Creative Engagement Training with Play:Disrupt

“Play is about being open and vulnerable. Play is all about that vulnerability, about being responsive, yielding to the moment. You might not be playing, but if you are willing to play, at the drop of a hat, the bounce of a ball, the glance of a toddler, the wag of a tail – then you are open to any opportunity.”

 – Bernard De Koven

I attended a workshop offered by Brigstow in partnership with Play:Disrupt to introduce those participating to creative methods for engaging other researchers, members of the public, and any other people who may be involved in our future research. These creative engagement methods involved narrative techniques, loose parts, relational mapping methodologies and an introduction to LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. The workshop sought to explore alternative methods that could assist us, as researchers, to ‘ask the right questions’ and explore how to overcome barriers to engagement.

Malcolm, the facilitator from Play:Disrupt, invited us to open a brightly coloured envelop each and with the modelling clay within, to create an avatar to represent ourselves and to find an item – from an array of small and seemingly mundane household items – to represent a challenge we face, however big or small. These items were ‘loose parts’, a play theory formed by Simon Nicholson on the basis that materials which can be moved around, designed, and redesigned, and tinkered with; create infinitely more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments.

I decided to take a small spring and stretch it out, to represent the challenge I faced of feeling stretched over many different responsibilities, projects, and tasks. This was the first example of what would be a fundamental principle of many of the creative methods, namely the importance of the representational aspect. The was a wide range of objects and avatars. Some were abstract, such as an avatar of a small palm tree to symbolise the challenge of work/leisure balance, and one very creative example of an avatar riding a surfboard on a crest of blue waves to represent the challenge of skill development and balance. This seemed to be the essence of the LEGO® inspired creative methods: to begin by posing a question and then building something to represent an aspect of that question, whether tangible or intangible, whether a challenge or a solution, and then once it is built you explain your representational construction to those you are researching/working with.

Throughout the workshop, we engaged in similar creative methods to explore the theory and practice in a practical way. Malcolm has a lot of experience in street theatre making and creating huge performative games in public spaces. These games served as a form of invitation to the public that resulted in natural and engaged collaboration. Much of the workshop was about facilitating that invitational method into our research methodologies. This practice asked us to consider the concept of permission, the concept of obstacles, and the concept of barriers. These were nuanced issues that the use of play and an invitational method tries to overcome. For example, permission was broken down into self-permission (do I allow myself to take part) peer-permission (do my family and community allow me to take part) and society-permission (does society allow me to take part). This conversation evolved into a more complicated discussion regarding different forms of privilege and access that may affect an individual’s relationship to permission. Creative and invitational methods seek to redress inequalities and imbalances inherent in participatory methods.

However, play is also about disruption. We were posed the question: what do we do when people are coming into a conversation with conflict? Such a conversation would not be constructive, due to preconceived biases and emotive reasoning. So, how can researchers disrupt these conflicts and revitalise constructive conversation? We engaged in further practical examples of creative methods which involved constructing a visual map of our local area and important landmarks to us. All the while, we continued to explore the idea of play’s disruptive power. Creative methods offer us ways to encourage research participants to open up, ways to equalise power dynamics within research teams, and novel approaches to big societal questions that may provide fresh answers to long-standing issues. Incorporating play offers researchers an avenue to approach emotionally charged issues in a way that is open and relaxed which could facilitate collaborative and understanding conversations on tricky topics.

We then moved onto LEGO®. Each person was given an identical set of various LEGO® pieces and instructions, yet each outcome was unique and told its own narrative. With such simple instructions it creates a situation where “you’re not trying to be creative” but everyone is engaging in a creative task so it is not daunting for those who don’t consider themselves creative. It breaks barriers and introduces everyone to play and the process of representational reasoning. The play and the visual elements where only the process, we explained our construction choices and thought about representational significance transforming a tower of LEGO® into the true outcomes: words, concepts, and ideas.

three different towers of lego made form green and yellow bricks
Three LEGO® towers

The process of play and creative methods had a clear effect on opening the conversation between us and giving us the tools to quickly demonstrate our ideas, challenges, and questions. The conversation was easy, insightful, and supportive. It did not feel like a discussion between people who were strangers only a few hours earlier.

Our focus moved to building a LEGO® model to represent our objectives and key values in research engagement. During this time, Malcolm asked us to consider what makes an object, say a green brick of LEGO®, representational? After various suggestions of ‘money’, ‘ecology’, ‘go!’, and ‘envy’ we all reached the conclusion that it can be anything. And that was the point. You build it, then you explain what it is and that is the simple basis for an effective tool to convey ideas and to represent thoughts.

Within our tables we them combined our thoughts create a joint model of key values in research engagement and collectively shaped the representational narrative.

This task exemplified a recurrent and key aspect of the whole day to me, which was the extreme range of difference and symbolism attained from the same task instructions and the same building blocks. The creative methods employed in the workshop encouraged the expression of contrasting and distinct ideas. It seemed to promote a diversity of voice and actively disrupted the influence of conformity and the concentration of opinion that can often happen in group projects and research. This to me, was the most important and powerful feature of disruptive play and creative methods. Individual ideas were championed, and voices were elevated. Then that was then combined with collaborative methods, a constant practice of discussion and explanation, and an encouragement to interpret and find our own representational value in other works. In this way, the individual voice was empowered whilst not domineering over the voices around it. A clarity of ideas and representations harmonised into collaborative processes.