By Jonathan Olsen
Ever since the first plastic LEGO bricks were introduced in the 1960’s, they have been recognized for their potential in helping children to develop creativity, hand-eye coordination, and problem-solving abilities. But what about LEGO bricks and their application to traditional school subjects? Some people consider LEGO bricks to be versatile manipulatives for teaching and learning a wide range of subjects. Educators have adapted LEGO bricks to all grade levels including preschool, elementary, middle school, high school, college and university. Other people believe that LEGO products should be avoided, especially in schools. In spite of the critics, a review of published literature shows that LEGO bricks have educational value when integrated with such varied subjects as architecture, engineering, math, science, communication, language, history, and art.
There is a general consensus that LEGO bricks build architectural and engineering skills. For the past ten years, faculty members at Tufts University Center for Engineering Education Outreach have been using LEGO bricks to teach engineering to students from kindergarten through graduate school. They wrote a conference paper outlining how LEGO bricks are incorporated into some courses and “how they have improved the interest and education of students of all ages” (McNamara, et al 1). Skila Brown states in an article that “Scores of architects and engineers have translated a childhood love of LEGOs to a career of building and designing” (2). The LEGO Architect series contains educational booklets along with instructions for creating small-scale models of famous structures, including several of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpieces. However, in “The Art of LEGO Design,” Fred G. Martin contends, “The plans that the LEGO company distributes with its kits are very good at showing how to build specific models, but not so good at teaching how to design from one’s own ideas” (1).
Nevertheless, LEGO bricks are being used in many original and creative ways, especially for studying math and science. Cathy Webb, a technology teacher at Edmonds Heights K-12 homeschool resource center in Washington, bases her entire laboratory program on LEGO bricks (ctd. in Venables). An internet search reveals that LEGO bricks can assist in teaching everything from basic fractions to the periodic table of elements. Academic journal articles on the subject have such esoteric titles as “An Exploration of the Nanoworld with LEGO Bricks,” “Building Learning Curve and Script Theory Knowledge with LEGO,” and “LEGO Bricks as Building Blocks for Centimeter-Scale Biological Environments: The Case of Plants.” A college forestry course makes use of LEGO bricks “to demonstrate metaphorically the relationships between site resources and growth of trees of certain sizes” (qtd. in Said, et al 11). The varied topics of these sources highlight the effectiveness of LEGO bricks for math and science projects of many different types among all age groups and grade levels.
Interestingly, LEGO bricks are also applicable to subjects that do not commonly involve hands-on activities. Current research indicates that LEGO bricks encourage communication and social skills. Many studies have been done with autistic children and the effects of interactive LEGO play. But evidence shows that special needs students are not the only ones to benefit from LEGO materials. A study of high school students found that “both social skills and trust in others increased considerably” with a LEGO activity (Kato, et al 1). Pamela Morris in the Department of Communication at Purdue University has developed an exercise called “Listening and LEGOs,” in which teams compete to build a LEGO structure in a limited amount of time based on the instructions of one team member, which Morris says “gives students practice in listening to instructions” (1). Dr. Jay Hanes and Dr. Eleanor Weisman report in their case study of adult and teen LEGO fans that “the LEGO brick is a medium replete with possibilities for creative construction and playful design beyond the expectations of its corporate producers…. Online communication is perhaps the most interesting facet of LEGO play” (1).
One group of researchers explores the “extraordinary proposition” that “‘LEGO’ might be considered a ‘language’” (Said, et al 1). Indeed, some teachers actually use LEGO bricks to teach language and literacy skills. An 8th grade English teacher explains, “I teach simple, compound, and complex sentences and the subsequent punctuation by using LEGO [bricks]. I assign each colored/sized block a name (clauses, conjunctions, semi-colons, commas, and so on). The students begin to visualize and manipulate sentences as building blocks” (qtd. in Said 2). Another teacher describes the usefulness of LEGO products in creative writing: “You can have kids build a scene and start writing about it. Especially our language learners, they need that visual cue” (qtd. in Duncan). The LEGO Group even offers a StoryStarter curriculum that “motivates students in 2nd to 5th grade to read and write by making them confident storytellers” (LEGO). With StoryStarter, children create LEGO scenes to accompany creative and nonfiction writing assignments.
LEGO bricks can also complement the study of history, although they appear under-utilized for this academic subject. The LEGO Group sells a Fairytale and Historic Minifigure collection to help children role-play characters and scenes from fairytales and history, but they offer very few complete history-based sets. The exceptions would be the classic themed sets such as pirates, Vikings, and castles. In one blog interview with a LEGO representative, the question was asked: “Would you consider doing LEGO sets based on famous history scenes, for education?” The response was, “Anything is a possibility with the LEGO System. We have created models of famous landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, and we have an Education division that is always coming up with new ideas. But if you don’t want to wait … you can design and build your own historic scenes” (Diaz). Students can re-create almost any scene from history in LEGO bricks by mixing and matching pieces from various sets. For example, contemporary Polish artist Zbigniew Libera’s controversial LEGO concentration camp “was constructed entirely from existing LEGO stock” (Feinstein).
Finally, LEGO bricks have many creative applications for art instruction. The internet abounds with thousands of images featuring LEGO creations. As an article in The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education states, “[t]he LEGO system combined with a creative imagination becomes a medium of expression” (Hanes and Weisman 5). The authors go on to say that “The LEGO system, not unlike a brush, a chisel, or a camera, is a creative tool….We have seen the LEGO brick sometimes used to parody or pay homage to works from the traditional art canon, not unlike other contemporary art forms” (7). The diverse colors and shapes of LEGO bricks allow for almost unlimited possibilities for sculptures, mosaics, and other artistic designs. Furthermore, LEGO art is not just for art students. According to Hanes and Weisman, one pre-med student said that “having the time to deeply focus on his creative LEGO activity allowed him to restore himself and be a better student” (10).
Regardless of how educational LEGO products are, some people object to the growing corporate involvement and commercialization in public schools. In the 1990s, the classic open-ended building bricks were replaced by LEGO sets featuring “media-heroes of the Western consumer culture such as Harry Potter, Bob the Builder, Anakin, and Batman” (Lauwaert 227). Those opposed to marketing aimed at children urge parents to avoid heavily advertised toys as a matter of principle. They refer to a study by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood that found The LEGO Group targeting children the most (Golin). Additionally, feminists and female scientists such as Ellen Kooijman, who goes by the pseudonym Alatariel Elensar, claim that LEGO products build gender stereotypes with “a skewed male/female minifigure ratio and a rather stereotypical representation of the available female figures” (qtd. in Castella).
In summary, there is much support for using LEGO materials in education, despite those who have grievances with The LEGO Group. LEGO bricks have been noted for helping children to develop creativity, hand-eye coordination, and problem-solving abilities, as well as literacy and social interactions. An overview of the published literature indicates that LEGO bricks are not only appropriate for preschool children, but are also useful for supplementing the subjects taught in K-12 classrooms. LEGO bricks are even utilized by college and university students for many different purposes ranging from biology experiments to engineering models. Moreover, the fact that LEGO bricks have been a subject of scholarly research reinforces the idea that they are educational.
Brown, Skila. “The Learning Power of Lego.” Education.com. 22 Dec. 2010. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Castella, Tom de. “How Did Lego Become a Gender Battleground?” BBC News Magazine. 5 Aug. 2014. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Diaz, Jesus. “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lego.” Gizmodo.com. 26 June 2008. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Duncan, Dallas. “Teachers Learn How to Use LEGOs as Educational Tool.” Gainesville Times. 30 Aug. 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Feinstein, Stephen C. “Zbigniew Libera’s Lego Concentration Camp: Iconoclasm in Conceptual Art About the Shoah.” Other Voices: The (e)Journal of Cultural Criticism. 2.1 (February 2000). Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Golin, Josh. “CCFC Urges Parents to Avoid Heavily Advertised Toys; New Study Finds Lego Targets Kids the Most.” Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Hanes, Jay Michael, and Eleanor Weisman. “LEGO Brick as Pixel: Self, Community, and Digital Communication.” Journal of Social Theory in Art Education. 31 (2011): 1-27. Education Research Complete. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Kato, Daiki. “Effects of Collaborative Expression Using LEGO® Blocks, on Social Skills and Trust.” Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal. 40.7 (2012): 1195-1199. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Lauwaert, Maaike. “Playing Outside the Box – on LEGO Toys and the Changing World of Construction Play.” History and Technology. 24.3 (Sept. 2008): 221-237. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
LEGO Group, The. “Introducing StoryStarter.” LEGOeducation.com. 2014. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Martin, Fred. G. “The Art of LEGO Design.” The Robotics Practitioner: The Journal for Robot Builders. 1.2 (Spring 1995): 1-19. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
McNamara, Scott, et al. “LEGO Brick Sculptures and Robotics in Education.” Proceedings of the ASEE Annual Conference. Session #3353, 1999. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Said, Roger, et al. “LEGO Speaks.” Imagination Lab. Lausanne, Switzerland: Imagination Lab Foundation Nov. 2001. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Venables, Michael. “Got Engineers, America? Have Your Kids Study Lego Bricks in School!” Forbes 9 Oct. 2012. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
NOTE: This was an exploratory essay for my English 102 class.