Can Lego bricks and other construction toys boost your
child’s STEM skills?
The argument for structured block play
© 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
When I think about construction play--kids making
structures with Lego bricks®, Mega Bloks®, Lincoln Logs®, wood blocks, or recycled
materials--I usually imagine kids being inventive,
experimenting, and designing their own creations.
That sort of play is exciting
to watch, and doubtless beneficial to children’s developing minds. As I explain elsewhere, block play may foster creative problem solving
and enhance a child’s spatial skills.
But there is another way to play with blocks, and it might be
an especially effective way to boost spatial skills and mathematics ability.
Structured block play is what happens when
a child tries to recreate a construction by consulting a model or
blueprint. It’s more constrained, but it calls on a particular skill set
that is crucial for many tasks.
Kids must analyze what they see, perceive the parts
that make up the whole, and figure out how the parts relate to each other.
be really successful, kids also need to think quantitatively,
and be able to rotate geometric shapes in the mind’s eye (Casey and Bobb 2003).
For instance, suppose I present a young child with some
plastic, Lego-like bricks and ask her to reproduce this design:
It seems simple, but consider what she’s got to do.
- She needs to select three types of brick – one
with 4 pips, one with 8 pips, and a third with 12 pips.
- She needs to attach the shortest brick so it
sits, perfectly aligned, on one the edge of the longest brick.
- She needs to attach the medium-sized brick to
the other end of the longest brick, but let it hang out over the edge, so that
two pips of the medium-sized brick are not resting on anything.
Verdine and his colleagues (2013) tested more than 100 three-year-olds with a model like this, only 40% of
the children were able to match the design perfectly. For other, more complex
patterns, the completion rate was under 10%.
This one wasn’t mastered by any child:
Why? The three-year-old brain exerts less
executive control, and has less working memory capacity – which means kids find
it harder to keep track of several different things simultaneously.
In Verdine’s experiment, kids made more errors
when there were more bricks, and more errors when getting the right answer
meant positioning bricks in more than one direction. In addition, many kids didn’t seem to
recognize the importance of counting pips to figure out if the bricks were
aligned properly. This might reflect the fact that preschoolers have trouble
thinking about an object in multiple ways at once--for instance, thinking of a
brick as both a building unit and as something that can be subdivided into
several smaller units (Diamond et al 2010).
So it’s hardly surprising that young children don’t perform
on these tasks as well as adults do. Their brains are still developing. But
performance isn’t merely a question of age. It also depends on experience.
array of evidence indicates that spatial skills can be improved through play.
Some experimental studies have focused on the benefits of playing certain video
games. Other research has uncovered links between spatial intelligence and
experience with “spatial” toys.
In one observational study, kids who spent more free time
doing puzzles scored higher on tests of spatial ability (Levine et al 2012). Another study found that boys outperformed
girls in spatial tasks, but only among children from middle- and
higher-socioeconomic backgrounds (Levine et al 2005). Among kids from low-income homes – where
opportunities for construction play may be more limited – there was no sex
difference. Researchers speculate that high-income boys have the dual advantage
of (1) better access to expensive construction toys, and (2) more encouragement
to play with such toys.
There is also the
testimonial evidence of adult scientists and engineers. Engineers frequently
say construction toys inspired their careers.
“Legos are a good introduction to communicating ideas with physical
objects,” notes Tiffany Tseng, an
engineer in the MIT Media Lab. “Putting things together and taking them
apart got me interested in how things work, and by the time I was an
undergraduate, I knew I wanted to be an engineer.”
Given all the metaphors about Lego bricks used in scientific research – on topics ranging from nanoparticles to
synthetic biology—it seems likely that construction toys have inspired people
in many other fields too. In fact, building things for fun seems to be
intimately connected with real-world achievement.
In a recent American survey
of high-achieving college graduates, adults holding degrees in STEM fields (science,
technology, engineering, or mathematics) were “far more likely than the average
American” to have extensive experience with “hands-on” crafts and hobbies,
including woodwork, mechanics, and electronics. Individuals reporting a
lifelong participation in such activities were more likely to have produced
inventions that yielded patents (LaMore et al 2013).
But correlations don’t prove causation. Kids with strong
spatial skills are probably more attracted to toys and pastimes that involve
construction, analysis, and blueprints. That doesn’t mean that structured block
play causes intellectual improvements. What’s needed is experimental evidence,
and two studies provide some.
The first study, published in 2008, suggests that you can boost
kindergarteners’ scores on the spatial portion of an IQ test (the WISC-IV) by
having them build specific structures--likes walls of a certain height--with
blocks (Casey et al 2008). The second, a study presented at a conference in
2013, suggests that a regular diet of structured block play might have wide
range of benefits (Grissmer et al 2013).
Working with kindergarteners and first
graders from North Carolina, David Grissmer and his colleagues assigned 45 children
to an after-school program of building activities. Students were asked to copy designs
made from a variety of materials--including Lego bricks, Wikki Stix, and pattern
blocks--and then tracked alongside a
control group of kids enrolled in an after-school curriculum that lacked such
elements. After 28 weeks of daily play sessions, the kids in the construction
classes made substantial gains in mathematics ability, spatial reasoning, and
The results dovetail with observations made by Brian Verdine
and his colleagues. Kids who did the best job building from models weren’t just
good spatial thinkers. They were also the most proficient in math (Verdine et
al 2013). Likewise, a small, long-term study reported correlations between construction skills in preschool and high school mathematics achievement (Wolfgang
et al 2003).
Case closed? We’re a long way from establishing that
structured block play has a systematic effect on spatial intelligence and
mathematics achievement. Very few controlled studies have been done. We need
more research. But in the mean time, there is a lot to recommend the idea. It
makes sense that copying models would improve a child’s ability to analyze
spatial relationships. We learn by doing. And so far, the empirical evidence
points in the right direction. If you are going to spend money on toys, construction toys seem like a wise investment.
Construction play has been linked with other benefits besides math and spatial skills. To read more about it, see my article about toy blocks.
Got a child in elementary or secondary school? For a great collection of stimulating construction activities, I recommend Carol Johman's excellent book: Bridges: Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test (Kaleidoscope Kids) .
And for more information about honing your child's spatial skills, see this list of evidence-based tips.
References: Lego bricks, construction toys, and the benefits of structured block play
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Grissmer DW, Mashburn AJ, Cottone AJ, Chen WB, Brock LL, and
Murrah WM, et al. 2013. Play-based after-school curriculum improves measures of
visuospatial and math skills and classroom behavior for high-risk K-1 children.
Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development, Seattle,
Washington, April 2013.
LaMore R, Root-Bernstein R, Schweitzer JH,
Lawton JL, Roraback E, et al. 2013. Arts and Crafts: Critical to
Economic Innovation Economic Development Quarterly 27(3):
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J. 2012. Early puzzle play: a predictor of preschoolers' spatial
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Wolfgang S, Stannard L, and Jones I. 2003. Advanced
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school achievement in mathematics Early Child Development and
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image of alternating staircase made from Lego bricks by Diomidis Spinellis
Content of "Lego bricks and other construction toys" last modified 12/13