Homo Ludens, Man the Player

I have been doing a bit of research into the theory's underpinning LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, and have come across a book first published in 1944 by Johan Huizinga called Homo Ludens, Man the Player. You can read it yourself on the PDF link from Yale University below, but just these two excerpts from the first chapter highlight the ancient and serious importance of play.


"PLAY is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men.

We have only to watch young dogs to see that all the essentials of human play are present in their merry gambols. They invite one another to play by a certain ceremoniousness of attitude and gesture. They keep to the rule that you shall not bite, or not bite hard, your brother's ear. They pretend to get terribly angry. And-what is most important-in all these doings they plainly experience tremendous fun and enjoyment. Such rompings of young dogs are only one of the simpler forms of animal play.

There are other, much more highly developed forms: regular contests and beautiful performances before an admiring public.

To our way of thinking, play is the direct opposite of seriousness. At first sight this opposition seems as irreducible to other categories as the play-concept itself. Examined more closely, however, the contrast between play and seriousness proves to be neither conclusive nor fixed.

We can say: play is non-seriousness. But apart from the fact that this proposition tells us nothing about the positive qualities of play, it is extraordinarily easy to refute.

As soon as we proceed from "play is non-seriousness" to "play is not serious", the contrast leaves us in the lurch-for some play can be very serious indeed".

Read more at:

Dr Stuart Brown from the National Institute for Play in the USA says:

“Play is our natural way of adapting and developing new skills. It is what prepares us for emergence and keeps us open to new opportunities. It prepares us for ambiguity”

Adapting and developing new skills... being prepared for emergence... being open to opportunities... and being prepared for ambiguity... Those sound like EXACTLY the skills 21st century workers need!

My conclusion from reviewing a body of academic research and of the theories underpinning LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® and from my work own experience is:

  1. LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is deeply founded on academically robust ideas, it’s not a fad, there are compelling reasons why LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® works.
  2. Play at work has been broadly dismissed - this is a great shame, and a terrific opportunity.
  3. Building models unlocks insight that (formal abstract) thinking alone cannot access.
  4. The act of (playful) building is inherently and intrinsically motivating and therefore satisfying.
  5. The combination of auditory, visual and kinaesthetic modes of communication can create much better levels communication, especially for listeners.
  6. The visual nature of models makes retention of ideas significantly better than spoken words alone.
  7. Shared and system model building puts groups into relationship and can create much deeper connection and relationship between people in groups. The conversation that often flows after the experience of building together feels respectful, authentic and focussed.
  8. System model building allow groups to see the unintended consequences of decisions. LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is a very powerful tool for exploring and understanding systems.
  9. Skilled facilitation of the process is key and can create very powerful experiences for people, but should not be instructed as a step-by-step ‘technique’. In this sense it is a skilled practice, a bit like a therapist would not council a patient though a step-by-step process, a skilled LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® facilitator know when and how to intervene, and when to step back to allow people and groups to get the outcomes or breakthroughs they are seeking.

So that leads to an interesting question:

Why is play undervalued (or has a bad name) at work?


Duck v Tower? Which is best in a LEGO Serious Play Technical Skills Build?

Most trained LEGO Serious Play Facilitators begin workshops with a skills build and 'build a tower' is a common first build task. In this short video, ProMeet Associate Caroline Jessop argues that asking participants to build a model of a duck is a better first build. What do you think?


Listening and how to improve it

This post is by SeriousWork author Sean Blair, who spends most of his time facilitating meetings and workshops for clients in many countries on behalf of ProMeet, a professional facilitation business.

Firstly he proposes that there are five levels of listening that we use in meetings. Next he explains how LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® uses three modes of communication that results in higher levels of listening. Finally, for facilitators familiar with LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, Sean shares how to help people listen and understand even more fully.

Who's not listening?

Imagine a meeting or workshop where everyone showed up - then paid no attention to each other at all. Imagine no one listening to anything anyone said. Can you picture that? Maybe you've even seen or felt that??

Begin by reflecting on listening

At most ProMeet workshops this year, (with or without LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, ProMeet workshops don't always use LEGO) we've begun by inviting participants to think about listening. This is a good thing to do at the beginning of a process like a meeting or workshop.

To help participants reflect on how they might listen we invite them to explore this model:

Levels of Listening

Framing a workshop as a listening process, and an opportunity for each of us (including me) to learn about how we listen helps create a healthy meeting culture where people are more self-aware and respectful.

Of course setting out intending to listen at the higher levels doesn't mean do listen. If participants begin to 'talk over each other' or if group attention drifts towards the lower listening levels a facilitator can ask where the listening level is (or call it) and participants can remember that listening-to-understand is a better way to achieve shared aims and develop respectful relationships.

Try it yourself, at the beginning of your meeting or workshop. Share a slide or handout and invite the group to give examples of their experience of each of the levels of listening, then as the meeting progresses, ask where the level is if it drifts.

Listening is deeper with LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®

One of the KEY benefits of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is what we call 'enhanced communication', where participants use three modes of communication together:

  1. Auditory communication - speaking
  2. Visual communication - illustrating the thought or idea using a model as a prop to hold peoples attention
  3. Kinaesthetic communication - involving body and movement as you talk, move and animate the ideas mediated through the model

You can see a short video describing these benefits in a little more detail here.

When participants know how to activate these three modes (we teach these skills at the outset of a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® workshop), LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® has a big advantage over traditional meetings when it comes to listening.

When these modes are used well, listeners are more fully engaged by the speaker, as they listen with their ears and eyes but also though a wider perception of people and space.


Participants at a recent ProMeet workshop using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® to develop strategy

People may or may not be conscious of their resulting sensory and mental states in reaction to the auditory, visual and physical stimuli, but what's clear, and what the photo above tries to show, is the level of listening is greater than you usually see in traditional meetings.

Understanding meaning

Listening does not equate to understanding.

In LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Build Level 2 - Shared Model Building, (see a model with all three build levels) participants build shared models then take turns to explain what the model means. The differences in individual story telling give the group an opportunity to explore the different meanings people have and though dialogue understand and agree on common meaning.

For those familiar with LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® this is a very common and familiar process.

Facilitate meaning, not talking.

Last week I was running a workshop where we were creating a vision of what success looked like in 12 months time for a small senior leadership team. One of the participants built this lovely and complex model of his vision for the team.

Team Vision with LEGO SERIOUS PLAY

An individual participant model of his vision for his team in 12 months time

As with every LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® workshop after he built it, he explained his vision to the others using the model, next (with his permission) I passed his model to another member of the group and asked the other to explain what it meant.

The immediate implication of this move was a) it tested the extent to which the others had been listening, and as second person told their understanding of the model b) it allowed the builder and the new teller to explore and understand what the builder had meant, not what the listener had heard.

Usually at Build Level 1 Individual model building LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® facilitators don't ask people to explain what each others individual models mean, but in this experiment, I did, and it seemed to help the level of listening remain high at Level 3: listening to understand.

Try this idea during one of your LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® workshops and see if it makes a difference to the already great level of listening LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® creates.


What does our LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Facilitator Training look like?

Serious Work does not teach LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. Instead we train you how to professionally facilitate using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®.

This re-frame means we provide lots of opportunities for participants to practice their facilitation skills and build their confidence to use the method.

If you're curious to know what our masterclasses look like the photos and video below show you a Serious Work Masterclass in action and comments from course participants might give you a sense of the feel of our way of training (thanks Paul and Caroline!)

The overarching course objective

Our London training venue

The masterclass brings to life the ideas in our book

Practicing the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Skills Build

Facilitating individual model building

Facilitating shared model building

Experiencing system model building

Learning about video and photography

Designing and facilitating group tasks

Facilitating a first workshop on the evening of day 2.

And thanks for the kind words from masterclass participants, Paul and Caroline.

Paul Brown: Abductive thinker, perpetual learner and product guy

"I have had the pleasure of being instructed by Sean on two different Lego Serious Play courses now and I have to say, both times I spent a fantastic couple of days learning and doing the practices with him and the other wonderful people who shared the training experience with me. I am a huge fan of what and how Sean does what he does - I have learned SO much from him.

He is the kind of mentor / teacher everyone wants and deserves; thoughtful, strong, hugely knowledgeable, empathetic and with a level of technical and interpersonal skill that I have rarely seen. I feel very lucky indeed to have been able to share time with him and I look forward to continuing to build on our relationship in the future as a student, client and friend."

Caroline Jessop: Coaching and Facilitation

"Just a thanks, as one human to another for creating such a lovely learning space. I feel like you crafted a lovely warm Petri dish of agar jelly for us all to grow in, and I was one happy microbe!

It's said, that people may not remember what you said (though in this case we hope they will!) but they will remember how you made them feel. There are many moments in the future when all of us will channel our inner Sean, which is a very powerful thing to have imparted.

Please print this message, and put it somewhere illogical. I have the hope that at some point in the future you might unexpectedly come across it and be reminded of what you achieved for us today."

Reserve your place on a Masterclass


A LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® meeting identification flowchart

If you are a trained LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® facilitator perhaps you’ve heard the odd debate about what is (or isn’t) LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. This diagram seeks to demystify the obvious. Obviously.

View or download PDF in at

“LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is entering a new phase. New applications will be developed by the international community of users, and may be shared online. In this new phase, we welcome creative uses of these tools, and innovation in the community”



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Homo Ludens, Man the Player
I have been doing a bit of research into the theory's underpinning LEGO® ...
Duck v Tower? Which is best in a LEGO Serious Play Technical Skills Build?
Most trained LEGO Serious Play Facilitators begin workshops with a skills ...
Listening and how to improve it
This post is by SeriousWork author Sean Blair, who spends most of his time ...
What does our LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Facilitator Training look like?
Serious Work does not teach LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. Instead we train you how ...
A LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® meeting identification flowchart
If you are a trained LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® facilitator perhaps you’ve ...
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