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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?

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