How can a bunch of colorful plastic bricks help your child learn how to communicate, collaborate, and cultivate relationships? Two reasons: it’s familiar and it’s fun. Think about the times you’ve played with LEGO® as a child or as an adult. I bet your brain is flooded with fun, positive, and creative memories. “Children learn best when they are having fun” is not just an old adage. Indeed, brain-based research has shown that learning, as evidenced by bursts of electrical activity in the brain, occur when activities are engaging and enjoyable and when children feel less stress, anxiety, and boredom. Neuroscience and education research also show that children retain skills and information when learning is associated with positive emotion. Indeed, having Legos in a therapeutic environment not only helps to create the fun and familiar atmosphere needed for optimal learning, but it also uses a child’s intrinsic motivation to learn new skills and change social habits.
Using Legos in a group setting can enhance your child’s social and emotional development. Children, like adults, are inherently motivated by social approval and social status. When playing with Legos, children have to abandon their self-focused worldview and join others. They have to accept each other’s interests and learn to incorporate them in building. LEGO® helps facilitate the sharing of ideas to reach a common goal. Ultimately, children learn how to compromise, solve problems, make decisions, and collaborate with peers who they might not get along with in any other context. Joint achievement (“we built this together”) is the end product of LEGO® building. Your child can apply these social thinking skills in various social contexts such as teamwork in school, sports, and extracurricular activities. Research has shown that when children are socially and emotionally competent (i.e., able to build friendships, work in groups, engage in perspective-taking), they are more likely to demonstrate school readiness and academic success later in life.
Here are some ideas in which you can use LEGO® to cultivate your child’s social skills:
Build a structure together, with the whole family, or during a play date to enhance collaboration, communication, and perspective-taking skills. Here are some useful and fun themes:
Next family vacation
Life on another planet
Stuck on an island
Create a pre-made LEGO® structure. Designate one person as the builder, another person as the parts supplier, and another one as the engineer. The builder is responsible for making an exact replica of your pre-made structure with the help of the parts supplier, whose only job is to supply the parts, and the engineer, who instructs the parts supplier where to put the parts. Only the engineer has seen the pre-made structure. For an added challenge, make this a quiet building activity. This is great for practicing non-verbal communication, collaboration with specific roles, and social problem solving.
Give each person a baseplate. Allow each person to build on the baseplate for three minutes (time may vary). At the end of the first round, each person will pass their baseplate to their right and this person will try their best to guess what the structure is (and keep their friend’s thoughts and feelings in mind) and add pieces to the structure. Repeat the process until the baseplate ends with its original creator. The end structure may turn out to be different from what your child originally planned it to be. This activity teaches flexibility and empathy.
It isn’t coincidental that “Lego” is derived from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means "play well.” Next time you get a LEGO® set or come across some loose pieces, I hope you make sure to keep in mind these activities and how playing with these plastic colorful bricks could become a good opportunity to teach your child some social thinking skills.
LeGoff, D.B. (2004). Use of LEGO® as a therapeutic medium for improving social competence. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 34 (5), 557 571.
Raver, C. C., & Zigler, E. F. (1997). Social competence: An untapped dimension in evaluating Head Start's success. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 12, 363–385.
Willis, J. (2007). The neuroscience of joyful education. Educational Leadership: Engaging the Whole Child, 64.
Dianne Rausher, LMSW leads individual therapy sessions, social skills groups, and LEGO ® groups at Art It Out.