Monday, 2 October 2017

How to Play with LEGO: It's okay to break the sets up!

It's come to our attention that some people don't know how children should play with LEGO. We thought we'd better address that.

We've written before about people claiming that the new LEGO sets restrict creativity. Short version: only if you let them! It's not the sets that are the problem.

LEGO is a fantastic tool for developing STEM skills that can take kids right through from their toddler years to their teens and even into adulthood. But only if they make the most of it and for some kids, this might require a bit of adult guidance or sometimes adults getting out of the way!

My kids were at peak LEGO from around age 3-7, then the digital world pushed it out somewhat. They still play with LEGO sometimes and ask for LEGO sets for birthday and Christmas, but it doesn't absorb them for every spare waking hour as it once did.

A few things have recently rekindled their LEGO obsession, the LEGO Masters TV series and a recent LEGO workshop with a master builder who told all the parents to encourage their kids to break up the models they've bought and make new things with the bricks and develop skills to imagine and build their own creations. This really resonated with us, we've always permitted the kids to break up their models after a while (yes, with a little hesitancy for expensive sets!), but we realised we hadn't been doing enough to encourage them to develop their LEGO skills.

  1. Step 1 is choosing and building a set that appeals to a child. My kids have never had the slightest interest in LEGO City / Friends, superheroes or vehicles. But they love Ninjago, Chima, and LEGO Elves. Star Wars gets an occasional look in too. Building the sets is fantastic for developing instruction following techniques, but it's also important for learning LEGO building techniques. Kids find out how certain bricks can be used together. LEGO often make videos with the set designers that explain their choices, these are fantastic and give additional insight into the sets. 
  2. Next kids play with the sets as they came. They keep them as complete sets that are stored with all their pieces on a shelf or in a cupboard or just kept out on a play table. My kids love watching the accompanying TV series or movies and then reenacting them with the sets. Then there's making their own stories up, loosely based on the universe that the set comes from. 
  3. After some time playing with a set on its own or with others from the same theme, play starts to blend with other sets. Themes get mixed up and adaptations get made. Kids make their own improvements to sets and larger scenes to play with. 
  4. Next, the focus moves to another set or an idea of their own. Parts get borrowed from sets to make something new. Eventually, a set gets reduced to individual parts ready to be made into something else. (This step can be scary for parents who spent a lot of money on a LEGO set.) Kids apply the building skills they learned in Step 1 and develop their own signature techniques. 
  5.  Next kids play with the creations they made themselves and keep going around the loop as they get new sets to add to the mix. We recommend adding in some boxes of Classic Lego to help with custom builds and setting LEGO challenges so kids can develop their design and building skills. 
  6. LEGO is also great for practical making when you need a custom container or case for something or a physical part for a tech project. Much as we love 3D printing and laser cutters, making stuff from LEGO is often faster and allows kids to be more independent. 
  7. Eventually, many kids will move on to more technical building with LEGO Technic (though as we've said before the range for girls is limited.)
  8. Being able to design your own LEGO technic machines and contraptions requires a lot of engineering skill, much of which can again be acquired through building boxed sets.
  9. Then there's combining LEGO with electronics and robotics. There's LEGO Boost for younger kids and LEGO Mindstorms EV3 for the older ones. LEGO Boost takes kids through the make-play-adapt-design cycle whereas LEGO Mindstorms is more focused on function than play, but follows a similar cycle. 
LEGO has recently announced that they're restructuring the company because it's got too complicated and they are losing kids to digital play. Let's hope they get things sorted and come out even stronger because LEGO really is awesome stuff - if you know how to use it.

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