Euan Wilmshurst, The Lego Foundation in Conversation with Edx Education
Episode 46- Heather Welch, Edx Education. Today we will be in conversation with Euan Wilmshurst – Head of Advocacy and Communication The Lego Foundation.
Euan is part of the Foundation’s senior leadership team, responsible for advocacy, communication and strategic partnerships across the organisation, building a future in which learning through play empowers children to become creative, engaged, lifelong learners on a global scale.
Today we are chatting with Euan on learning through play importance and barriers of play-based learning around the globe.
Here are the highlights from this episode:
(01:14) Euan’s and Lego’s passion for play-based learning
(03:11) Children’s learning throughout the pandemic and how it inspired ‘play.com’
(05:41) The barriers for play-based learning in today’s world
(08:44) The children’s ‘skill-gap’ in less developed countries
(12:23) The importance of play in adult life
(15:42) How play-based learning can combat problems with children’s mental health
(18:14) Countries that www.learningthroughplay.com are focussed on helping
You’re listening to education experts with edx education. Education is evolving. Join Heather welch from edx education, chatting with teachers, psychologists, parents, authors, creatives, and other tons of experts. This podcast, series media edx education, discusses, home learning, school readiness, being creatives, changes in education, discussing what’s next hands-on learning.
Or as we like to say, learning through play.
Welcome, everyone. I’m Heather Welch from edx education and today being in conversation with Euan Wilmshurst head of advocacy and communications at the Lego Foundation, senior leadership team responsible for advocacy, communication, and strategic partnerships across the organization.
Building a future in which learning through play empowers children to become creative, engaged, and lifelong learners on a global scale. Welcome. And thank you for joining us today. Can I ask you to introduce yourself and your passion for play-based learning and the adventures that you’ve had to get here?
Thanks, Heather. And it’s, it’s great to be with you today. I mean, certainly at the Lego foundation play and learning through players at the absolute core. So the passion is tangible every day. I think as many of your listeners would know the Lego group is still family-owned and 90 years actually this year, since the Lego group had formed and at the foundation, we’re just on a mission to transform the lives of as many children as possible, but right now, at least 75 million children each year by 2032 with access to learning through play. And for me, it’s a personal passion. I grew up with two parents as teachers and one, particularly my mum has an early childhood specialist and she certainly introduced us to the benefits of learning through play from a very young age.
So you’ve seen it first hand and you can have the conversations. Have you ever had a conversation with your mom’s, how education has changed or, you know, what hasn’t changed and needs to change?
Funnily enough recently. Yes. And I think, you know, we’re here in the year of transforming education and the UN is very focused on that just the other day, talking to my mum around that and her looking back to the work she was doing, actually in Edinburgh, in Scotland at the beginning of the 1970s around exactly this innovative pedagogies learning through play, and actually in many ways for her, just not despondent’s too strong, a word, but frustrated that here we are however many decades on and we’re still having these same debates.
It is true. I trained as a teacher 20 years ago, and I remember going into my interviews with the department of education. If you didn’t tick all the boxes which pretty much just said, you’ll teach to the curriculum, they didn’t sign you off as becoming a teacher.
My first interview, I went in there saying. I’m going to change the world, everyone’s going to be creative, individual learning plans and so much more. The wiser teacher told me that I’ve got a class of 30 and it’s never going to happen. So I may want to rethink my answers. Always remember laughing and thinking, wow, is this what I signed up for?
It’s just how it was 20 years ago, what I want to talk to you today is that I’m super excited, love the new initiative from Lego foundation, I was wondering if you could tell us more about this initiative and what inspired the foundation.
Sure, very happy too, I think just picking up on that piece, around how children’s learn. I think what we know at the Lego foundation, you certainly know as a teacher, I also know as a parent to a six-year-old, is that play is just the most natural way for children to learn. Whether that’s reading, writing, maths is also how they develop physically, socially, and emotionally.
And I think that social, emotional learning is really critical right now, as COVID has had such a negative impact globally on children of all ages, really. And so for us, that was really. The starting point during the middle of COVID was with so many kids out of school and out formal learning environment.
With parents and caregivers really challenged to be able to find ways for them to learn and engage. And often frankly, with people feeling that the word play is a frivolous activity and not linked to learning. We first of all, felt that during COVID back in 2020, we should really make it easy for parents and caregivers all over the world. To access really easy play activities with their children. And we developed something called the playlist. So that was the initial inspiration was really just getting easily captured, easy to do, easy to replicate, play activities that you could just go in and search age of children kind of activity. And we got an incredible response for that.
And that really inspired us on the journey of saying, look, you know what? We don’t need a Lego foundation.com static website. That has all of our headshots and says who we are, what we need, what we need is a hub for learning through play. That’s the core of what we’re about. Let’s bend the old website and let’s come up with a hub that really attracts primarily parents and caregivers, but teachers and many of our partners and others love it too.
And becomes a one-stop hub for all things, learning through.
I know for myself at the start of the pandemic, all of a sudden you’re working full-time you had your children at home. I mean, I’m a trained teacher. I haven’t worked as a classroom teacher for quite a while, but I remember thinking, how am I going to do this? What am I going to do? And I’ve got all the training behind me.
I had, you know, my four-year-old playing out the back with messy play and I had my 11-year-old doing. Through the messy play as well with the water, with anything I could find, whether it’s linking cubes, lego bricks, anything, but I remember thinking, how do you do this?
We did all did scramble at the start. So, the playlist on www.learningthroughplay.com sounds amazing, we all needed to get our hands on. On a global scale, what do you believe are the barriers for play-based learning?
Well, I mean, I think right now, as we know, I mean, COVID become the biggest barriers I think that the latest we saw was 1.5 billion children were out of their usual learning environments and you know what really scarily and someone told me this the other day, so I don’t know the exact source, but it’s an estimated half a billion children were not reached at all during COVID and that’s terrifying.
So I think that’s been a huge barrier, but also we just know, as I said earlier, that often when. We talk, play. And this, this depends on the culture and the setting, but often play as seen as this frivolous activity rather than actually it’s exactly how children should learn. And I think the more we can start to break down those barriers by making the link to that holistic development, the holistic skills, particularly creativity, social, emotional.
How do you cope with stress? But more and more engaging everybody in that. How does early childhood education lead into primary lead into secondary lead into being able to cope and thrive with the crazy world that we seem to have created for us? Everything seems to have supercharged digitally in the last 12 to 18 months.
And so anything that you do now, we’re all, you know, scrambling online to find something else to do. Or I think one thing I found with learning from home is that actually our whole life slowed down a little bit, which was quite nice for a period of time. And we went back to a lot of basics. Cause that’s all we could do.
We went into quite a strict lockdown here when we were based in the UK. And I remember having my children and thinking one benefit was it’s really nice not having the club culture running from sporting activities, having them at home. We finally had time for this unstructured and free play. It was really interesting watching my children together, being able to play together.
It’s such a large age gap as well. So I think we were lucky in that sense, not everyone was with play based learning, it’s one of those things. It is time as parents, we seem to fill out children’s schedules a lot.
One of the things we always say here is that children know play their super power, and it’s really just the grownups we have to convince us.
And I think that’s very true. I think there were obviously you’re the teacher, not me, but I think, you know, there are different types of play. Absolutely. In different children will respond differently, whether it’s guided or free, et cetera. But I do think it’s kind of allowing them the space to do that.
The big challenge of course, is where there isn’t access to the internet. There isn’t the access to resources and many of the countries we work in and the partners we work in, whether that’s the work we do with the international rescue committee, where we’re really looking at, how do you get localized content for.
Kids in really challenging environments from in refugee camps or elsewhere. And actually, how do we make play easily accessible through other mediums, whether that’s TV, whether it’s radio. I think firstly, it’s us as grownups accepting that play is just how kids learn. That is how they’re going to learn.
They know that, and that’s where they learn best. And then working together to find out wherever a child is, whatever environment they’re in. What’s the way to give them that play experience that they can learn and develop.
That’s really interesting. It’s also, I love on your website, the learning through play website, you’re talking about closing the skills get up.And what I found is that you’ve quoted the education commission 2030 825 million children from low to middle-class countries. Won’t have the skills that they need to thrive. So we know what would you say are these key skills that current antiquated education systems or non systems, as you know, in some countries are lacking, especially in the early years.
Well, I think there’s several interesting, before I came to the Lego foundation, I worked for IBM, very focused on exactly this, the challenge that exists to get people with the right skills to come into any environment, particularly they’re into the workplace, but social, emotional skills, creativity, resilience.
All of those absolutely critical often, you know, the more technical skills are the easier ones to train. There’s a huge amount of work happening. For example, through the world economic forum on rescaling people, our argument would very strongly, but you shouldn’t have to re-skill people. If you get it right early on, if you look at the end of it at pedagogies learning through, play it from early childhood onwards, kids will develop the holistic skills.
They need to thrive anywhere. And that includes in the workplace as well. That’s so true. It is the smaller, the soft skills that we can’t teach, but that is, you know, play-based learning. I don’t know if you watch your six-year-old and they’re building something in the frustration. It depends on you watch the emotions as the foundations fall on what they thought was like the Eiffel tower or the best building in the world.
And it’s being able to redo it. It’s the resilience it’s being able to start again and not get too frustrated. Thinking and problem solving then, which I find is really interesting when you watch children learning. And one of the things I suppose,
Has the foundation looked at retraining teachers in the early years, like retraining teachers through the current systems that we have, but then with flexibility to grow.
To become more creative and looking at more these in mathematics, we always say that children do really well with one plus two, but then when you add words into it that they find it really hard. Cause that’s a different part of the brain. Absolutely. And look, the foundation we’re focused on all of the key actors around the child with the child at the centre.
So I’ve talked, mostly around parents and caregivers. But very focused on teachers and professional development. And we work across the world on that and looking at how can we work with others to provide the evidence as well. So we’re very focused on evidence-based solutions and working with everyone from the Harvard centre for the developing child to MIT, to bring that evidence to life, to help teachers, as you know, it’s a challenge, you know, often the systems in which teachers are working are actually the problem.
The way the assessments are run Kids. So incessantly tested and actually COVID showed us. There’s a very different way of doing that. Given, you know, standardized testing didn’t happen for a lot of kids and actually many of them were able to thrive, not all but many were so supporting teachers within the systems.
And that’s why we’re really focused on. Overall systemic change. It’s not one piece. It’s not just the teacher. It’s not the parent. It’s not the policy. It’s how do we bring that all together? And we’re very focused actually this year, when the UN secretary general has said, this is the year, the transforming education systems around, well, how do we make sure that early childhood pedagogies and everything else are at the centre of that is making sure that creativity is as important as literacy in maths?
Absolutely. And, often we hear kind of false dichotomy there that it’s foundational skills are only literacy and numeracy. No one would argue how critical they are, but are they any more important than social, emotional skills or creativity? And actually it’s how kids learn.
It’s the pedagogy as much as anything. And we know, as I said earlier, that kids will learn best when they learn through play. And that includes reading and right. But I think that’s when you know that as parents sort of tilting it to this digital age and they say, well, my child does now is play games or digitally doesn’t have toys.
We don’t need toys in our house anymore. Or, you know, you get to that stage is when does a child stop playing? Well, I, as an adult, I think he shouldn’t stop playing. I think it’s one of the, the beauties of life to have a playful life. But you know, this is sort of the backlash that you get. I find when you talk to, you know, caregivers, or even some teachers, they say, well, they learn maths like this, you know, we don’t need hands on materials anymore.
I think, I mean, it’s a challenge, right? I don’t believe that I don’t every day I see my own child and in the work I do. And interestingly, no, I don’t believe it ends with childhood or adolescence just yesterday. For example, it’s the leadership team here at the Lego foundation, we spent three hours, 11 of us.
Looking at how can we integrate playful behaviors and playful ways into a leadership? So how is play learning through play or leading through play a model that we can use at all ages? And I just don’t think it’s one or the other, you know, I don’t think we need to say it’s all about one or the other.
It’s the way that kids learn. Naturally all the evidence points to that. And actually. All of us understanding whether we’re parents or caregivers or teachers as to what that could look like, I think is the key. But as I say, if the systems don’t support that if the way that teachers and others are assessed, that’s the problem as well.
So we need to change that and change the mindset around how children.
Oh, I absolutely agree. I suppose, you know, one way to explain to people is like, when you run a business and you have silos when one department doesn’t talk to the other, well, then a lot of things right down. And there’s a lot of loss of learning between, you know, the marketing to the tech area, to the communications.
If they’re not talking and they’re not, it’s like play brings it all together. Like Steamboat STEM-based learning, I suppose, is a way to look at it in more of a business sense. You know, if you don’t talk to each other, if you don’t have that agreement of what’s happening, there is a lot of breakdowns and there’s, you know, with children, there’s a breakdown in the connectivity of how they learn and how they can actually, you know, they get frustrated, so things don’t match and then they need to actually put it together as a no.
And I think everything that, that I had seen and we’ve seen throughout our research, into learning through play. When children learn through play, they undoubtedly learn to cope better with the demands of their environment. We’ve seen that they then respond to challenges with very creative problem-solving.
They manage anxiety in very stressful situations and let’s face it. The world is pretty stressful. Channeling negative emotions, strategies, you know, all of this is, is there. So I think. Understanding what it is and what it isn’t. And I think you’ve raised a really important point. It’s not all about fun and frivolity.
There’s hard fun in there. It’s gotta be meaningful, socially interactive, joyful, and as much as play as a learning moment. I mean, I watched my own son and you mentioned it, but the frustration I can see when he’s trying to build something. Solve a problem, but he’s learning and he’s learning through play.
And that very moment, however angry he gets with himself and frustrated and he’s learning how we would, he do that differently. How will he cope again in future? You know, we just need to look around us and see, and many of us in adulthood are adopting the same learning strategies we learned when we were younger and we put them to good use every day, whether we realize it.
It’s how you have that social interactions, the social interaction that you’ve learned. You know, I suppose one of the big things, and I see this, as you’re saying your own child, I see my own child is that, you know, the social impact of play and mental health and wellbeing moving forward, especially after the last 12 to 18 months with, you know, in many countries, the schools closed and, you know, there’s higher incidences of mental health issues with children.
Let’s talk about how we can combat it through. Absolutely. And I think everything we’ve said, the fact that children in the pandemic were just unable to access anything that was really normal to them. I think there was a survey conducted by HomeStart in the UK that said 52% of parents in the UK felt that children had not coped well over the last year.
And 92% of parents said the biggest concern was the impact has had on their child’s development and behavior. So we know it’s just been made worse. And we know that for the daily routines kids, weren’t able to see their friends, the teachers, or the normal role models they had. And so what we know then is by engaging children in that creativity in play and why back to why we created the playlist and then learning through Play-Doh.
Calm was really to be able to harness that, to give them the opportunities, to learn, to engage in creativity, to help parents help them cope with the stress of the situation and build that breadth of skills that they need for the future. We’ve seen it. We know that that play-based learning results in the mental health, the resilience, and really a love of learning.
And that can only boost well. So that’s certainly where we focused a lot. I think we committed over 200 million us dollars to support children and families during COVID all around the world and through a huge variety of partners, but that was doing things like, you know, supporting distance, learning to support educators and caregivers, looking at a whole amount of partners that we were.
I’ve mentioned some of them and then really looking, even in the most extreme places. So we work with education cannot wait, which is really focused on humanitarian crisis. So we know even those most extreme circumstances of a refugee camp, if you get this right, and kids learn through play, it really helps them mental health and resilience.
And if we can get it right there, I think we can apply that. Absolutely agree. I mean, there’s nothing more important, especially if you look at some of the, you know, the countries that are less fortunate within the systems that they have in place for education. And some of the children go to these schools and that’s their only hot meal for the day or their only meal for the day.
And so they didn’t even have that during the pandemic. So I remember we worked with the school overseas and. What they ended up doing is actually home delivering all these meals. Cause that would’ve been the only hot meal that these children get. So it’s not only it’s learning it’s, but having that safe and comfort zone as well, which is really important, I suppose.
Are there any particular countries that you’re focusing on first as foundation or it’s just a global scale looking at all the. Show up. I mean, we, we, we are in and fund three partners working in many countries. We have deep dive focuses in countries like Mexico and South Africa, for example, but also lots of work in Colombia, Ghana, Rwanda, and as well as in the US and the UK.
So we’re really focused wherever children are. We’ve got a saying that we, you know, we’re all in for all kids, but we’re certainly seeing traction in countries like South Africa, like Mexico, where they’re really focused on this Rwanda. No real great engagement at the ministerial and government level on how we can shift the way that systems work for children to learn.
So we’re focused all over the world, but certainly certain places we’re seeing and getting more focused on this. And the key then is how do they become advocates for learning through play with others, peer to peer. And we’re very hopeful that the UN secretary General’s transforming education summit in September, which will bring.
Heads of state together that this will be a key part of how we want to transform education going forward. We’ve learned so much just during COVID that learning through play innovative pedagogies, holistic skills and development should be absolutely key. And that has to start with early. And it has to start from the curriculum, has to start from the curriculum all the way down.
I absolutely agree. Do you know, it’s amazing to hear this and let’s hope that the one thing comes out of COVID in this mess that I suppose that we’ve all got ourselves in the last 12 to 18 months, is that it does supercharge the changes that even as you say at the start, your mom has been waiting for 30, 40, 50 years nearly to change to get more of a play-based learning system in.
So let’s hope this, you know, we, those supercharge it. Are there any other new initiatives that you’d like to share around play-based learning for caregivers or teachers to look out. I mean, I think I’d just say, look it go for letting people play.com. Cause that’s what we’re trying to capture everything.
We’re really focused this year in the 90th anniversary of Lego itself on how we can supercharge early childhood. For sure. And we’re really looking at how we come up with innovative solutions there. You know, we’re always looking at how we can support partners and others to reach even more children with learning through play.
But I think that, you know, learning through play.com has really been the place we’ve said let’s make that. The hub for everybody and sent me for parents and caregivers, but also for teachers and others. And that’s the starting point is. You and thank you so much and thank you to the Lego foundation for all their amazing initiatives.
I love the playlist and the learning through play.com. I think that’s such an amazing thing to start even just to start all the attraction, the advocacy, and all the projects that you are doing around the world. I think it’s, you know, there’s, there’s no words that I can as a teacher and also as a mother and, you know, worked in the industry for a long time.
It’s such an important thing. And I really. But we see a massive dent in something that we’ve known has to happen for a long time. So you, and thank you so much. Thanks so much. However, there are so many exciting developments happening right now in education. Edx Education would love to hear from you.
So do get in touch with us, subscribe to our podcast, which is available on apple or Spotify tune in and so many. This podcast series is brought to you by Heather Welch Edx Education. She’d like to say let’s create lifelong learners.