Imagination, Creativity and LEGO Serious Play:  An Interview with Alison James

Alison James, Professor Emerita of the University of Winchester, is an expert in creativity, imagination, and play in higher education pedagogy. Alison is a trained LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® facilitator and has done extensive work in staff and educational development using this methodology. During the interview, Alison reflects on her childhood creativity, which was stifled during her traditional education. Despite this, Alison succeeded academically but felt a loss of creativity. Her career took various turns until a friend suggested she try teaching, which led her to value education’s purpose and meaning. Upon joining a creative arts university, Alison realized her text-based educational approaches didn’t suit creative art students, prompting her to explore creative means to teach languages. This experience rekindled her creativity and led her to appreciate diverse learning and teaching methods. We talk about Alison’s success with LSP in higher education and the broader acceptance of playful methods over time. Alison’s work has been recognized with various teaching awards, widely published, and supported through research grants, underscoring the legitimacy of creative and playful pedagogies. Alison shares her facilitator experience and provides perspective on the use of generative AI.

Note: Per request of the interviewee, we use the trademarks for LEGO and LEGO Serious Play throughout her responses (we otherwise align our spelling with Wikipedia). 

Full Recording:

Edited Transcript:

“It’s not an either/or, it’s an all of it”

Stefanie Panke: t’s with great pleasure that I interview Alison James today about her work on playful pedagogies and creativity in higher education. Alison, you’ve been researching play for over 15 years. Can you tell us about how your interest in playfulness and the value of play has evolved based on your personal trajectory?

Alison James: I’m going to take you way back to the beginning because as a child, I was very creative, always drawing, making things, telling stories. And then, when I went to secondary school, a lot of the creative and playful aspects of education were being stamped out of the curriculum. You were learning proper grown-up stuff now, so there were very specific ways you needed to study. It was very read-write based, which luckily suited me fine. I could write essays and do exams, no problem. But that was entirely the luck of the draw. I managed to go through the whole school process, a very traditional education, and I did just fine because I fitted the mold, but at the same time, a lot of my creativity was stamped out of me as part of that growing-up process.

I then went on and did a modern foreign languages degree at university and various jobs after that. I hadn’t intended to get into higher education; it was one of those accidents of life where I’d been doing lots of very different things. And finally, a friend suggested that I try teaching, and a job had come up, so I just started doing a few hours a week. What I loved about moving into further and higher education was that sense of purpose, value, and worth. I was looking for something to do with my life professionally that had meaning, and I found that in an educational space.

Shortly after I entered the world of higher education as an educator, I was asked to apply for a job at a creative arts university, teaching languages on a creative arts course. It was very soon after I got into that course that I realized that for so many of the creative art students, their strengths didn’t lie in the written word, reading texts, or traditional academic approaches. They were eminently bright, wonderfully gifted in lots of different ways, but they saw the world and processed information differently. My very text-based approaches to education, which were the ones that I’d known all my life, really felt no longer satisfactory for the students I had.

Plus, a lot of them didn’t want to learn a foreign language. I was teaching French and Italian, and a lot of them had signed up to do something artistic, dynamic, and design-based, and the fact that a language module came with it was really not the thing for them. So, I had to find ways to enable them to love language learning and learn it and be proficient in it through creative means.

It was a kind of natural bridge, and as I did that, the more I came to appreciate and fall in love with and tap back into the creative elements of my own approaches to learning. I found I loved all aspects of learning. I love a really good lecture; I actually enjoy the process of writing an essay, constructing a compelling argument, researching stuff. I love all of that too, so it’s not an either/or, it’s an all of it. But suddenly finding and watching creative arts educators who were teaching their students in such inspiring ways, with materials, visuals, hands-on experiences, and multisensory engagement, was the big start of the shift. Then, as I got more involved, I certainly wouldn’t have used the word play when I started off, but I think very much I was about creativity and imagination.

No self-respecting academic is going to buy a book with play in the title

I moved into staff and educational development, looking at pedagogy in more detail. I’ve been a teacher all my life, as well as a manager and a researcher, so these were things I was trying out as well as looking into and advising and helping other people do this while also learning from all these different disciplinary approaches. Creativity and imagination, two words that sit beautifully in a creative arts context, actually sit pretty well these days in pretty much any area because linguistically we’re okay with creativity and imagination, entrepreneurship, and innovation because they all sound like proper words that don’t have that kind of scary tang that a word like play has.

When I had the good fortune to write a book on “Engaging Imagination” with Professor Stephen Brookfield, I wanted to call it “Play, Creativity, and Imagination,” but our American publisher said: “No self-respecting academic is going to buy a book with play in the title. So by all means, mention it in your text, but don’t stick it in the title because nobody will pick the book up”.

That has shifted a lot since then, but nonetheless, there is still a reservation around the word play that people are scared of.

A big aspect of further and higher education in Western models over the past few decades has been the role of reflection. Oftentimes though, students can’t be bothered. What I wanted to do was to tap into creative and imaginative ways to say actually this self-scrutiny, it’s all part of the academic journey. It’s not some silly puff piece, but a really fundamental perspective on how you’re engaging with your subject.

Certainly, LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® or LEGO-based approaches were fantastic for me in this regard. I did a lot of visual arts-based things as well, and we wrote about them in “Engaging Imagination.”

One my colleagues at the London College of Fashion, part of the University of Arts London, said to me, “You know, I really want to create a very different kind of personal and professional development module. I love what you’re doing with LEGO. I’d really like you to create a LEGO-based module for us,” which is what I did. And I think it’s an important illustration for a number of reasons. Number one, the course that they wanted me to create this LEGO-based module for was entirely made up of international students for whom English was their second language. And a lot of people said to me, “You can’t bring in a toy-based approach. A lot of these students are coming from cultures where it’s very rote learning; they won’t get on with it; they won’t understand it; they won’t feel like they’re getting value for money.” Other people would say, “What you’re doing is very metaphorically based. They’re never going to get hold of that. That’s going to be too difficult for them.”  LSP is based on envisioning sometimes abstract and ephemeral concepts through the means of bricks. And so there was an awful lot of “Students won’t like it. Students won’t do it. Students won’t understand it.” And I can safely say that all of those things were completely overturned.

So I created this workshop, and it was so popular with students that I ended up training colleagues on the program who could also teach it alongside me because the course was growing exponentially, and there wasn’t enough of me to go around to do it.

For me, LSP was a natural methodology to bring into an educational space because it had this wonderfully dense theoretical basis, and it fitted creative arts students. But actually, I was soon to find that it fitted students in every other discipline as well. Now, when I started using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® in higher education, I was one of a small number of people who were doing that.  Now that has really proliferated in the last 15 years. And it’s been wonderful to watch LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® blossom and be adopted in those spaces. I and Michael Buckle, who is the CEO of the Danish Consultancy IntHrface, co-authored a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® for higher education course which we launched as an online training during the COVID pandemic.

I worked full-time in higher education institutions until 2019. I got my professorial chair in teaching and learning. I became a National Teaching Fellow in 2014. I became a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy in the UK, based on my creative and imaginative approaches to pedagogy. I think it’s a testament to the fact that those playful and creative and imaginative approaches are gaining traction. They’re not always understood even now, but they are being legitimized and understood better in a lot of areas.

Professor Chrissi Nerantzi of Leeds University and I published a book together in 2019 on the power of play in higher education and creativity and tertiary learning, After the experience of bringing that book out, which has been downloaded worldwide about 58,000 times, I thought, “I’d really like to take this study further,” and I won some funding from the Imagination Lab Foundation, a not-for-profit charity looking at the intersection between the arts, sciences, management, and business, and play.

A taxonomy of 17 different broad categories of play

I was fortunate enough to get a study grant to carry out my study, “The Value of Play in Higher Education,” which I published in 2022. The research revealed to me the extent to which play is being used worldwide and the differences in the types of play that are being used worldwide. I ended up with a taxonomy of 17 different broad categories of play. I spoke to people on 70 different programs, academic programs, in 20 different countries and generated over 300 examples of play-based learning. To me, that was fantastic proof of the presence and the importance of play in higher education because all of the educators I spoke to are passionately committed to their practice, to their teaching, passionately committed to the best possible experiences and futures for their students.

They were picking play as the best way to deal with really complex skill acquisition, concept grasp, deepening of knowledge, it wasn’t just play for light relief when you’ve done the tough stuff. And that I found massively inspiring. You can download the research documentation on my website,

That was a very long monologue in answer to your question about how I got into playful and creative teaching.

LEGO for University Learning

Stefanie Panke: Well, you have a very prolific, multi-faceted and interesting career to try to summarize in just a few minutes, so thank you for that. You touched upon many things that I was going to ask about, but I wanted to point listeners to two specific resources on LEGO  and LSP in higher education – the two case study collections you worked on with Chrissi Nerantzi.

Alison James: Yes. Absolutely. And just to clarify, I would love for all of my outputs to be completely free. I’m afraid the book, The Power of Play in higher education, if you buy it in its traditional hardcore form, it is quite expensive, but if your institution subscribes to Springer, then you can get the e-book for free. So that’s something to look out for. And the Stephen Brookfield book, that’s also one you have to buy, but that’s a good value book, and Stephen is just one of our contemporary greats in education, so it’s worth it just for him, never mind me. Yes, so but lots of journal articles and things which are readily available as well.

So the two collections that you’re referring to are things that I’ve co-produced with Professor Chrissi Nerantzi at Leeds University. Chrissi is an absolute champion of open-source academic resources. She’s also an experienced LEGO® Serious Play facilitator, a digital educator, and she and I met quite a few years ago when we were two LEGO® Serious Play facilitators at the same conference. It was really unusual that two of us were there, and I instantly emailed her on arriving and said ‘we haven’t met, we need to meet’. And we’ve worked together ever since. In the two collections, we were looking at how people are using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® and other LEGO-based approaches.

LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is a very specific methodology where you have to abide by certain principles, follow certain paths, although it then does allow you lots of flexibility. It’s not something you can rush. It’s a deep thinking tool. Having said that, there are loads of wonderful things you can do as an educator with LEGO® bricks in 2 minutes, 5 minutes with a handful of bricks or thousands of bricks, whatever, that have nothing to do with LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®.  So what we wanted to do with our two collections was recognize and document that span of practice.

The first one, LEGO® for University Learning , came out in 2019, and what we wanted to do was to introduce people who weren’t familiar with it to the principles of the method, the history of the method and point to a lot of resources around its use in higher education. We wanted to give some illustrations because sometimes people just need a bit of a leg up, a few ideas, a few simple activities to get them going to think about how they could use this where they are. And so that’s what we provided in that book. There’s an introduction to the method, a section with lots of prompts. We ended up with about 16 case studies, using LEGO® in all kinds of ways.

It was so popular, we thought we should do another volume. A couple of years went by, and Chrissi said to me, why don’t we do another one this time about remote learning, what do we do when we can’t be in a room together. And so we did. When we put out a call, we were expecting people to be very narrow and just say, this is how I’m using it in the pandemic. In fact, we ended up getting a real span of case studies. Some of them were really rooted in the pandemic, in remote learning, and some of them sort of mixed it all up, and some of them actually had nothing to do with it at all:

LEGO® for university learning: Online, offline and elsewhere

Attach bricks to make meaning

Stefanie Panke: Can you explain what makes building with bricks particularly powerful?

Alison James:There are so many things I want to say in response to that question. I think, if we approach it conversely, some people might say, “Oh, but you know, they’re really rigid. They don’t bend. What am I supposed to do with that?” And well, everything has its limitations. What is one of the beauties of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, I think, is that once you can click bricks together, you can do it. It’s not like having to mold putty or clay or draw a picture or sew something. There is a very low threshold to be able to participate.

In a face-to-face workshop, we always go around checking, making sure that people can put the bricks together, they’re not having any problems. We also remind people that the whole point of what they’re doing is not making something pretty or some kind of feat of engineering, it’s just being able to attach bricks to make meaning.

I think it’s very inclusive because everybody can do it. So I think that’s perhaps one of the basic things that makes LEGO® a really good medium for this sort of thing. And you know, I’ve worked with all sorts of stuff. I’ve worked with Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, pens, collage, and there’ll be lots of people who love all of that stuff and feel really comfortable, and equally there’ll be some people who, even if they’ve come to it with a really open mind and open heart, it’s after they’ve glued a couple of bits of paper on their collage they just think, “Oh my god, a toddler could have done better than that.” You don’t get that with LEGO® Serious Play.

I don’t think there’s any wrong material, unless of course it’s toxic or harmful, but it’s just when it comes to LEGO®, it’s recognizable, it’s very sturdy, everybody for the most part can fasten it together.

If you do occasionally have people who struggle with the bricks, then there’s no reason why somebody can’t help them with that fastening.

The other thing you do find with LEGO®, which can be either a plus or a minus, is that a lot of people have a real love affair with LEGO®, especially if they came to it as a child. But that is an additional thing, you can’t rely on that for people who’ve never seen or used LEGO®.

There might be practical considerations why LEGO® is a good material to use, but sometimes there’s the additional affective dimension that comes into play.

Stefanie Panke: One thing that I found in playful, creative, design thinking type settings is that oftentimes people come in and say, “I can’t do this, I’m not a creative person.” And in some of the best workshops, they leave saying, “Oh, that is not true. I am highly creative, and I just always censored my own ideas too early.” Is that an experience you have had?

Alison James: Yes, absolutely. People often start very self-deprecating, saying, “I’m not very creative,” or “My model isn’t as good as the person next to them,” or they’ll say things like, “We work a lot with metaphor, and my model isn’t very metaphorical,” then they’ll explain their model, and it’s clear it’s filled with metaphor, absolutely brilliant. It’s about reminding them that the point isn’t to make something aesthetically pleasing but to create a medium to express themselves.

One thing we work a lot on when training facilitators is how to manage someone feeling, “Oh, my model’s not as good as John’s,” or “I’m not as creative as Brenda.” It’s about fostering a supportive environment. The nice thing is, as people start to build, they spark ideas off each other.

You do move people on from being wary, resistant, a bit suspicious, to actually being surprised by how good it was. And you move people from thinking, “I’m pointless. I’m just not creative. I’m not very good at this,” to “I can do it,” just like you say. And I think those are two really important aspects of any learning experience, whatever you’re using.

I do not wish to spend my entire life on a screen“.

Stefanie Panke: You have looked at LEGO and play during the COVID pandemic, which was a big disruptor to education globally. We are currently experiencing another big disruptor. With the current generative AI capabilities, a lot of university professors and school teachers are taking a deep breath, looking at their assessments and assignments, and may have a moment of panic. I would love to hear your thoughts on what role creativity can play in alleviating some of the issues that we will see in rethinking and recalibrating assessments and assignments in higher education, as well as how generative AI might negatively or positively impact people’s creative abilities and skills.

Alison James: Those are massive questions, and I will do my best to respond to them.  I’ve been intrigued by watching the incredible rapid emergence of generative AI and the kinds of questions that it’s raising. I’ve started attending some events and talks where people are presenting the work they’re doing with generative AI in different academic disciplines. I largely made myself do it because my knee-jerk reaction was a negative one, based on not knowing enough.

Everybody’s having to create policies around the use of generative AI. There was a lot of terrified scaremongering around, and then suddenly there seems to be a tide turn. AI has been around for years anyway; this is just the latest development. We have got to embrace it. It’s like not letting your students bring their mobile phones into the lecture theater; all students brought their mobile phones into the lecture theater. We all had to adapt to that.

It made me think of my academic career, having to sit on academic misconduct panels, creating policies around assessment, spotting plagiarism. If a danger of generative AI is that somebody can’t be bothered to write their own essay, that is a 21st-century extension of the essay mill. People who don’t want to do the work have always been around. One, as far as I understand, generative AI tools are not critically reflective. They draw together information from multiple sources, but they do not have the level of human discernment. This is a big support for teachers to work with them positively to make students critically reflective about generative AI.

Reassessing assessment is not new; we’ve been reassessing assessment for the last 20-30 years. This is just really heightening and bringing into focus that things really do have to change. There are increasingly projects and studies being conducted that showcase what people are doing with generative AI. We can’t fight the river; the river is going to take you. So how can you flow with the river so that you stay alive and so does the integrity of your academic experience?

I was playing around with an AI drawing tool the other day. Maybe I just picked up the wrong one, but what it came out with was a lot of ordinary poster art. Every time there is a disruptor, we appraise what it means for what we’re doing right now. We did it with the internet. Books are dead, paper. But it hasn’t gone away, and surprise, we’re still using pencil and paper and we’re still reading books but we have adapted our repertoire of engagement with our world to use all these different resources.

There is another aspect I’d like to throw into the mix concerning generative AI: I don’t know about you, but I have spent a significant portion of my working life in front of a screen. While I’ve obviously engaged in various activities, a lot of my time has been consumed by emails, document production, online meetings, the pandemic, writing articles, examining PhDs, and writing books. Essentially, so much of my life is screen-based, and I do not wish to spend my entire life on a screen. I’m looking for tools that can diversify this engagement without a massive print bill. Considering this, will generative AI make this aspect of my life easier or harder? I genuinely have no idea. But it’s certainly something to consider, isn’t it?

Stefanie Panke: That is a fascinating idea, I like that prospect very much. Thank you so much for your generosity with your time for sharing your work, your ideas, your ongoing and evolving thoughts around generative AI, and your vast amount of experience with play-based approaches. I hope that a lot of educators will find inspiration and the courage to experiment with play!

Alison James: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


Alison James is a UK National Teaching Fellow, Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy in the UK and Professor Emerita of the University of Winchester. During her career she has held numerous roles in universities spanning the twin aspects of teaching and learning and quality and standards. Her specialist interest lies in the use of alternative and innovative pedagogies in creative arts education and across the disciplines. Some of these approaches were published in Engaging Imagination: helping students become creative and reflective thinkers, co-authored with Professor Stephen Brookfield. For the last ten years she has had a particular interest in the use of play and playfulness in higher education and co-edited with Dr Chrissi Nerantzi the international collection The Power of Play in Higher Education: Creativity in Tertiary Learning. As of February 2024, The Power of Play in HE has been downloaded 65k times. In 2019 Alison received funding from the Imagination Lab Foundation, a Swiss-based, independent, and not-for-profit supporter of scholarship which brings together the disciplines of management, art, science, imagination, and play. With this support she conducted a three year investigation into the use, perceptions, and value of play in higher education which she published as a free resource in September 2022. You can download a copy from her website at Alison is a trained LEGO® Serious Play facilitator and has done extensive work in staff and educational development using this methodology. She has also used it widely in course design and with students & staff at undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral level. She is also a trained professional coach and works with clients within and outside academia.

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