What do kids learn from Lego? Increasingly parents are being discerning in their purchase of toys for their children. They are seeking toys that are open-ended, gender-neutral, facilitate social interaction and stimulate thinking processes. Lego fits all these criteria, and more.
Parents and educators are recognizing the learning opportunities these little interlocking bricks provide for their kids. As researchers have discovered, construction block play, including with LEGO Bricks, offers a full spectrum of benefits to the budding mind.
Some of these benefits are found in the usual areas, such as math, spatial activities and early engineering skills. Others are more surprising, especially social skills. Wherever your child is at in terms of age, ability and interest, the benefits of construction play are for everyone!
LEGO Bricks build social skills
At first glance, you may not see an obvious bridge leading from construction play to better social skills. Whether your child plays with other children or apart, development of their social and communication skills are, in fact, taking place!
What happens when kids gather around a table to build a project? They take on one or more roles. The one who is keeping an eye on how the structure fits in with the design — that’s the engineer. Suppliers gather the pieces. The ones fitting the pieces together are the builders. While these titles sound rigid and official, chances are, the kids are taking on multiple roles throughout the project, and it’s all part of a collaboration. At the practical level, collaboration is a valuable skill and essential for passing along their knowledge to others.
But as in any situation when there are one or more builders, emotions can start flying high. Look at it as an opportunity to have a learning moment about conflict resolution skills. What’s working in your favour here is if they’re excited about the project and feeling focused on getting to the finish line they will find the motivation to work it out. When they’ve successfully finished, the sense of accomplishment is their reward, especially if they feel they contributed to the team!
Even when kids are building alone, there’s an opportunity for social development. While some kids put the finished work on the shelf to display, others may want to play with it. Some children may like to even build a fantasy world around it. Playing in a make-believe world is childish behaviour with a purpose. Studies show that pretend play leads to better cognitive flexibility, empathy, communication and problem-solving.
What is the underlying lesson of problem-solving? That more than one approach and solution to the problem exists! All of the above are skills that can one day serve them well in the workplace.
While many blogs and articles connect the dots from construction toys to STEM skills, people-based skills, such as leadership and emotional intelligence, are tied to long-term success in the workplace as well.
How can parents help?
Parents can set up opportunities for group construction play for kids of any age. During a playdate, bring out the tub of LEGO Bricks. Very young children can get to work building a house for small toy animals, or a simple neighbourhood for toy cars and trucks.
Construction play builds spatial skills
As little hands manipulate and test the blocks, other things are brewing in those young, pliable minds. They are building their spatial abilities — the ability to visualize and plan three-dimensional objects. As your understanding of the space around you grows, so do your spatial abilities.
Strong spatial abilities are associated with science and technology careers, such as chemistry, engineering and mathematics. Even if your child shows other interests, they can still benefit. Research has also found that spatial skills are important in architecture, visual arts and even medicine. Even more surprising, research has found a strong correlation between strong spatial reasoning with innovation and creativity later in life.
The good news is spatial skills are not necessarily about aptitudes, or being “born with it.” While that may certainly be the case, it is also true that spatial skills can be improved with training. Numerous studies have shown that kids show improvement on spatial reasoning tests after spending time with LEGO Bricks and other kinds of construction play.
As a society, we often think of boys as having a natural ability for spatial reasoning as compared to girls. We tend to build our playtimes around this bias. But one Harvard study smashes that notion. After 21 days of practice, men and women performed equally well on spatial reasoning tests, even though the girls in the group performed worse at the start of the study.
So how do we build these skills? The traditional classroom setting spends little time with actual hands-on activities to develop valuable spatial skills. That’s why it’s important for parents to bridge that gap at home. Offer and encourage plenty of hands-on activities, and you can give your kids a genuine brain boost!
The link between construction play and math skills
So now that we know that researchers feel pretty confident that playing with LEGO Bricks can improve spatial skills, there is at least another pair of studies suggesting that a childhood of construction play translates into improved math performance.
One study in 2014 found that 12-year-old students performed better on math word problems when they spent more of their free time in construction play. And researchers in 2014 discovered a link between LEGO play and math ability in 7-year-olds. First, they tested each child’s ability to build a complex LEGO structure before taking a math test. The 7-year-olds who did a better job of building had better math scores.
What does this mean? Some may think these children may just have that natural ability in math and building. And that natural ability gives them the intrinsic motivation to perform the tasks and get better at them. An easy example to point to is the one of the emerging reader. It’s much harder to convince a struggling reader to spend time with a book versus one who seems to be progressing and flourishing.
So what do we do about those children who struggle? If we teach them building strategies and encourage them to complete LEGO projects, would they then show improvement in math? As the second study noted, this is a good question that deserves further exploration.
LEGO Bricks as math tools
Meanwhile, teachers and home-school parents have discovered the bricks themselves are excellent tools for teaching math concepts. Addition and subtraction, multiplication, fractions, measurement and even algebraic concepts can all be learned through Lego. If kids use something they are already familiar with and enjoy playing, it’s a friendly learning tool.
At the same time, the blocks of varying sizes and number of studs can add up to hands-on learning for math. Need a 2×4 block? Kids quickly learn that a pair of 2x2s can fill their needs. That’s a real-life lesson in fractions!
Construction play builds engineering skills
Watch a child at play. They are creating a world, changing it to suit their needs. That is precisely what an engineer does! Which brings home a new meaning to the old adage about play being the work of children.
Engineering for beginners
When a young child is building with blocks, there’s actually a lot of engineering going on. What may come to mind is the 8-year-old building a complex vehicle from a thick instruction booklet, featuring tons of tiny pieces and moving parts. But it’s important to know this also applies to the very young. A preschooler building castle walls or crude presentations of animals is learning something about engineering.
Even the 1-year-old learning to stack thick blocks — or, more likely, gleefully knocking over the stack you just built — is learning early lessons about engineering. When your toddler prefers destruction over building, go along with it. These are baby steps! Every construct has a cause and effect. What happens when you swipe a stack of loose blocks? Gravity pulls them down! Later on, that tiny tot will add balance and stability to his engineering skills, and it builds and builds from there.
Moving up the engineering ladder
As time goes on, with each structure attempted and completed, children will become more experimental with their designs. Once something works, they’ll learn or discover new solutions to make it better! Engineers spend a lifetime doing this. Even the most brilliant invention is never finished.
Here’s another way block building promotes engineering: It helps kids understand complex concepts. When it comes to design, there are multiple layers of abstract concepts at work, which can be a lot for a young mind to juggle. Think of the keystone of an arch: Isn’t it easier to visualize with a model? When kids get exposure and hands-on experience with many forms of building, chances are they’ll encounter these lessons in the classroom, where they’ll make much more sense!
Ready, set, build!
As children stack, create, interlock and try again, they aren’t simply building a simple structure, they are building their minds. As the research clearly shows, the time, expense and effort invested into this pastime is something that will pay off. Small advances when they are young become large advances as they get older.