Brick by Brick - Learning Through Play

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Dec 20, 2019
by Claire Kidwell
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Brick by Brick - Learning Through Play

LEGO Foundation program specialist Mary Winters on the value of play, social and emotional learning, and getting buy-in Mary Winters in conversation at Salzburg Global Seminar

“I see a strong overlap between learning through play and social [and] emotional learning (SEL),” said Mary Winters, a program specialist at the LEGO Foundation who manages a portfolio of humanitarian programming within the Foundation’s broader Global Programs portfolio.

Winters was among the participants who attended the latest program of Salzburg Global Seminar’s Education for Tomorrow’s World multi-year series: Education and Workforce Opportunities for Refugees and Migrants.

During the program, Winters helped participants understand why play is so special, and why it can be one of our favorite ways to learn. Characteristics of play include activities that are joyful, meaningful, actively engaging, iterative, and socially interactive.

Playing enables people to explore, practice, make mistakes, and try again. Participants got to experience this first-hand during the program when Winters tasked them in one session to create a duck out of six bricks in 60 seconds.

In spite of everyone having the same task and the same constraints, the brace of ducks on display revealed different interpretations of what a duck may look like.

A task like the one mentioned above can boost skills like imagination, short-term memory, self-efficacy, working memory, self-assessment, imitation, and visual perception – to name a few. Winters said there are five skills for holistic development, which include physical, social, cognitive, creative, and emotional.

The LEGO Foundation aims to re-define play and re-imagine learning. The Foundation partnered with Salzburg Global to support this month’s program. It’s another sign of the organization moving into the humanitarian space. Earlier this week, the Foundation awarded a $100 million grant to the International Rescue Committee. This grant will bring learning through play to children in crisis settings within Ethiopia and Uganda.

Before arriving at the LEGO Foundation, Winters worked for a variety of NGOs managing humanitarian education and child protection programs in Central Africa and the Middle East. She said, “I did do a lot of social [and] emotional learning programming and [saw] the benefit that programing had on children.”

Her work in this field is what led her to the LEGO Foundation. She is a firm believer in the concept of learning through play, particularly in conflict and crisis settings. She said, “Learning through play really helps children develop these holistic skills that are so critical for any child.”

Learning through play can help build resilience for these children, which can help them thrive later in life, according to Winters. One of the challenges, however, is convincing communities around the world to accept new learning strategies.

At the LEGO Foundation, Winters said they use “a wheel of impact” model to overcome this challenge. She said successful programs generate evidence, which helps open minds to develop buy-in, which in turn supports programs that demonstrate results.

Winters said, “The way to really enable that behavior change and to drive the importance of learning through play is by working through all sections of that wheel and working together to really drive that change to ensure children become creative, engaged lifelong learners through play.”


The Salzburg Global Seminar Program, Education and Workforce Opportunities for Refugees and Migrants, is part of the Education for Tomorrow’s World multi-year series. The program is held in partnership with ETS, Microsoft, Qatar Foundation International, Porticus, and the LEGO Foundation.