Interview (in Dutch): Mariëtte Woudenberg, PuurTaal. English translation: Iain de Jong.
A conversation with Kaj ten Voorde
Playing with LEGO. Are you being serious…? Though it may not seem logical at first, playing with LEGO bricks genuinely awakens something within people, according to Kaj ten Voorde (1981). It’s even part of a real methodology. ‘When you build with your hands,’ Kaj explains, ‘something happen in your brains. Scientific research has demonstrated that it sets a whole process of thought into motion and strengthens your ability to reflect.’ For this reason it’s not surprising that LEGO Serious Play is rising in popularity.
First, let’s clear up a misunderstanding: Kaj is not a LEGO-fanatic. He used to play with them as a kid, but definitely not in a super dedicated way. And what about YouTube-clips of the huge constructions that you can make with the blocks? Frankly, they don’t really excite him. His passion lies in the practical application of LEGO in working with organizations, schools and communities of faith.
LEGO is remarkably suited for use in groups. ‘For example, you can probably imagine how in a group there are always people who have a lot to say, and people that are just very quiet. By focusing your questions on LEGO models, you create an entirely different dynamic and a playful atmosphere. You can have a laugh together. The style of communication changes. You ask the other people what they have made and explain what you are doing. Everyone tells his or her story. Some people really feel listened to for the first time. That alone can heal and unite people.’
Do you need to be creative to join in? ‘Not at all,’ Kaj reassures. ‘It’s not comparable to, for example, drawing or making a painting. When I do that, I have the tendency to become a bit frightened too. I have this idea that I have to make something beautiful, and I start comparing my work to that of others. With the LEGO Serious Play-methodology you don’t have to worry about these things. What you build is always correct. You can stack up a simple wall in various colors, or create a complex structure. It doesn’t matter. Even if you use a single piece to tell a story, anything can serve as a metaphor or symbol and thus gain significance. That’s the whole purpose.’
Kaj is a theologian, he graduated Ede Christian University in 2014 on research into the use of the LEGO Serious Play-methodology within church small groups. His former professor, Dr. Robert Doornenbal, once introduced him to the idea. ‘At that time, I had recently had a surprisingly good experience with the use of toy figurines during smallgroup work within my own church. When I proceeded to tell Robert that I wanted to contribute towards the research of working with objects that serve as a metaphor, he told me of a British scientist, the sociologist David Gauntlett, who had applied LEGO Serious Play while researching the influence of media on people’s identity. I immediately realized that I had found something worthwile!’
The fact that Kaj studied theology part-time and researched the impact of “playing” with bricks is remarkable. After high school, he initially chose to study computer science and work in IT. ‘I’m quite analytical, that’s right. In that respect I am a beta. But from an early age on I always had that other side of me. A social side. I find interacting with people in a group tremendously exciting and get a lot of energy from it. However, during my work with LEGO Serious Play I use my analytical side just as well.’
Beta, but also alpha. His two sides define Kaj ten Voorde as a person. Like the fact that his faith is the foundation upon which he lives and works. Kaj grew up in a Christian home and made the conscious decision to follow Jesus as a teenager. Since then, it has played a central part in his life. ‘When I started studying theology, I even thought about becoming a pastor. But eventually I discovered that that wouldn’t suit me. I would much rather work as an external expert, as someone who brings knowledge and experience. I sense there is a lot of demand for this.’
‘Among other things,’ says Kaj, ‘I hope to help communities of faith to use LEGO Serious Play to think about a mission and vision for their congregation. In the coming years I would also like to do something for missionary pioneer congregations in the Netherlands. Especially because I know from my own experience what it’s like to pioneer something. Since 2011 I have been part of a pioneer congregation in Hilversum, the Netherlands. Picture it as a very informal and accessible church. Every Sunday we share a meal together, and churchgoers are able to participate in the service. To us, it is important that everyone is heard and seen. It does a lot of good to people, it shows everything. At the time, Gerard Kansen, pastor in the PKN, began this initiative with ten to fifteen visitors, but we are growing fast. In 2016, about eighty people attended the service on average.’
After his studies at CHE (Christian University of Applied Sciences Ede) – thanks to a crowdfunding campaign – he was able to translate his thesis into English and follow a LEGO Serious Play training. He may now officially call himself a facilitator. With the Making of Meaning, Kaj has already received several calls for assistance from organizations, schools and communities of faith, and he has also provided workshops for group leaders to make them aware of the methodology.
Because the work is practical, Kaj’s enthusiasm for – and confidence in – LEGO Serious Play has only increased. ‘I have really discovered how versatile this methodology is. It’s great for thinking with a faith community or organization about vision, identity, or any other matter at hand. Also for a team in itself, I see a lot of results. Due to the secure, relaxed and innovative way of engaging in conversation, you notice that people start to connect with themselves, with each other, and with the challenge that they have chosen to tackle.’
Kaj also notices that the LEGO Serious Play methodology can contribute towards building faith. “You all know the popular Bible passages, that are cited so often that they end up losing their meaning. In a sense you could say that they are silenced. By approaching them from another direction, in a small group, youth ministry or workshop, they can end up coming back to you. Also, controversial subjects become easier to discuss. And I think it aligns perfectly with God’s desire to make people whole again. For people to be as He intended them to be. Isn’t it wonderful? Wherever the methodology is applied, it virtually always ends up producing something of beauty. That’s why I feel such a passion for this work!’