New Delhi: When Ole Kirk Christiansen started making toy building blocks in 1932 inside a small carpenter’s workshop in Billund, Denmark, these were made entirely of wood. He named the company after the Danish words ‘leg godt’ which translate to ‘play well’. Peter Trillingsgaard, vice-president for government and public affairs at the LEGO Group, believes that among today’s generation it is not only important to play well but to play together and often.
While LEGO has been renowned for its trademark building blocks and theme sets, the Danish toy maker has recently explored other avenues, including television and feature films.
“All the channels are important for us... The first LEGO movie tells the story about what LEGO really is all about—free play, interacting with your parents. The second movie builds on that as well. This was an important opportunity to communicate the importance and value of play to parents, children," says Trillingsgaard. He and his team are responsible for advocating the importance of play, safe toys, responsible marketing to children, and sustainable materials. At a recent panel discussion on enhancing the value of play for Indian children and nurturing the next generation of innovators with policymakers from the government in New Delhi, Trillingsgaard shared his views on the need to rethink how children are taught in schools. The discussion also highlighted the lack of play in children’s lives today. “There are so many benefits and learnings from play, like social skills. It also builds children’s skills within innovation and problem-solving," he adds.
In an interview, Trillingsgaard also spoke about the importance of building sustainable products while keeping the environment in mind, linking the physical and digital worlds, and how LEGO is trying to learn more about India. Edited excerpts:
One of the findings in the ‘2018 LEGO Play Well’ report—that surveyed nearly 13,000 parents and children in nine countries to understand the state of play today—revealed a strong link between the hours spent playing together and happiness of families. Don’t you think achieving this in today’s generation is difficult?
It’s really difficult because families are busy—not only the mums and dads, but the children as well. Schools are longer and there are so many expectations of a child. One of the core recommendations in the report is that families shouldn’t regard play as the easiest solution. Play should be an integrated part of being a family. When you are together, when you play, not only do you get to spend time with your children, you also explore and interact with them. You build those core values, which we believe are really important for a family. It’s tough competition. You are competing with so many different interests.
Accessibility to digital games and apps has increased exponentially through smartphones and e-learning. How has LEGO adapted to this generational shift where the traditional concept of physical play has taken a back seat?
Twenty years ago, we started working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and developed our first robot (LEGO Mindstorms) with them. In a way, we have also been a driver of this process. We see technology as an opportunity to enhance the skills children also need. For us, it’s not an either-or.
There is, we believe, a sweet spot here where you can use technology in an intelligent way that supports the development of children as well. However, there is no question that parents are worried and rightly so because there are also lots of things that attract children and become such competitive factors on their time. Every stakeholder—parents, game developers, governments—should be mindful about how they interact with children. For us, responsible digital interaction should have the same values as we believe our product has, which is safe, innovative and something where children can explore and have a meaningful life between the digital and physical world.
How do children approach toys today, as compared to say 15-20 years ago, before the digital explosion?
Children, in a way, never change because a child has a natural curiosity. I don’t think that curiosity has changed.
As long as we can provide children with a meaningful play experience that also stimulates their curiosity, I believe we still have an important role to play. There are other factors that make it difficult. Like I said previously, the competition is tougher and often the decision maker might not be the child. Hopefully, we can still be on the children’s wish list for their birthdays and other vacations. Often, the decision-maker is the caretaker, the parents or grandparents. So, we also need to make sure that we keep communicating with them to make it clear why physical play and play in general is important.
How important is the sustainability factor when you are designing your products?
Sustainability for us is non-negotiable. Our products have always been long lasting. You pass them through generations, so their quality and safety must be impeccable. We control rigorously all the materials that go into our physical products. We have a very ambitious target that by 2030 we will have sustainable materials. We know it’s going to be difficult. It’s a massive undertaking for us. There are a lot of companies that are working towards a circular economy. Maybe we can reuse some of the plastics again and make products that last another 30-40 years. We are investigating different avenues to that. We have invested quite heavily in windfarms so all our energy is offset by sustainable energy.
If you look at our mission: to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow—within that there is also this obligation to leave a planet for our children that offers at least the same opportunities that it did for us when we inherited the planet from our predecessors. For us sustainability is also important in the digital world. We are also part of UN-UNICEF work to ensure that we respect children in all the work and activities we do. They should be met by technology and offerings digitally which are safe for them. Once you have a product out there which is digital and is targeted at children, it has to be safe. Protecting data, offering them age-appropriate content is critical for us both digitally and physically.
We know that STEM toys are on the rise. How do you bring in the ‘arts’ aspect and evolve from STEM to STEAM?
Personally, I don’t think it’s a big issue. I believe that all the components should be seen as one way of approaching education. Whether its science, technology or art, the philosophy is that you need to challenge the children and make sure you build their skills so they remain curious, explorative, and learn what innovation is. It doesn’t matter if you become an artist or a scientist. The whole concept is that you understand that you need to stimulate the child and that they release their full potential.
What sort of demographics in India are you focusing on? Do you think this reach or influence of play-based learning is only accessible to certain sections of the society?
There’s no question that for us India is a country we need to learn better. As a socially responsible company, we also know that it is important to offer play activities to all the children. We have various programmes and we have a foundation that we can activate as well. That’s also part of the journey here to understand and learn how we can be responsible and socially conscious. The company in India... we are a teenager here. We are just learning how to approach India but this issue and area are greatly important to us. It’s a very big country, but this is something we are mindful about.
Learning has so many avenues today—apps and multimedia entertainment. What are some of the new media and digital tools LEGO is employing?
I think our strongest asset today is within the robotics area. We have managed to create a coding language that is intuitive and like a system similar to the LEGO bricks. Once you try it on one platform, you can go to other platforms, robots and design robots that can do amazing things and children will quickly pick up the coding language. That’s probably our strongest asset. We are exploring a lot of things for the future. Artificial intelligence is very high on our agenda. We are exploring lots of different avenues there. Augmented reality is also super interesting. There will be some cool products coming out soon where we also use AR in a LEGO-relevant way.