Playing together. It’s always better than playing alone

Wendy Smolen looks at a new initiative between Lego, The Lego Foundation and UNICEF to create an early learning and children's rights partnership that uses the power of play as a focus point. A brilliant, yet natural pairing, Smolen shares what the industry can learn from the early learning endeavor.
March 18, 2015

Lego, The Lego Foundation, and UNICEF just announced a plan to create an early learning and children’s rights partnership that uses the power of play as a focal point. Under this new three-year partnership, the Lego Group and UNICEF pledge to jointly promote the Children’s Rights and Business Principles—a 10-point charter that sets out actions companies can take to respect and support children’s rights. One of their goals is to build evidence and awareness of how businesses can act responsibly towards children.

By combining their strengths and numbers (Lego games reach about 100 million kids; UNICEF identifies about 1 billion), they also hope to promote play as a way to foster sustainable development in children, and to help parents understand the impact that it has on lifelong learning. What struck me as I listened to the speakers from Lego, UNICEF, and Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, Professor of Child Health and Development at the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Graduate School of Education, was not how brilliant this partnership was, but how natural. Why didn’t anyone think of it till now?

So often that’s the case with innovation. Once you reach aha!, it seems so obvious. Yet it often takes years (or a village) to get there.

We can all learn from the Lego/UNICEF example.

1. Know your uber-goal. Yes, we all want to do good. And/or make money. But how does that fit into the context of kids’ lives? What need are you filling or new experience are you providing? Who or what can best help you reach that goal?

Look around at the products, shows, and games getting buzz today. In most cases they’re collaborations between two or more successful, but disparate ideas, made suddenly better by combining them.  ThinkFun’s Compose Yourself is a collaboration between a maestro and a gamer. The result: kids can actually compose their own music, no note-reading required.

Crayola’s  Color Alive! combines the classic no-tech play pattern of drawing with crayons with the sophisticated magic of Daqri’s  AR technology. Both are enriched by the partnership.


2. Look to your right and your left. Step outside your comfort zone to seek new partners and find new ideas. , which works with such “logical” partners  as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 3M and Staples, has also teamed up with outsiders, including the NFL, J. Crew, and KIA. One Christmas, while paying at Crate and Barrel, I was handed a gift card. Of course, I used it, and have been donating ever since. Life is Good Playmakers evolved from a funky tee-shirt company to a serious player in children’s well-being by partnering with frontline professionals such as teachers, social workers, and doctors who use the power of play to create life-changing relationships for the children in their care.

In music and theatre, seemingly incongruous combos add up to sales and surprises all the time: Pop-icon Madonna played the lead in David Mamet’s Speed the Plow 25 years ago, soon after releasing her mega-hit “Who’s that Girl.”  And in the ultimate opposites attract camp: Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett are currently dancing cheek to cheek and making incredibly beautiful music together.


3. Play well. Years of watching the spontaneous interactions that occur when vinegar and baking soda combine have taught me to look for outliers when I curate the speakers and audience for Sandbox Summit. I don’t want attendees sitting next to the people they just saw at SXSW or GDC. My goal is to foster creative collaborations, to introduce ideators to ideas they never even considered. I want a student next to a suit; an engineer next to an artist; a storyteller next to a mathematician.

Learning how to play well with others is a necessary skill that makes everything else work. It makes innovation fun, and programs effective. Ask UNICEF and Lego. Or ask a kid at circle time.

Sandbox Summit at MIT is just days away. If you haven’t registered yet, there’s still time. You never know who might be waiting to play with you.

I have a new email!


About The Author


Brand Menu