Serious Play – Some thoughts on hands-on methods

When I came back from the workshops at Walton Hall yesterday, I met another Open University person on the train who was working on hands-on methods. I gave her a description of what I was doing, and she told me to have a look at David Gauntlett’s work (thank you!). And so I did!

I then had to realise that David Gauntlett is the man behind ‘’, a website that used to bring me and my co-students countless hours of entertainment during our arts degree (check out the Theory Trading Cards and the Lego Theorists!). But somehow I had always associated him with semiotics and not with hands-on methods. Maybe this was a new thing? What I found out is that David Gauntlett is indeed interested in visual and hands-on research methods. His last project involved something called ‘Lego Serious Play’ which I had never heard of. Lego Serious Play seems to be a ‘performance enhancement tool for organisations’. According to the Lego website,

‘LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is an innovative, experiential process designed to enhance innovation and business performance. Based on research that shows that this kind of hands-on, minds-on learning produces a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the world and its possibilities, LEGO SERIOUS PLAY deepens the reflection process and supports an effective dialogue – for everyone in the organization.’

Gauntlett, however, uses this type of Lego to engage people with their identity.

Here is a little clip from his research:

There are other social scientists who have argued that hands-on methods are a valuable addition to social science research. At the 2006 ‘Lively Temporalities’ Workshop (as part of the OU’s Interdependence Day) at the Royal Geographical Society, for instance, Nigel Thrift argued that social science not only can, but maybe should incorporate ‘actual practical work’ such as art practice, because ‘if you have to build something you often do learn from it in a way you don’t if you are just writing about it’. Classic examples of the advocacy of the sensuous that especially geographers refer to are Michel Serres’ concern about relying on the textual in ‘The Five Senses’ or Henri Lefebvre’s plea for adult play.

Mutable Matter also uses materials in the workshops that are not only supposed to help participants express thoughts about the nanoscale, but also represent certain forces or characteristics of the nanoscale that may prompt participants to react to them during the conversation. The materials used are mostly plasticine, ‘slime’, polystyrene balls, magnets, silly putty and, most recently, thread and polyester filling.

Watching Gauntlett’s video on youtube, I wondered about the parallels and differences of our workshops. First of all, I was surprised that he was hoping to achieve ‘more truthful results’ with his method. I usually thought about my method as provoking different reactions rather than more truthful ones. Secondly, I wonder whether I was giving my participants enough time to develop thoughts/make models. The last workshop at Walton Hall had felt a bit rushed, and I wished I could have explored some things with the participants in more depth. On the other hand, I was torn between asking too much time of my volunteers – or too little considering some of them had come from further away. The third spontaneous thought I had was in what way the different kinds of materials (Lego/Plasticine) were affecting the research outcomes and to what degree I could direct the outcomes/to what degree the materials worked as a voice themselves that I, as a researcher, could not influence.

Looking at the website mentioned in the youtube video, I came across a workshop that seems to deal with these kinds of questions, so I am hoping to attend it in December. If you are struggling with similar issues, have a look at the website! Otherwise I shall report back in December (if it isn’t booked up that is… fingers crossed!).


One thought on “Serious Play – Some thoughts on hands-on methods

  1. Hi Angela,

    Someone told me about your post so i thought i’d say hello and thanks for the interesting comments. I shouldn’t really have said “more *truthful* results” in the video … i’ve not said that in any written-down texts about this work. (Pesky talking!). Usually i just say that you get different *kinds* of responses, as you say here.

    The issue of time is always tricky … you need to give people time to work through creating their responses, but on the other hand it may be unfair to take up their valuable time if they are volunteers. (My solution in research work is to pay them, then there’s no complaining!, and i think paying participants for their valuable time is only fair, and doesn’t affect the results).

    Please feel free to email me as i am not sure who ‘Angela’ is.

    Best wishes


    [ David Gauntlett … ]

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