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A LEGO Curriculum!

by Beverley Paine

I remember visiting a friend of my parent's when I was ten, and their children had Lego. The little interlocking bricks, with their precise engineering and clean lines immediately appealed to me. I loved the tidy little houses with the opening doors and windows and smooth red roofs. Each birthday and Christmas I asked for Lego, only to be offered some other construction toy. I knew that one day children of my own would not be Lego deprived.

Toy is a rather a demeaning description of this clever manipulative construction material. My dictionary defines toy as something meant for amusement rather than serious use. Lego serves both purposes. It is a plaything and can amuse for many, many hours, but the real value in this children's 'toy' comes from the hidden learning quietly happening behind all the play.

Anyone who has visited our house can attest to our apparent addiction to Lego, with our ever expanding collection of plastic 'bricks' reaching mind boggling dimensions. When April turned three she received her first Lego car and trailer, a set that is still in almost complete condition. A Lego front-end-mover decorated the centre of Roger's first birthday cake. By four he could quickly assemble sets using instructions in less than half the time of kids twice his age. Thomas has never known life without Lego. All of the children know that the more bricks they own the greater the diversity of play and model building they can engage in. Over time they have become extremely selective, consciously choosing sets that will enlarge the usability of their collection.

I have always believed in the value of an educational curriculum that values play. For many years I would slot in 'school' type learning activities into my children's highly imaginative and constructive play, often interrupting the flow , with the result of placing emphasis on what I considered to be a more valuable use of time. However, time has shown me that the 'play' underway was far from just being for amusement and entertainment. My children, when playing, were actively engaging in a superior form of learning, teaching themselves many things that would have taken me much longer in a conscious manner.

Lego is an incredible tool for learning in this household. In the early years it encouraged manual dexterity, good hand-eye coordination, and helped with classification and spacial skills. I watched the children move from solitary play, to parallel play and then to cooperative play. I heard April dictate play scripts for Roger, and then watched as the months and years progressed to hear him become more involved in the organising of the play structure as his confidence and assertiveness grew. I peeped in at games where the children 'role played' situations in their own life that needed assimilating over time in a less threatening way where they could control the variables. I saw them replicate many of their recent activities, duplicating scenes and building models. I saw them stretching their imaginations to devise simple and then more complex machines, set tasks and problems for themselves that challenged them into new cognitive thresholds. And I watched as they worked hard to earn the money they needed to continue building their amazing Lego collections.

There was the time when Roger, after being on the Glenelg tram for the first time, came home and a week later built an intricate model of the tram, complete with platform, track and overhead rails. A town grew up around this model and a game played for days. After a trip aboard the HMAS Endeavor Bark several sailing ships were built (without using instructions), to be used in a game where forts and towns were needed. These games last up to a week, with intense periods of concentration and play interrupted only by meals or a spot of physical exercise.

In case you are thinking that playing with bricks is all the children do during this time, think again. No game of pirates is complete without reference to the encyclopedia or books from the library on the subject. This is usually complemented with a trek down to the video shop to hunt out good sailing ship movies. A movie about the 'Bounty' sparks plenty of discussion about history in general, especially of Australia, and then another model soon appears, and Cap'n Roger becomes William Bligh. In due time swords are made from plywood and fierce battles are fought on imaginary pirate ships, or on a newly decorated cubby house. The technology and work skills used in such games goes well beyond the intitial manipulation of little plastic bricks.

The most elaborate houses and hotels have adorned April's floor. Since birth we have been building houses around her head, so it is little wonder that April is an expert at Lego house construction. It was a lovely surprise to arrive home one day to find April has built a model of our own home, complete with furniture, and to scale. No home is ever constructed without a plan, and sometimes these arrive after the building of models or townships. A fantastic floor layout of a carnival, complete with ferris wheels and rides, became enshrined in a collection of maps and drawings, for later replication that never happened. The game, having run its course over a couple of weeks, made way for something new and exciting, another Lego adventure.

As the children have grown older model building has replaced the more playful aspects of Lego. It is less frequent now to see the boys building cars, spaceships or castles now and simply sitting down and playing a game where two or more characters live in a fantasy world and have adventures. It is a credit to sixteen year old Roger that he can still engage in such activity for between half and hour to two hours with his younger brother and his friends. This demonstrates quite a social skill, often lost by this age group, or passed over for more 'adult' past-times.

An interesting aspect of this play with Lego is how it hasn't spoiled the children's ability to create play things or restricted their imaginations. When on a camping holiday with the ubiquitious bricks left behind, the children all engaged in constructing a mini-world of islands and reefs, and decorated these with trees, rocks, jetties, fences, houses, wells, beaches - all constructed from natural materials found nearby. These worlds, usually in the order of around three to five square metres, took several hours to build and were happily left the next day, after a good hour or two of imaginative play.

More than the others Roger has used Lego as a learning platform. He surprised us all with a Lego mural of a lady's face a month after seeing a Lego Egyptian exhibition where several decorative murals were displayed. Roger's mural won first prize in the local Agricultural Show in the children's section that year. Far from being a construction toy, Roger had demonstrated that his playing with Lego was also Art.

Now he has turned his attention primarily to Technic and programmable Lego, and his recent foray into electronics and computer technology demonstrates the effectiveness of Lego as a firm foundation for the skills he is regularly using. Quietly, behind the scenes and unobserved, Roger's play with tiny plastic bricks has prepared him for a technical career.

I can easily see where Lego has been used to develop my children's skills and understandings in each of the areas prescribed by the education system. They have developed their social skills through Lego play, through learning cooperative behaviours, organising their time, developing decision making and problem solving skills, evolving communication skills to suit need and situation, both in familial situations and with friends. The understanding of safety issues is paramount to any plaything or tool. Lego is no exception, and the children are well aware of playing and using Lego safely in all situations. This includes play with much younger friends, developing cooperative and empathetic attitudes when playing, and the awareness of the needs of self and others.

They have exercised and developed information skills, the ability to find information from many sources in effective and efficient ways, learning to ask and pose questions, to choose strategies for locating information and also to use it in an organised way. This has given them an incredible body of knowledge about their favourite 'toy', but has spun out into other areas of learning, enriching their lives immeasurably.

Lego construction would be extremely frustrating if it did not innately develop planning and design skills, with the ability to initiate and interpret ideas, test solutions to problems encountered or imagined, and evaluate the final construction. From the initial desire to build a toy to play with, to the final breaking up stage, the children actively use complex planning and design skills, generally in their heads, but sometimes mapped out on paper first, or afterward in the case of recording instructions for their models.

This is followed closely by the development of technological and work skills - the ability to confidently manipulate materials to achieve a desired product or goal. This confidence with fine motor control and manual dexterity skills is demonstrated in other areas, and is evidenced when the children come to other craft or work projects. The degree of skill they show has often been favourably commented on, as have their attitudes to working on specific tasks and projects.

Some people might think that the sound understanding of mathematical concepts, particularly space and measurement, the children have might derive from the fact that they grew up with houses being built around their heads! Even if this were true it is obvious to me that playing with Lego has enhanced their developing understanding of these mathematical basics. Again, it is quiet, background learning, simply absorbed unconsciously as the children engage in play.

In our house there are many toys, most of excellent and lasting quality. They are all selected for the educational benefits that can be derived from play, and include collections of dolls, little role playing animals, miniature cars and tracks, wooden blocks, boardgames and puzzles, computer games, percussion/musical instruments and 'teddies'. I am sure there are more. When the children were young an essential component of this play collection was our box of dressups and drama props. Although I consciously selected toys I knew would have some educational benefit I was totally unaware of just how much play with these things was 'teaching' my children many of the things I believed they must learn from contrived learning activities or books. More than any other 'toy' Lego has shown me the value of play in the home learning environment. I believe that because my children are home they have an educational bonus schooled children cannot have - my children can play more!

See also More on our LEGO curriculum and The Value of Play: Lego

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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Welcome to the World of Home Education
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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine


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