#Take5 #79 Bricks behind bars: lessons from LEGO® Serious Play® workshops in prison

Published:

03-01-2023

Categories:

Widening Participation, Digital Literacy, Inclusivity and Differentiation, Playful and Creative Learning, Study Skills, Technology Enhanced Learning

This #Take5 is brought to you from Julia Reeve – and it is a beautifully detailed and thoughtful look at  LEGO® Serious Play®. Julia Reeve is a National Teaching Fellow based in Leicester who works in diverse educational settings including Further, Higher, prison and community education. Her practice focuses on building confidence, connection and creative thinking via imaginative, multisensory learning. If you’ve never attended a LEGO® Serious Play® session yourself – please, please read on.  

Setting the scene

My name is Julia Reeve, I’m an educational consultant and part-time lecturer in the Faculty of Business & Law at De Montfort University, Leicester. I’m also a LEGO® Serious Play® facilitator, and this blog outlines the lessons learned from some LSP workshops held with prisoners at HMP Leicester.

Photograph Julia Reeve

Caption: Julia Reeve

Breaking in

My introduction to delivering arts-based learning in a prison setting came through De Montfort University colleague Jacqui Norton and the innovative Talent Unlocked festival which launched in 2017 as a partnership between HMP Leicester and DMU. Talent Unlocked is an arts festival behind bars, aiming to provide a sustained programme of creative activities with prisoners at HMP Leicester, including music, creative writing, poetry and more. This blog post gives a prisoner perspective on the festival: https://insidetime.org/unlocking-talent/ In 2019 I was invited to run a LEGO® Serious Play® session as part of Talent Unlocked: this experience had a transformative effect on my perspectives and practice and over three years later I’m still regularly delivering creative workshops at HMP Leicester. 

Arts in prisons

Evidence demonstrates that arts in prisons supports self-esteem, well-being and confidence, with a “strong correlation between arts education and self-confidence” (Brewster, 2014 p.23). Arts-based learning can “support improved wellbeing, awaken an interest in learning and can help people build new positive identities” (National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance 2021). Creative activities can open the door to other development opportunities and provide an essential tool to support both well-being and learning.  

Arts and creativity in criminal justice settings can support improved wellbeing, awaken an interest in learning and can help people build new positive identities.

HMP Leicester background

HM Prison Leicester (sometimes referred to locally as ‘Leicester Castle’) is a Category B men’s prison, housing prisoners taken directly from court in the local area (sentenced or on remand). It is located in the centre of Leicester, close to the DMU campus.

HMP Leicester

Caption: HMP Leicester Photograph by Jonathan Rawle, http://jonathan.rawle.org/ 

LEGO® Serious Play®

LEGO® Serious Play® (LSP) is a methodology developed 20 years ago using exercises with LEGO® bricks: it is widely used in business and management settings to promote creative thinking and develop strategy (Roos & Victor 2018). LSP is also used in educational, research and coaching contexts and is valued as a tool for developing skills in reflection, communication and listening. The non-hierarchical and democratic nature of LSP also mean that it can offer opportunities in social and emotional learning, by fostering empathy, connection, self-awareness and confidence. 

My first HMP Leicester workshop

This initial session was billed as ‘Creative Thinking with LEGO® Serious Play®’: the blurb mentioned the fact that LSP was used by global brands for idea generation and also invited participants to think about childhood memories of playing with LEGO®.

Materials

One of the challenges in delivering workshops in prison is the fact that certain items cannot easily be brought into this environment: scissors for collage work can be problematic! I was able to bring in individual LSP kits in boxes plus Duplo® animals and post-it notes and that kept things relatively simple.

Mini LEGO® Serious Play® kit

Caption: Mini LEGO® Serious Play® kit

Outline of activities:

  • Invitation to share previous experiences of building with LEGO®
  • Brief introduction to LSP and setting of ground rules
  • Build a creature with three bricks, share creature’s name and superpower
  • Choose a Duplo® animal that you relate to – share the reasons for your choice
  • Main build: build an individual model to represent a positive learning experience from your past – share the story of your model
  • Make five changes to your model to represent a future learning goal – again share the story of your model
  • As a group position individual models to make one combined model
  • As a group identify any shared themes and label with post-it notes – share with facilitator
  • As a group give the joint model a title
  • Reflect on workshop experiences and share. 

Preconceptions and first impressions 

Having previously delivered LSP workshops primarily in HE, I was quite anxious about delivering this session, and had no idea what to expect in terms of environment, participants and behaviour. 

Learning environment

I was fortunate to work with HMP Leicester librarian Louise Dowell to deliver my LSP session, and was able to use an informal space with a few benches and chairs within the small prison library. The first thing I noticed was the noise: there is the constant sound of prisoners’ and officers’ (often raised) voices coming from outside the library space. Also, it was not possible to close the library during the session so men and officers were coming in and out of the library. So, although the library is quite an oasis of relative calm and has a cosier feel than the rest of this Victorian prison, distractions and disturbances are frequent.

Learners and behaviour

I felt nervous about meeting the learners: my preconceptions were that there might be aggressive or violent behaviour, that learners would not be interested in the tasks and that I would not be able to have authority over the group. Here, I was entirely wrong on all points. Learners were both polite and engaged, and were willing to follow instructions given.

Here are some lessons learned from that first workshop, plus further reflections from subsequent LSP prison sessions. Although this learning is derived from a prison setting, these lessons can be applied more widely in terms of preconceptions about learners, inclusivity and the benefits of LSP for social and emotional learning.

Lesson 1: Don’t underestimate reflective abilities

I was impressed at the capacity for reflection exhibited by the participants: as was pointed out to me, prisoners have a lot of time to reflect, and they thought deeply about the meanings behind the models and the links to their own lives. From the start of the workshop learners offered thoughtful reflections: for example, one learner chose an elephant for the animals exercise, and linked the elephant’s caring nature to their own wish to be cared for and nurtured.

Duplo® animals

Caption: Duplo® animals

Lesson 2: Social connection is all-important

One of the most rewarding aspects of the workshop was the way that LSP activities can form connections between participants: it’s often the case in LSP that participants learn new things about one another, even if they have known one another a long time. This is even more noticeable in a prison setting: one memorable example was that two men in a group discovered that they both had daughters. Discovering shared experiences or interests can be one of the most valuable benefits of a prison-based LSP session: one participant commented that they had “learnt a lot about other people”. 

Lesson 3: Listening is a skill

One of the challenging aspects of the workshop was that learners didn’t always find it easy to pay attention when others were sharing the stories of their models. The structure of LSP sessions, where everyone gets a chance to speak, can however offer a valuable framework for the development of vital social skills including listening and turn-taking. One learner stated that ‘Patience’ was something they gained from the workshop.

Lesson 4: LSP fosters empathy

Although learners were asked only to disclose what they were comfortable with during the session, they were very open in sharing sometimes difficult personal stories from their pasts (quite heart-rending from my perspective). LSP offered a unique way for prison learners to share and empathise with one another’s stories, plus the identification of shared themes allowed them to find common ground. “Working with others and learning from your peers” was seen as one of the best things about the workshop. 

Lesson 5: Multisensory learning engages learners

The prison learners relished the opportunity to take part in a creative, hands-on activity. Feedback comments included: “It was practical which I am better at” and that “Building things” was the best thing about the workshop. “Men were engaged and it was lovely to see them focused and interacting with you and their peers” Prison librarian.

 Prison learner model: ‘Positive steps’

Caption: Prison learner model: ‘Positive steps’

Lesson 6: Communicating thoughts and ideas works better with bricks

LSP offered prison learners a helpful method for verbal communication and articulation of thoughts through storytelling prompted by a physical object. Participants cited “Communication skills” as something they gained from the session, and one learner commented: “I enjoyed using LEGO® to describe things about life”.

Lesson 7: Flexibility in facilitation

Concentration on the task at hand can be difficult for prison learners (and in prison environments) so a degree of flexibility is required in facilitating these LSP sessions. Sticking rigidly to the rules of LSP may not be appropriate when learners may need to leave a workshop part-way through, or when learners have learning differences. A high percentage of the UK prison population have learning differences such as ADHD, including some of the workshop participants. This means that although I had a planned structure and sequence for the workshop, I had to be open to adapting this: for example, one learner found it difficult to only talk about their model for a limited time, and another dropped in and out of the workshop.

Lesson 8: Don’t assume that learners are comfortable with written communication

Literacy levels in UK prisons are considerably lower than in the general population.  This means that tasks such as writing notes on post-it notes, while no problem to most, may present a barrier to some prison learners. This is something I have had to become aware of, and I now offer to make the notes myself if needed, or better still, encourage learners to help one another with note-taking.

Prison learner model: ‘Moving forward’

Caption: Prison learner model: ‘Moving forward’

Lesson 9: Be prepared for difficult stories

Inviting childhood memories of playing with LEGO® can be a very useful way of starting a conversation with learners about LSP. However, memories may not always be positive: for example, one learner shared a memory of getting a LEGO® set for Christmas as a way of keeping him out of the way. Another shared a very happy memory of playing with LEGO® at school, but framed this as a very rare positive memory of his childhood.

Lesson 10: Creativity is universal 

Despite the limitations of delivering LSP in a prison setting, learners demonstrated a high degree of creativity in their responses to the workshop exercises. The metaphorical and imaginative nature of LSP was quickly grasped, and learners were inventive with their choice of titles for group models. These included “Back to the Future” and “Odyssey of Achievement”. Feedback indicated that learners valued the creative aspect of this session: “Very creative experience” and “It’s nice to be creative” were some of the feedback comments.

The future

I continue to run LSP sessions at HMP Leicester, and have recently added another multisensory workshop, ‘Mindful Origami’, along with some resources that can be used outside the facilitated session. In this session participants make simple origami creations such as bookmarks, hearts and paper ‘fortune tellers’. 

Inspired by prison learners who said that they would like to share these activities with their children, I hope to soon also run workshops at HMP Leicester family days. Activities such as Lego Serious Play and Origami can offer a playful route into learning and connecting for both prisoners and families.

I’m also in contact with other prisons and ex-offender organisations about scaling up this work nationally. It’s astonishing to reflect that one teaching experience has had such a fundamental impact on my practice, sending me in a new, challenging and highly rewarding direction.

All of the above lessons have been influential on my practice in HE, but two key areas have been especially impactful in terms of facilitating LSP sessions: 

Firstly, my experiences in prison education have made me more aware of the need to be flexible in my facilitation approach: I have certainly become less rigid in my application of the LSP methodology and have a heightened sense of how diverse learners may (or may not) engage with this method.

Secondly, I have become more conscious of the sensitivity needed to deal with potentially difficult revelations. These experiences have underlined both the power of LSP and the need to handle this method with care: creating a supportive space with clear ground rules is paramount.

References

Brewster, L. (2014) The Impact of Prison Arts Programs on Inmate Attitudes and Behavior: A Quantitative Evaluation. Justice Policy Journal. Vol. 11, No. 2. http://www.cjcj.org/uploads/cjcj/documents/brewster_prison_arts_final_formatted.pdf 

Campbell, D. (2022) ‘One in four UK prisoners has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, says report’ The Guardian, 18 June. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/jun/18/uk-prisoners-attention-deficit-disorder-adhd-prison

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (2022) Prison education: a review of reading education in prisons. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/prison-education-a-review-of-reading-education-in-prisons/prison-education-a-review-of-reading-education-in-prisons 

National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (2021) Arts and Criminal Justice. https://artsincriminaljustice.org.uk/arts-and-criminal-justice/ 

Roos, J. and Victor, B. (2018), How It All Began: The Origins Of LEGO® Serious Play®, International Journal of Management and Applied Research, Vol. 5, No. 4, pp. 326-343. https://doi.org/10.18646/2056.54.18-025 

Bio:  Julia Reeve is a National Teaching Fellow based in Leicester who works in diverse educational settings including Further, Higher, prison and community education. Her practice focuses on building confidence, connection and creative thinking via imaginative, multisensory learning. 

 

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