The Washington Post Magazine's Lead Toy Story: It's Missing a Key Point

The Washington Post Magazine's Lead Toy Story: It's Missing a Key Point

Karen Gross 05/01/2020 3

In today's Washington Post Magazine, the above article is featured. In sum, it is a piece about how Playmobil is creating a set of its "people" and "things" for the workplace. And, while the workplace set of this popular children's toy (I have them in boxes in a storage unit and had been wondering what to do with them; now I know) is gaining attention, the Playmobil folks are not being directive in terms of how it is used by employers. This stands in contrast to how Lego promotes its adult version for the workplace where Lego has distinct articulated uses for their product.

In the article by Jason Wilson, a number of possible uses of Playmobil in the workplace are mentioned (having been apparently tried by the author). These include the following: The toys brings back one's youth. (See above.) They evoke memory. They can highlight qualities in a new hire. They can be used to problem solve. A worker can create him/herself and then describe what he/she created to a group. There can be individual and shared activities. Where the adult toys are placed in a workplace is an open question and whether Playmobil workplace toys are "better" or "worse" than the Lego competition, the jury is still out. That sums up the article. It's worth reading.

Now, stay with me here, the words "trauma," "trauma symptomology," and "trauma responsiveness" (or some variant thereof) appear nowhere in the story. Not even a hint about trauma lurks in the several page article. At first blush, I assume many of you are thinking: what does trauma have to do with toys and workplace play? The answer is: a lot. And, why does it need to be explicit? Ah, therein lies the true set of issues.

While trauma may not be the most appealing marketing strategy or even something that Playmobil considered and then discarded (I have no idea as to their trauma knowledge), I want to plumb why workplace toys and a work play table make extraordinary sense. Playmobil is but one option for such a table, although it is a very good one to be sure. And, unlike the present Playmobil strategy which is to remain silent as to how their toys can be used, I believe there is real value in understanding the intersection between toys, the workplace and trauma. Being explicit counts.

Still with me here?

To address the connections and intersections, I need to move sideways. In a forthcoming book from Columbia Teachers College Press (June 2020) titled Trauma Does Not Stop at the School Door, I address the omnipresence of trauma in our world. That trauma can take many forms -- from natural disasters to interpersonal catastrophes to addictions to war. I spend time addressing trauma symptomology and suggest that it is triphasic, not biphasic as suggested in most of the trauma literature. These phases are: disregulation; isolation; and over-regulation, although the words do not do justice to their complexity and individuals can display one or more of these symptoms over short or longer periods of time.

Then in the book I focus on concrete strategies to ameliorate trauma symptomology, recognizing that trauma never ever disappears once experienced. Yes, we can live with it; yes, there are even positives. But, we carry trauma with us like an invisible suitcase. And, as and when new events occur that are traumatic or feel traumatic, the trauma symptoms are retriggered. And, trauma gets a new opportunity to rear its head again (and again and again).

The impact of trauma is vast, depending on the ages and stages of the individuals and communities affected. In the context of education, it can affect learning; it can affect memory; it can affect focus and concentration; it can affect engagement with others; it can affect health and psychological well-being. It can affect mood. It can affect choices made or not made. And, then when re-triggered, the trauma symptomology reappears, after without warning or without understanding by the person experiencing it or by those observing it.

And, here's a sad realization: we put the blame on traumatized persons, sometimes diagnosing them with some psychological disorder for which they are medicated or as some "bad actors" who need to be removed from the scene for a short or longer period. We place blame on trauma victims for their behavior but it is what happened to them that is causing the reactions. We miss this.

This is why we need teachers that are trauma-trained and schools that are trauma-responsive.

Since trauma does not stop at the school house door at any level of education, we need to say the same thing about the workplace. Trauma does not leave an individual and stop at the workplace door. Indeed, trauma's invisible suitcase stays with employees and their leaders right into the workplace, although we often don't name it or tame it or frame it.

Therein lies the connections between toys and trauma and the workplace.

One of the approach I suggest for educational institutions is play tables in safe locations where struggling students (and teachers) can go. There can be lots of things at the play tables: Playmobil, Legos, slinkys, blocks, stuffed toys, mini sandboxes and rakes, coloring books and crayons/pencils, paper (to draw on or shred). The list is endless. The point of a play table is, initially, to enable individuals who are traumatized to lower the response of their autonomic nervous system. It is an opportunity to put a brake on and take a break from trauma symptomology. It is a way for the brain to reset. It allows the traumatized person to center themselves, to focus on something that captures their attention other than trauma. Down the proverbial road, it allows one to re-regulate and re-attach.

And, for some children and adults, who never actually learned to play and enjoy play because of trauma in their early years, it is an opportunity to be creative, to learn to have fun, to use ones hands and tactile sensation, to engage in fantasy with permission, to work to create and to problem solve in non-threatening ways.

I suggest in my book that play tables should not be limited to elementary schools; they are needed throughout education, including adult education. And, they are needed in workplaces.

Now, to be fair, some workplaces have recognized the need for play and have created work environments conducive to that. (Think Silicon Valley.) But, play tables have a place in hospitals, social work settings, manufacturing facilities, phone banks, call centers, investment banks, commercial and consumer banks. Yes, there are obvious places for them: architectural firms, fashion designers, innovation labs, art studios. But, the value of play tables is not limited to "creative" companies. No indeed. They are needed in all workplaces because we can estimate that one half of all workers have experienced some form of trauma.

Let me repeat: at least half the workforce has experienced some form of trauma at some point in their lives. And we know from the neurobiology of trauma and the studies on trauma that the symptoms of trauma will be re-triggered. So, childhood trauma carries forward in time and space.

Now, to return to the workplace version of Playmobil. Although never stated (and perhaps never considered), these workplace versions of children's Playmobil figurines and "things" are a strategy for dealing with trauma symptomology of those who work. There is a remarkable value to non-judgmental opportunities to open and reset one's mind; there are chances for engagement that are non-threatening; there is a chance to lower the autonomic nervous system's harsh impact on our thinking, our feeling, our attaching, our remembering, our learning, our well-being physically and psycho-socially.

Here's what bothers me. It is not the use of toys in the workplace. It is not the transmission of children's toys into adult toys. It is the failure of the article and the company Playmobil to see, state and acknowledge what is described here: the benefits to workers who have been traumatized. These should not be the incidental byproducts of play. The toys are a direct way of dealing with the reality of who are employees are and what will enable their success. If we are not explicit, we fail to acknowledge what we see (or the fact that we don't see.)

Think about this last two sentences. Our shared goal in education is to enable our students to succeed and become their best selves. By focusing on their positive (not a deficit model) and giving them a safe environment in which to learn and strategies for dealing with who they actually are (not who we want them to be), we can provide more successful students who then can progress through the educational pipeline into the workplace.

The same goals hold true for workers in the workplace. Playmobil and other toys can help our workers and leaders succeed in the workplace and become their most productive selves. That is exactly what we want, right?

I think we'd be wiser as employers and educators if we recognized trauma, its symptomology and approaches for its remediation, of which play is but one. And, we'd be wise to see that introducing Playmobil has value above and beyond the reasons articulated in the Washington Post article: it can and will help workers who have been traumatized. Silence isn't enough.

We need to own our own trauma and the trauma that surrounds us. I wish this article had at least used one of the words in the trauma vocabulary. The "incidental" cross-over needs to be explicit. We need to know what we are doing and why. (By the by, I am NOT suggesting the playtable say "trauma center."

So, Playmobil, here's a takeaway: your toys can help adults mitigate trauma they carry into the workplace to make them better and more successful at the jobs they do and happier and healthier physically and psychosocially. That deserves recognition and attention and focused approaches.

Toys, Trauma and the Workplace: working together, it is a win-win-win.

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  • Rob Hall

    So touching !!!

  • Ben Richardson

    Love this!

  • Frank Hankins

    You smashed it

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.


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