Combining Learning & Play: Learnfully, LEGO, and the future of inclusive neurodivergent learning

By Letha McLaren
May 10, 2022
Artwork from the LEGO Campus, Billund, Denmark
Artwork from the LEGO Campus, Billund, Denmark

Originally posted May 9, 2022, on LinkedIn. View original post.

Last week, my colleague Jess Corinne and I stepped off a plane in the quaint town of Billund, Denmark. 

Billund is a community of about 6,000. It’s known for its historic downtown, its colorful buildings, and for serving as the headquarters to one of the most popular toy companies in the world: LEGO. 

A few weeks ago, the Learnfully team was honored to be named to the inaugural LEGO Foundation “Play For All” Accelerator. The accelerator provides equity free funding and fixed term mentorship programs for social enterprises, ventures, and organizations who wish to support autistic children and children with ADHD with play-based learning.

We traveled to Billund for the kickoff meeting of the program. There we explained Learnfully and our vision to LEGO Foundation representatives, entrepreneurs, and neurodivergent advisors. We collaborated with other organizations, exchanging ideas on how to best serve the growing needs of neurodivergent learners through a wide range of solutions and channels. It was an eye-opening and productive week, and it reinvigorated our focus and passion as we head into the busy summer season. 

Aligning of Missions

Our mission at Learnfully is to ignite learning and unlock the potential of every learner. The LEGO Foundation’s mission is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.

One of the main reasons we were thrilled to be part of this LEGO Foundation accelerator is that we felt there was a great deal of overlap between our missions. Our work in the neurodivergent space has shown us just how differently people learn. Our many educational specialists, child development specialists, and therapists bring innovative techniques to our learners everyday – with the understanding that every learner is unique and that a strength and interest-based, personalized approach is the path to better outcomes. 

That’s because we all process information differently and many neurodivergent learners do not learn in the conventional ways supported in classrooms. They may be bored with traditional classrooms – even as they excel on testing. Or they may not be able to pay attention in class, but read extensively in their free time. They have tremendous strengths, but the traditional systems do not always accommodate their unique needs. Maybe they do well in school, but have a hard time with Social and Emotional Learning and Executive Functioning. 

Personalized learning and experiential learning are powerful ways to reach the 1 in 5 learners who are neurodivergent. Likewise, play is a vital way to communicate with these learners. In fact, Forbes reported that 87% of parents of a neurodivergent child used play or toys as a key mechanism to discuss these differences.

Like LEGO, we believe that this is an area that is ripe for innovation and investment. Too often children are given a one-size-fits-all approach to learning. We’re proud to play a part in working to change the system and provide supplemental services for all learners. 

Innovation in the Industry

But why have learning differences been overlooked and underinvested?

To begin with, many parents are guarded when it comes to discussing the challenges facing their children. They’ve done this for good reasons, but it’s often hindered progress: companies and investors haven’t seen how massive a need or market this is. In fact, our own studies show that more than 40% of parents suspect their child has a learning disability or has been diagnosed with one, more than double that of generally accepted neurodiversity figures. 

And the investment that has flowed into the industry has addressed other issues. LEGO states: “To date, investment has largely focused on furthering the understanding of causes and diagnosis, and education-technology is mostly adapted to, not developed for, neurodivergent children. This has created a funding gap between scientific research and innovation, meaning that investment does not address some of the most critical and basic needs of neurodivergent children.”

The Play for All accelerator tackles this gap head on, with $20 million earmarked for organizations who are helping “provide all children an equal opportunity to exercise the skills needed to thrive in the 21st century.”

What we learned in Denmark

It can be lonely as an entrepreneur in a space that hasn’t received much attention. It’s even more lonely during a global pandemic. 

Our trip to Billund helped us feel more connected to other entrepreneurs in the space. It also validated our mission: many other founders were like us in that they have neurodivergent children and felt society can do better on including and supporting them. It showed us that the challenges facing the neurodivergent aren’t just limited to the U.S.; but rather, there are wide ranging needs on a global level. 

It was inspiring to see so many startups tackling these challenges. It was inspiring to see all their different approaches. And while we all have a different method to address these issues, we have the same collective mission: we want a future that is better for our children. 

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