Can Lego bricks and other construction toys boost your child’s STEM skills?

The argument for structured block play

© 2013-2016 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

When somebody mentions construction play--kids building with wood blocks, Lego bricks®, Mega Bloks®, or recycled materials--you might think of children being creative. Designing their own structures. Making something new.

That sort of play is exciting and beneficial for development. As I explain elsewhere, block play may foster a wide range of abilities, including motor skills, spatial skills, language skills, and divergent problem solving.

But not all play is free-wheeling. There is another way to have fun with construction toys, and it might help children develop a special package of skills.

It's called structured block play, and it's what happens when children try to recreate a construction by consulting a model or blueprint.

Kids must analyze what they see, perceive the parts that make up the whole, and figure out how the parts relate to each other. To 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).

To see what I mean, imagine that we 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.

When Brian 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 on designs that incorporated a greater number of bricks. They also made more mistakes when designs required 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.

An array of evidence indicates that such spatial skills can be improved through play.

For instance, in observational studies, kids who spend more free time playing with puzzles or building blocks score higher on tests of spatial ability (Jirout and Newcombe 2015; Levine et al 2012). 

Other research has reported 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 reap the benefits of two environmental advantages:

  • greater access to expensive construction toys, and
  • more social 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 an 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 such evidence is accumulating.

For example, in a recent brain scan study, Sharlene Newman and her colleagues assigned two groups of 8-year-old children to participate in a series of directed play sessions (Newman et al 2016).

One group would engage in structured block play. The other group would play the word game, "Scrabble." But before the intervention began, the researchers tested the children's baseline spatial abilities by asking them to perform a mental rotation task. The kids had to look at letters of the alphabet and determine whether they were flipped ("mirrored") or merely rotated. As the children performed the task, their speed and accuracy were recorded. In addition, the researchers measured their brain activity by functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

There were no differences between groups at baseline. The kids had been carefully matched for gender, age, mathematics test scores, parental education level, and prior amount of spatial play. But after just five, 30-minute sessions -- spread over a period of approximately 12 days -- something had changed.

When the researchers re-tested the children's mental rotation abilities, they found that kids in the structured block play group showed statistically significant improvements in speed and accuracy. Moreover, their brain scans revealed increased activity in areas linked with spatial processing -- a pattern consistent with the possibility that these kids were learning to solve mental rotation problems in a new way (Newman et al 2016).

It's a single study, and there were only 14 kids in each group. It needs to be replicated before we draw any conclusions. But the results jibe with the outcome of an earlier experiment where kindergartners were assigned to build certain structures -- like walls of a specified height -- with blocks (Casey et al 2008). The kids who participated  appeared to experience a subsequent boost in spatial ability, as measured by their scores on the spatial portion of an IQ test (the WISC-IV).

Case closed? Not yet. We need more research -- randomized, controlled studies -- to establish causation. But in the mean time, there is good reason to think that structured block play has intellectual benefits. 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.

More reading

Construction play has been linked with other benefits besides math and spatial skills. To read more about it, see my article about building with blocks.

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

Diamond A, Carlson SM, and Beck DM. 2010. Preschool children's performance in task switching on the dimensional change card sort task: separating the dimensions aids the ability to switch. Dev Neuropsychol. 28(2):689-729.

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.

Jirout JJ and Newcombe NS. 2015. Building blocks for developing spatial skills: evidence from a large, representative U.S. sample. Psychol Sci. 26(3):302-10.

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): 221-22.

Levine SC, Vasilyeva M, Lourenco SF, Newcombe NS, and Huttenlocher J. 2005. Socioeconomic status modifies the sex difference in spatial skill. Psychol Sci. 16(11):841-5.

Levine SC, Ratliff KR, Huttenlocher J, and Cannon J. 2012. Early puzzle play: a predictor of preschoolers' spatial transformation skill. Dev Psychol. 48(2):530-42.

Newman SD, Mitchell Hansen T, and Gutierrez A. 2016. An fMRI study of the impact of block building and board games on spatial ability. Frontiers in Psychology 7: 1278.

Uttal DH, Miller DI, and Newcombe NS.  2013. Exploring and Enhancing Spatial Thinking Links to Achievement in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics? Current Directions in Psychological Science 22(5):367-373.

Verdine BN, Golinkoff RM, Hirsh-Pasek K, Newcombe NS, Filipowicz AT, Chang A. 2013. Deconstructing Building Blocks: Preschoolers' Spatial Assembly Performance Relates to Early Mathematical Skills. Child Dev. 2013 Sep 23. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12165. [Epub ahead of print]

Wolfgang S, Stannard L, and Jones I. 2003. Advanced constructional play with LEGOs among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics Early Child Development and Care 173 (5): 67-475

image of boy with Legos by Hydro-xy / flickr

image of girl with Legos by Michael McCauslin / flickr

image of alternating staircase made from Lego bricks by Diomidis Spinellis

Content of "Lego bricks and other construction toys" last modified 12/2016