Powerful partnerships: LEGO Foundation and UNICEF collaborate to impact children's lives

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Sunday, 31 May 2015 03:36 GMT

LEGO Foundation CEO Hanne Rasmussen on stage in Billund, Denmark, welcoming delegates to the 2015 LEGO Idea Conference.

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Earlier this year, the 2015 LEGO Idea Conference—a premiere international convening focused on play and its critical link to learning—took place in Billund, Denmark. The event brought together more than 250 international experts including leading academics, practitioners, innovators, international education organizations, government representatives and social entrepreneurs from all corners of the globe to share, learn and collaborate.

In the second of a series of interviews conducted with delegates and LEGO leadership, I spoke to Hanne Rasmussen, CEO of the LEGO Foundation and Marie Busck, Senior Director of the LEGO Group.

“The first years of a child’s life are absolutely critical and by investing in children early on, we help build a strong foundation benefitting them, their communities and society a lifetime.” explained Rasmussen. In the interview, we discussed their newly-launched partnership with UNICEF, the kind of work they are engaged in on the ground, barriers to success, leadership lessons and much more.

Tell me a little bit about the origins of this partnership with UNICEF. How did it come about, and why now?

Hanne Rasmussen: The LEGO Foundation and UNICEF worked together on a few smaller projects starting in 2009, but on a more informal basis. The Foundation has since reformulated its strategy, significantly grown its level of activity and identified three mutually reinforcing approaches that collectively allow us to reach our aim of making learning through play a reality for millions of children around the world. We seek to identify and support programs as examples of play that works, build and share evidence to explain the value of play and to communicate to gain buy-in about how children best learn for life. Partnering with UNICEF was a natural extension of our relationship. Not only does UNICEF have programs that directly reach children, parents and teachers, the organization is also uniquely positioned to work with governments on ensuring that the youngest children receive the attention and resources needed to give them a good start in life.

What kind of work will you be doing together on the ground, particularly in South Africa, and what are some of the barriers to progress?

Hanne Rasmussen: This partnership with UNICEF will promote quality early learning through play for children around the world. The first years of a child’s life are absolutely critical and by investing in children early on, we help build a strong foundation benefitting them, their communities and society a lifetime. We will conduct a global review of policies on early childhood development and increase the understanding among decision makers of the critical link between play and child development. In addition, by working with the South African government to change policies and programs, this partnership has the potential to benefit 4.5 million children aged 9 and under who will receive support and care from parents, caregivers and educators who have been taught to understand and use play as a tool for stimulation and learning. The key challenge is to change mindsets around the value and importance of learning through play. Many of the essential life skills for children, such as creative problem solving, self-control, communication and collaboration, are particularly well developed through play, but most parents and teachers are not aware of this.

At the same time, have these kinds of interventions been applied or tested elsewhere, and what do you hope to achieve through this partnership?

Hanne Rasmussen: The LEGO Foundation’s past projects provided evidence that product donations accompanied by training to non-profit organizations in different parts of the world lead to more teacher engagement and promising results for children. Currently, a randomized control trial is being conducted in South Africa to assess the impact of Six Bricks, a learning tool using six LEGO DUPLO bricks, on children’s executive functions, i.e. their working memory, self-control and mental flexibility. We expect the results in early 2016. Many studies show the importance of play for the development of life skills and in return the importance of these skills for lower crime offense rates, higher productivity, and healthier lifestyles. This is why the Foundation now seeks to promote the value of play in learning not just through non-profits, but also by working with governments on implementing this into national curricula. As an example, a 5-year collaboration with the Ukrainian Ministry of Education was renewed earlier this year, providing play-based learning to more than 60 kindergartens. 

Together with UNICEF, we will be addressing the entire range of stakeholders: children, parents, teachers, school systems and governments. Our ultimate goal and hope is that we succeed in changing policies and mindsets around the importance of play for children’s development – and of course we aim to make lasting, sustainable impact that will benefit children long-term.

With the LEGO Group partnering with UNICEF and signing on to the 10 Children’s Rights and Business Principles, do you hope to inspire other such corporations to engage these issues in a more substantive way?

Marie Busck: The LEGO Group has partnered with UNICEF to jointly promote the Children’s Rights and Business Principles. As a company, we find the 10 Children’s Rights and Business Principles to be highly relevant for our business and have embedded them into our operations. It is an ongoing process for us and for many other companies to understand the principles and the tools for how to contribute positively to children’s situation. We continue to find new opportunities and face new dilemmas, and we will continue to strengthen our implementation and knowledge about where we can make the biggest impact for children. We hope to encourage people and businesses around the world to carefully evaluate and prioritize their actions so we together can support children’s situation positively.

What are some of the leadership lessons you have learned along the way when it comes to partnerships that accelerate impact?

Hanne Rasmussen: This is still a new journey for the LEGO Foundation, and we have only recently entered into and launched our first strategic partnerships. One of the lessons we have learned is that one plus one adds up to more than two. This means that we can achieve a lot more by partnering with other organizations who bring different experiences, viewpoints, methods and contacts to the table. When we combine our shared knowledge and expertise, we create better solutions, reach more stakeholders and make a positive difference in more children’s lives – and that is ultimately what it is all about.