The Power of Play for a Purpose

 Nelson Andrews Leadership Center team thinking with their hands! Photography: Angela Wiggins

Nelson Andrews Leadership Center team thinking with their hands! Photography: Angela Wiggins


Experience it for yourself April 5!

“Play for a purpose" is adult play. Play is certainly “the work of childhood” (thanks, Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori via Mr. Rogers), but play for a purpose is something we need as we grow older - there needs to be a reason to play. And play seriously.

That led two professors — and the grandson of the Danish carpenter who first carved LEGO bricks during the Depression — to create a product (and process) called LEGO Serious Play. I was on the team that launched this business line and it was the most transformative professional experience of my life. Since 2001, I’ve had the pleasure to facilitate LEGO Serious Play processes in "play for a purpose" settings with thousands of people around the world.

Most of that has been in a hands-on, minds-on workshop called “Think With Your Hands.” There is not enough space here to capture the depth and breadth of my learning in these workshops, but readers can learn more from a few thought leaders referenced often:

  • Plato* summed it up nicely: “you learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
  • Stuart Brown, Founder of the Institute for Play, has studied play for decades [including fascinating and frightening "play histories" of death row inmates in Texas] and has come to the conclusion that the opposite of play is not “work” - it is “depression.” Check out his incredible TED talk.
  • The discipline of innovation has always been informed by play for a purpose: MIT’s Michael Schrage wrote Serious Play about the same time as LEGO Serious Play launched; more recently, Bruce Nussbaum in Creative Intelligence echoed and amplified its importance.
  • Daniel Pink defined a new kind of right-brained enterprise in A Whole New Mind, with one of its six elements being Play [the others are Design, Story, Empathy, Symphony and Meaning - you should know this and live it…]

So the power of play for a purpose is the power to unleash collective imagination and intelligence; co-create multiple correct solutions to problems; make the abstract concrete; design artifacts and tell stories to convey content, context and meaning. We care about your inner child, but we want your adult self fully present when we play for a purpose.

There is neurobiology at work too. Much play for a purpose is very hands-on, and a disproportionate number of nerves end in our fingers and thumbs. Because of this, when our hands are moving, our brains are typically not far behind - firing different chemicals and synapses than our usual activity. This opens new cognitive pathways and possibilities - a key element of any invention and innovation, and highly conducive to connection and collaboration.

But talking about play is a pale imitation of the experience of play. You need to play for a purpose to understand it. Lucky you - there is a rare chance to experience a public Think with Your Hands workshop on April 5 at the Leadership Center - space is filling up fast!

We are planning more, so watch this space, and “Leg Godt” [Danish: "play well” - the two words conjoined to make “LEGO” :-]


Jody Lentz is a lifelong facilitator with a passion to create high-performance, low-drama work environments. His focus on supporting organizations to create and maintain better teams, better meetings and better decisions touches strategy, culture, leadership and innovation. Also, he worked for LEGO and lost on Jeopardy!