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Cascade Talks: Susana Munoz on unstructured play with LEGO

Cascade Train Teach Learn
Cascade Train Teach Learn

We are super excited to share the second Cascade Talks. In this series, we interview experts in the fields of teaching, learning, parenting and all things kids to truly understand how to best support our children. Our next guest is Susana Munoz. Susana has been in Hong Kong since 2011 and In 2020, she founded GBA LatAm Training. As a Lego® Serious Play® certified facilitator, she works with companies and children to conduct workshops to enable greater discovery and communication.

1.Can you tell us a little more about your background and why you decided to work with Lego®?

I work with Lego for two reasons: my professional background and personal experience.

I have a background in Cultural Anthropology and Sociology and have been working in international business, international trade and investment projects between Latin America and Asia for many years. One key challenge that kept coming up in my work was communication. So when I was exposed to Lego® Serious Play, I was fascinated with the methodology. I became a certified facilitator in 2015 and now use Lego for workshops on communication, team building, and strategy.

On the personal front, I am a mother of a creative child with SENs who is also very creative. I have noticed how much my son enjoyed playing with LEGO and other toys after school. It gave him a break from the stresses of the day and allowed him to reflect on what he learned. Adults can always engage in therapy, meditation or yoga to decompress when they feel overstimulated, but children don’t always have that self-awareness or opportunity to do the same. So how does a child create space to breathe and reflect on their day’s learning? That’s why in my house we have a box of LEGOs always ready to play.

2. Why do you think unstructured play is important for children's development?

Unstructured play is key for child development. A few reasons why it is important for all children to have some free play include:

• It stimulates the senses.

• It is a fertile ground for creativity and innovation.

• Builds strength and coordination, and allows for movement.

• Helps develop self-regulation, self-esteem and understanding of the world.

But for me, the most important reason for unstructured play is that it is a space that allows us to connect with our children and learn about their personalities, interests and way of seeing the world.

3. More specifically, how does unstructured play with Lego® help develop emotional intelligence in children?

Unstructured play with Lego® helps children develop emotional intelligence by allowing them to experiment with their feelings, develop empathy, and learn to manage stress. It provides an opportunity to develop specific skills such as teamwork, staying focused, sharing materials, and learning from peers. Through playing with Lego, children can learn to take turns, play without competing, understand instructions, give each other roles and responsibilities, ask questions, suggest answers, and explore possibilities.

When interviewing candidates for positions, we don’t really ask people if they learnt ballet or played the piano as a child. Neither do we when meeting a romantic partner or new friends. But what is essential is the personality of the adults with whom we establish relationships. Their way of reacting to stress, whether they have the ability to carry on an adult conversation, whether they know how to reciprocate, and the way in which they conduct themselves on a daily basis. And all these skills are not learned in a formal educational system but through the exploration of our feelings and the construction of a healthy self-esteem that happens during our childhood and adolescence.

In this sense, it is very important to allow children to experiment with their feelings, develop empathy and learn to manage stress, and one of the best ways to do this is through unstructured play. LEGO is a good opportunity to play with our children, for a short period of time, and help them with very specific topics of their personal development: taking turns, playing without competing, teamwork, understanding instructions, staying focused, sharing materials, learning from peers, give each other roles and responsibilities, ask questions, suggest answers, explore possibilities.

4. What are some practical tips for parents and caregivers to encourage unstructured play at home, especially for children who are used to structured activities and screens?

The most important recommendation is to respect the need for unstructured play, from an early age. Allow children to play freely with their toys and dedicate a physical space for play. A play mat can serve to mark the space for playing. Lego is a very viable option in Hong Kong, as it requires little storage space, is safe and very creative. Playdates in parks are also key, and only require a ball or some simple toy to entertain several children.

Unstructured play is by nature improvised, so the most important thing is to respect a daily time and space to play without electronics or books around.

5. How can we use unstructured play to build parent-child communication and deepen relationships?

One of the main advantages of playing with LEGO is that anyone can build with the blocks without needing special training or skills. Of course, some are more creative than others, but the core is that we all can use blocks to represent an idea. Ultimately, there are no right or wrong, only concepts and ideas. Therefore, it is a safe space for children to explore and share their thoughts with us. It is also a safe space for us to start conversations with our children on complex topics like school life, friendship, self-image, and family life, amongst others. With my son, I always save the most important conversations for when we are immersed in the game, as it is when we both feel the most relaxed and can therefore express ourselves openly and honestly.

6. What are the most common concerns about unstructured play raised by parents or educators? How can we address them?

The main concern is the lack of structure. While it's true that structure is necessary for young children's development, unstructured play also has several benefits. It allows children to develop both intellectual and physical skills that are important for healthy mental development. Just like adults need space for reflection, children require this space to make sense of the world. It's important to prioritise reflection in the learning process to help children develop a lifelong love of learning. By doing so, we can help them gain a more comprehensive understanding of the world around them and cultivate a learning mindset.

Follow us to find out more about Cascade Talks.

Next month we meet another expert to help shed light on mental well-being.

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