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

Why structured block play is a good bet for cognitive development

© 2013-2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Construction toys -- like wooden blocks, Lego bricks®, and Mega Bloks® -- present kids with exciting opportunities to tinker and create.

This play is 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 form of non-verbal intelligence that is crucial for achievement in many STEM fields.

The ability to visualize three-dimensional objects. The ability imagine and manipulate spatial information in your head.  

This alternative type of play is 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, they may also need to think quantitatively -- to count. And it helps if they can imagine what an object would look like from another angle. For example, kids will have an easier time if they can rotate a geometric shape in their mind's eye (Casey and Bobb 2003).

To see what how tricky these tasks can be, suppose 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 needs 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. This 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 children 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 -- 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 outperform girls in spatial tasks, but only among children from middle- and higher-socioeconomic backgrounds (Levine et al 2005). 

Among children from low-income homes – where opportunities for construction play are more limited – researchers observed no gender difference. Psychologists 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.

Ask an engineer

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.

Experiments: Improving spatial skills through construction play

In a brain scan study, Sharlene Newman and her colleagues (2016) asked 8-year-old children 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 then the researchers divided the children into groups. Some kids were assigned to participate in a series of structured block play sessions, using the Blocks Rock! STEM Building Blocks Educational Game . Other kids were assigned to play the word game, Scrabble.

After just five, 30-minute sessions -- spread over a period of approximately 12 days -- the researchers re-tested the children's mental rotation abilities. And something had changed.

Kids in the "Blocks Rock!" 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).

Keep in mind, this was a small experiment, with only 14 kids in each group.

But the results jibe with the outcome of an earlier study (Casey et al 2008), where kindergartners were assigned to build certain structures -- like walls of a specified height -- with blocks. The kids who participated in construction activities showed a subsequent boost in spatial ability, as measured by their scores on the spatial portion of an IQ test (the WISC-IV).

And more recently, researchers assigned 70 kids (aged 8-10) to perform several classroom spatial activities, including some construction tasks.

Before and after the intervention, the children's spatial abilities were tested in two ways. Then their performance was compared with that of 70 children in a control group.

The kids assigned to spatial play showed no special improvements in mental rotation ability.

But they outperformed the control group on a second spatial test -- one asking children to imagine themselves moving around an object and seeing it from different angles (Vander Heyden et al 2017).

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.

  1. Given what we know about the mind, it makes sense that copying models would improve a child's ability to analyze spatial relationships. We hone skills through practice.
  2. Correlational studies reveal links between construction play, spatial skills, and STEM achievement. 
  3. Experiments support the idea that structured block play causes improvements in spatial ability.

And needless to say, this is only part of the story.

There is evidence that toy blocks can promote language development, problem-solving skills, and cooperation.

Construction play is fun, and the elements of construction -- wooden blocks, repurposed cardboard boxes, Lego bricks®, Lincoln Logs®, Mega Bloks® -- are incredibly versatile. Children are free to create whatever they imagine, and, as they grow, they can use the same construction materials, year after year.

So if you are going to spend money on toys, construction toys a good investment. If you have young children, spend some time playing alongside them, and strike up a conversation about their projects. Use spatial language as you consider together how to orient your pieces. Studies show that kids pick up on our use of language, and this may help their develop their spatial skills (Borriello et al 2017).

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. There you will find evidence-based tips for helping children learn more from block play.

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

Borriello GA and Liben LS. 2017. Encouraging Maternal Guidance of Preschoolers' Spatial Thinking During Block Play. Child Dev. 2017 Mar 13. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12779. [Epub ahead of print]

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.

Vander Heyden KM, Huizinga M, Jolles J. 2017. Effects of a classroom intervention with spatial play materials on children's object and viewer transformation abilities. Dev Psychol. 53(2):290-305.

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 10/2017

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