's a greatest joy of learning is we will try things. You're not really sure how it works and suddenly you succeed with it but also practically are you actively engaged. I actually manipulating things are you touching things? Are you testing and trying out what works? If you build a tower in our. Trying to build again, but in a new way.

And what kind of language do you use. So very specifically, we have the five characteristics of how children learn through play. We look directly at observations and strategies that you can support that directly with children. 

Antonio Santiago: Measuring the joy of learning I'm sold Bo also mentioned the five characteristics of learning through play And these are explicitly laid out by the Lego foundation. The characteristics are one actively engaging, two meaningful, three socially interactive, four joyful and five iterative. the idea isn't that playful learning should be all five at the same time, but rather that in order to successfully learn through play, [00:12:00] they should be present in some form or fashion Now let's talk about testing. Standardized testing is something that most teachers just straight up don't like, but they find it is a necessary evil in order to benchmark where students are and where students are going. Bo, you touched on standardized testing and how it isn't necessarily the best way to assess units. Has the research found better alternatives?

Bo: That's a very good question. I think it's very important to understand that the kind of standardized tests that exist for instance, in school. Uh, Probably useful for someone, but it's not support children's learning assessment that supports children's learning are the things that children understand it's integrated as part of the things you teach

and it's actually a thing that children sometimes develop themselves. So we have quite some studies around assessment, how it support learning and children actually enjoy different types of assessments. And they enjoy assessing each other. But when [00:13:00] the ways they do that is that they develop a project or they draw something or they build something and they take a picture of it and show it to others and they give feedback.

So that process of assessment and actually more formative it's part of the process. And that's the thing that supports learning. But actually, when we talk about integrative assessment, we just need a range of other ways. To assess and talk about learning. So for instance, we usually do, these kinds of worksheets and , multi dye testing in standardized rubrics and so forth, actually children can develop their own rubrics.

They can like, try to say what did you learn here? And then do their own kind of rubrics. And that's the most conducive to learning is that when you invent your own kind of. And have fun with different ways. You can use that. So the new technologies like Kahoot! And other technologies actually, where children use it themselves and just test and try it out during the classes.

we need to move from standardized tests in small units of a particular narrow content, two times a year to really think [00:14:00] about how it supports, how children learn, and the many different ways that children can be assessed and can learn.

Antonio Santiago: Okay. Yeah. That's a fascinating concept. That assessments are not purely for measurement, but that also students can assess each other, but in doing that assessing and creating their own rubrics and whatnot, it's a huge learning opportunityin itself.. Now the Lego foundation works in over 20 countries worldwide, but has what they call focused geographies. And those are in Denmark, Mexico, South Africa, and Ukraine Bo, can we walk through how these locations were chosen? It's a diverse group of countries and it seems like they'd have a unique sets of challenges in themselves.

Bo: Yeah, the legal foundation we have focused geographies, where we have offices obviously in Denmark but also in Mexico, South Africa and Ukraine.

And they basically originated from having strong partners where we not only know that we could have a diverse experience of the environments where we could support so we are [00:15:00] interested in operating in a diverse settings that is beyond the focus of the company to really understand what works in different contexts.

In that case, Mexico and South Africa and Ukraine were places where we had strong partners, we knew they had really strong insights on ground, but it would but also very different in the context of which we operated. We also work, in 20 more countries these are just the main geographies where we can create systems change where there's a transformation opportunity across the educational system, the governments to teach us and parents. So there's a kind of openness to a change. Of course, the educational system touching parents and teachers and so forth, but in reality where we operate in in more than 20 countries where the real needs are, we have to be out there and demonstrate and test out how.

Works with access and quality where it's most difficult. So in that case, we work in setting from refugee camps to . Areas of migration to lower SES areas to also, first Lego [00:16:00] league and robotics.

Antonio Santiago: Mhm, it's difficult to communicate, to say a less developed community. That actually the thing that will help your education system is play not standardized testing, Not lecturing young ones with books and rote memorization, but actually learning through play. How do you guys convince people that sorry, play is the way?


Bo: That's a very good question. You know, being able to convince, but also support, governments and teachers and parents and implementing this is absolutely what's most important. I think the starting point in all of what we do is again, to start with adults. And the big opportunity right now is to realize that if you look at the skills that are needed in the workforce, You know, that is about adaptability.

It's about learning new things on learning other things. It's about being able to find alternative strategies when you are in an area of uncertainty or a time of [00:17:00] uncertainty. What that means is that approaching uncertainty of being creative and adaptable is exactly what children are extremely good at.

So the starting point for us is to illustrate that the way to the natural learners, to explore things, to go in with the positive mindset of being curious and that is an extraordinary opportunity we can see from the Science that that's, how we should naturally learn both as adults and as as young people and in the education system.

It also means that the second key thing is to change the understanding of what a good outcome is of the educational system, because if parents and sometimes teachers are guided only by the standardized outcomes in the curriculum and the. We lose the whole point about learning, being about excitement for learning and being, on-goingly interested in keep learning new things, but it also misses the point that it's really about collaboration.

It's about critical thinking. It's about coming up the alternative ideas. 

Antonio Santiago: Alternative ideas. It's kind of what this all boils down to. Right? It's a hard pill to swallow that by allowing kids to be kids, they learn more. And so [00:18:00] essentially what the Lego foundation is doing is using existing organizations like the OECD to get the message across.

Bo: So we have focused on changing the outcomes to not only knowledge, but broader skills focus and really having positive attitudes toward learning. So we work with OECD on the metrics For standard outcomes in education, we work with Higher institutions.

We work on with high schools to have more portfolio based assessment, because if we provide that kind of aspiration, it will trickle down all the way through the educational system. Because one of the main barriers, I would say both across a, a higher socioeconomic groups and lower socioeconomic groups is if the challenge is.

We want to get high grades to get into school and to higher education, then that will keep reinforcing many parents and teachers to focus on classic types of instruction and standardized outcomes. But if you say there are many paths to be successful in life, and you have to have a broader range of skills.

What it means [00:19:00] is you not only look for the grades, you actually look for children's experiences. What are the particular thing that they will write on their kind of portfolio to say? I actually helped someone. I worked in the community. I developed this new idea. I worked with these new people and that's been much more important nowadays.

We see both in the workforce, but also when you get into higher education,

Antonio Santiago: What's something the Lego foundation is working on right now that has you excited on a personal level,

Bo: The key thing in our work right now is really about shifting education from being mainly about knowledge, acquisition, and linear instruction, to be much more about an innovative, interactive process of. How can that encrypt children, not only with a better understanding of the concepts and the principles in the curriculum, but a much broader range of skills and this ongoing excitement for learning. So what you are really studying right now is what are the barriers to get these types of pedagogies and principles, into educational systems?

[00:20:00] And that is about changing assessments. It's about having, visionary leaders with exploration that is a little broader than just a standardized outcomes, and then work really with teachers and parents to understand that there's more to learning than what goes on in the school. A second thing we are doing is really looking at the ways technologies are integrated now in everyday life.

So we see when we study children in a recent study across South Africa and the UK We can see that children are using technologies in amazing new ways we haven't imagined. So this idea about screen and no screen is a, it's a little artificial. They draw things on paper, take a picture and share with their friends, or they make a little project in a document upload and they manipulate it and comment on it.

Or they make things in Minecraft or creative platforms where they actually collaborate they comment, they discuss, and so forth. And they actually, in many of these instances, technologies need to be active, not sitting passively. They need to be, not sedentary [00:21:00] and individual, but collaborative and inherently about creative use of technologies.

That's much more about finding your own ideas and personalizing them. So how do we make better use of technology? So it transcends across home and school and community. And then we are doing range of other interesting projects in terms of really understanding, for instance, we know really well that Lego materials and all the science behind in terms of a logic and reasoning and creative tool.

There's also many opportunities to think about manipulatives in the role of language and literacy. So how can we think about materials when we support language development, and how can we think about multiple ways that materials and hands-on learning support special needs? So we have a whole program on artistic Tilden and braille begins look into ADHD because we need to diversify our education systems and the key role, a key lever for that is, is a play-based learning.

Antonio Santiago: This holistic look at education is fascinating. And so is the idea of using [00:22:00] play-based learning as a means to make education systems more inclusive and accessible to people around the world.

I also was curious about the ways something like Lego products promote learning, 

So let's go into that a little bit.

Bo: So, there- I think that the key thing that comes out of the research is when children, build and make things and stack towers or they build different scenarios and roleplay,

it's really about logic and reasoning. They quantify, they sort, they count, it's a starting point for mathematical thinking. All kinds of research into understanding, spatial understanding and forms and figures and so forth is a starting point for science and mathematics, which we can track into outcomes in school, but also later life in careers.

So that's the starting point. And then it's really about, it's a highly engaging tool, active engagement. The one really enjoy, challenges. That's also what we see in adults. They keep building the Lego bricks because they are interested in being [00:23:00] challenged. They instant problem solve and they can keep learning what seems to be a new area here

she has really the social, emotional aspects of learning, so when you begin to add on top of a block-based building begin to add more emotional features to the figures. You have more stories. It's really about language development. It's about resilience. It's about collaboration. So that's transition to more social, emotional learning skills that we we're looking at.

Antonio Santiago: Bo, it's become a tradition on the pod where I end by asking our guests something a child has asked that's left you shocked or laughing or questioning the meaning of life. What's your story.

Bo: That's a really interesting question. I think I look, and I study, I must say also my own children, and one situation I recall is my daughter. And I think [00:24:00] it's a few years back. I think probably, she was eight, seven, and she was sitting with her iPad and she just began to understand Siri and speaking to Siri, a simulated AI model on the iPad,

and if you began asking it questions, yeah, I think she started asking something like, what is the capital of Denmark? And she was able to respond to find this resource. And she was thinking about that. And then I was a few meters away. Then she asked, she looked across the room and NCRC what is my brother doing?

And and you can see see that didn't know what to do that. But she was really curious about what are the limitations of that technology. And then you figured out that didn't really work, but then she asked, who killed my granddad's dog, and then I was thinking, okay, she actually began because my father's dog was killed, unfortunately, an accident, but she began to have these questions to technologies and see, and really trying to reflect with them.

What are the boundaries of technologies? What can they be used for? So I'm really impressed in which way, children really explore the boundaries of anything that they have in their hands, everything they [00:25:00] see, and actually they have quite complex reasoning skills. To figure out what works and what it can be used for.

And obviously I don't need to be around them because then you have great conversations to say why did you ask what are the thinking around this and so forth. But, they really try to explore and test out things. So that hugely inspires me in my everyday life.

Antonio Santiago: Is there a message that you'd like to leave the audience with? 

Bo: I think the key messages we need to remember that adults could keep playing, remember that, it's not necessarily about climbing trees all the time doing a lot of sports and so forth, but being active, engaged, and being curious and testing and trying out new things.

If you have that state of mind as adults, we also keep learning and we will keep being inspired by children and supporting children's development and learning. 

Play is always okay.

Antonio Santiago: play is always okay. Well, that is an excellent note to end it on the Lego foundation has a wide range of resources. They have a playlist full of tons [00:26:00] and tons of things that promote playing to learn at home. It's got ideas to test and trial and support parents Bo also has a website with his research along with the Lego foundation website.

All of these will be listed in the show notes. Bo, thank you so much for coming on to the show. 

Bo: Thank you very much for all the work you're doing and also for doing this.

Antonio Santiago: All right. Thank you so much for listening everyone. If you liked what you heard and would like to support the podcast, consider giving us a review on apple, a follow on Spotify, or doing whatever it is, wherever it is, you're listening to help boost us in the algorithm.

Transcripts and a blog posts are available at KideScience.Com and the link to that can be found in the show notes.

By the way our DMs are open, you can send us a voice message at the link. In the show notes, 

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 thanks again so much for listening to that's child's play, uh, see you next time.

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