Child’s Play as Serious Learning: Toys That Teach

Surveys? Focus groups? Studying consumer decision-making processes? Most consumer product companies get their marketing information using these techniques. Lego does things differently. The company gets it: they study what consumers do; not what they say. Lego has a marketing department that functions more like a team of anthropologists under the auspices of the Lego Foundation. The foundation is the largest private researcher of play and it operates on a global scale.

The Lego brand has experienced an incredible trajectory of growth, quadrupling its sales over the past decade and bypassing Mattel last year as the number one toymaker in the world. The company has always been known for its operating efficiencies, logistics and manufacturing capabilities; but the primary reason for its growth is that the company is a marketing dynamo, tapping deeply into what kids want and respond to, as well as their parents.

Lego marketers hit the road around the world to understand why and how kids play. They go so far as to use MRI imagery to peek into kids’ brains as they play. Why? Because different parts of the brain light up as children play with different kinds of toys. Lego marketing sleuths study kids’ interactions with their parents as well as the social aspects of their lives and their cultures. Delving as deeply as they do into what makes kids tick gives Lego unique insights that help the brand to build meaningful experiences for them while developing and enhancing skill sets with their product lines. Given Lego’s meteoric success over the past decade, we begin to understand the impact of applying what they’ve learned to their marketing efforts.

What creates an environment for sustained play?

Lego found that when children have to work at mastering a skill, as they do in learning how to build structures with Lego bricks, they are at their most engaged. Skill mastery makes kids want to play with toys in a sustained manner, and that goes to the heart of the Lego brand.

A Lego company quote captures a great deal: “The joy of building and the pride of creation.” Remember being a kid and feeling that sense of accomplishment when you built something, took it apart and built something else? Do you recall the pride that you felt when sharing it with friends? Lego encourages today’s kids to share their creations with their friends in the real world but also in a virtual one. Social media is a means by which kids can share their creative expressions with other kids, some of whom live half-way across the planet.

Lego’s ethos cleverly manifested itself in The Lego Movie, exhorting kids to march to the beat of their own drums. No need to conform to expected building techniques and styles. Perfection isn’t the goal. Nor is keeping any new structures intact. Building up, tearing down and doing it in a unique manner is Lego-approved. Creativity is the driver here. Kids are naturally curious and creative; they’re encouraged to build structures that feed into their own storylines as well as ones they’re familiar with from the worlds of entertainment. Fantasy is another important aspect of play that fuels learning.

What do parents think of learning while at play?

Parents are thrilled when their kids are working at learning under the guise of play, as well as their mastery of new skill sets and social interaction. Thumbs up. The best part: none of that involves a tablet or smartphone until their children are ready to share their creations with the world. That gets two thumbs up.

When parents participate in their kids’ building projects, there is great value in that interaction. As children get older, more challenging Lego kits encourage group play. Deeper trust and friendships develop as a result. Children learn social and verbal skills necessary in problem solving, cooperation and communication. They learn how to approach tasks and generate new ideas. They develop processes to solve problems and grow in confidence as they conquer challenges. And because Lego play involves an understanding of spatial relationships and basic mathematics, core knowledge is gained by hands-on problem solving. Insightful parents see the development of these core skills in their children, making it easy for them to approve of toys and play that make this possible.

Lego’s most ambitious goal: promoting “working memory”

The world’s best brands do more than sell products. They have a deeper mission and contribute to society in meaningful ways. In an interesting op-ed piece published by The Lego Foundation: “Can play-based learning fill America’s skills gap?”, based on various studies on the subject of early skill set play, a startling observation is made followed by a tantalizing query.

“A nation (America) with some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world houses a college-educated population that significantly underperforms in the areas of literacy, numeracy and problem solving. Where does the problem start?”

“Our analysis at the LEGO Foundation challenges conventional wisdom by questioning if the rush to teach more, earlier, is unintentionally preventing young children from developing the skills that underpin literacy, numeracy and problem solving in the first place.”

At the end of the report, we can see that Lego’s long-term goal goes well beyond marketing and selling toys. “At the LEGO Idea Conference, a yearly conference held in Billund (Denmark), exploring solutions that promote a wide range of skills, including working memory, is on the top of the agenda. The question asked here is how we can point to new ways of learning that enables academic skills, and more importantly underpins learning for an entire lifetime.”

Working memory refers to the processes that are used to temporarily store, organize, and manipulate information. “In fact, working memory could be the basis for general intelligence and reasoning: Those who can hold many items in their mind may be well equipped to consider different angles of a complex problem simultaneously”, according to the American Psychological Association.

Lego not only holds an annual conference, the company collaborates with a global network of academics and experts in the field of child development to study the “transformative power of play”. These experts have written reports suggesting how early skill sets and creativity based on play are needed “to develop societies prepared to accommodate the rapid changes associated with technology and globalization.”

How does Lego package skill set builders?

Most of us are familiar with Lego’s large collection of consumer-packaged toys, including co-branded sets featuring some of the world’s most-loved licensed brands. But Lego is also working with educators to address skills that kids need to acquire in the educational system, beginning with preschool and elementary school through middle school and high school.

One special kit designed for students in grades 2-5, for example, dubbed the StoryStarter Core Set, engages kids to read and write by improving their language skills in an ingenious manner. Kids use a writing-inspiration wheel and then build mini figures, animals and accessories using basic bricks and building plates. Story Visualizer software helps them to capture their creations and digitally publish their accompanying stories so that they can be shared with others.

After students learn how to use the storyboards that teach a range of educational topics including historical periods and people, scientists, explorers and the like, they are encouraged to create their own storyboards for a LEGO movie sequel. There’s plenty here to get kids excited about learning and enjoying the process at the same time. Since they’re familiar with Legos and love to play with them, school learning becomes an extension of in-home learning through play.

In her review of the product, one teacher raved: “The combination of traditional tactile building and story creation on the computer will make writing as enjoyable as free play or screen time.”

Lego hasn’t forgotten about math, either. Mathematics concepts are often hard for young children to grasp because many of them are abstract. In order to help them with the problem-solving process, Lego’s MoreToMath resource utilizes the familiar LEGO® brick and MathBuilder interactive whiteboard software to make abstract math tangible and problem solving easier.

How does Lego keep older kids engaged?

We all know that it’s harder to keep older kids excited about learning. Then along came Lego MindStorms Education EV3; a brilliant program utilizing basic robotics technology to engage middle school students. The EV3 brick is programmable and “intelligent”. It controls motors and sensors, as well as providing WiFi and Bluetooth wireless communication. Imagine improving kids’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills and making it fun at the same time. Collaboration, problem solving skills and sharing information are natural elements of the program and so is creative, hands-on work. In short, kids are learning by doing and that learning is fun. Teachers report that students’ engagement is far greater with this kind of approach to problem-solving than it could ever be with pencil and paper. The set configuration is optimized for use in the classroom, after school programs and robotics competitions.

Where is Lego heading with products that teach?

Lego continues to pioneer new toys that kids want to play with and from which they continue to learn. One new product just released at the beginning of 2015, LEGO Chain Reactions, uses “over 30 essential Lego elements to design and build amazing moving machines”. Packaging is ingenious, telling kids to “Teach your bricks new tricks.” The product description is concise and explains a great deal: “LEGO Chain Reactions is packed full of ideas, instructions, and inspiration for 10 LEGO machines that spin, swing, pivot, roll, lift, and drop. Each machine alone is awesome, but put them together and you get incredible chain reactions. Then, combine the machines in any order you like to create your own chain reactions. Their team of experts worked with educators and 11-year-olds to invent the machines, then wrote a book that teaches the skills (and some of the physics behind the fun) kids need to create their own amazing chain reaction machines.” Physics as fun? How cool is that?

This is magic. Lego crosses from home to school learning and back again seamlessly. It’s breath-taking and brilliant as a strategy. And it goes well beyond sales and clever marketing. It goes to the core of a great brand. One of the world’s best.

The question is: how might the Lego approach to the development and marketing of children’s toys inspire more brands, from start-ups to the largest players, to pioneer new ways and products in which to merge play with the basic learning tools that are necessary for children to be successful in their lives?

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