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There’s a bulky red cloth bag that forms part of my project management toolkit. It’s filled with small slinkies, smiley face stress balls, plastic building blocks, twisty snakes, and a variety of plastic knick knacks. This is my bag of learning toys, which I assembled years ago for my project management teaching assignments. I’ve used it ever since when I’m facilitating workshops or brainstorming sessions.

The purpose of the learning toys is to help people exercise both sides of their brains in a working session. Yes, it’s the left brain / right brain thing. Your left brain is the logical side, right brain the creative side. Left brain thinks in parts, right brain thinks on the whole. Generally, most people tend to think in parts – their job, their responsibilities, their own silos. So the need to have them think about detail will be satisfied. The challenge is in getting them to think about the big picture – the whole – to exercise the right side of their brain, and to think about their part in the context of the big picture. This is where the learning toys, which exercise the right side of their brian, the creative part that looks at the whole, come into play.

The toys can also have an added dividend to support team building. I’ve had the group separated into teams, split the toys, and asked them to each create a work of art with the toys they were provided. There were some ingenious entertaining creations produced, using the toys in ways they weren’t intended to be – hey that’s thinking outside the box. The toys have also brought out the jugglers in our midst. One of my team leads uses juggling to help her improve her puck handling abilities to play goalie for her ice hockey team.

Where do you find these learning toys? Dollar stores and discount stores are the best bet. Tip – the small slinkies are very popular – stock up on them when you find them.

The toys also inject a little fun into the workshop. Yes, at first there are threats (or reality) of pelting the facilitator with the stress balls if the sessions gets boring.  I’ve also noticed the attendees absent mindedly toying with the slinkies, squeezing the stress balls, fiddling with the building blocks. It seems to calm them, to relax them, which helps them think better. If you are using learning toys, I suggest allowing the attendees to take one of the toys to keep when the session is over. It’ll be a reminder of the fun they had at your workshop, working on your project. And when the word gets around it’s fun to work on one of your projects, you’ll have people, including the best, wanting to work with you.

Now excuse me while I hit the road and visit a few dollar stores – I was almost cleaned out of slinkies and twisty snakes after the last session.

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