Wednesday, March 28, 2007

My Boys and LEGO Play, The Importance of Play

My kids and their LEGO play is the subject of this post as well as a little information about the value of unstructured, child-led play.

The first sets we bought were the big bins of random pieces which were intended to be used for play in which the child would use their own imagination to make creations with. I bought the first set when my oldest was five years old. When that son was five he was still very much into playing with his wooden train toys and LEGO was just a small part of his play. At age six my older son really took off with playing with LEGOs. The first real way he played with them was by creating things from his own imagination.

Later I added in some special sets only sold through which included, for example, many flat plates such as are good for the bottom of a car, and a big bunch of axles and wheels to make cars or other rolling vehicles with. There was also a set of about 35 “community workers” that yielded a lot of interesting little people including astronauts. Back then my goal was on the focus of original, creative play rather than buying kits, many of which had movie tie-in’s. That was back when I was trying to have play be all about my children’s own imagination rather than acting out scenes from movies or books, especially those which were not the type of shows, movies or books that my young children were exposed to at the time.

We have been open to anything and everything that is for sale in a big box at a tag sale or a thrift shop. Those bins are usually not only inexpensive but treasure troves of old, unique pieces.

As my children got older they were exposed to some things like Harry Potter and Star Wars. Since by that time LEGO was their favorite toy it only seemed natural that they’d beg for LEGO kits corresponding to those topics.

We have bought and received as gifts, many different sets obviously based on what LEGO was manufacturing at the time. Yes, that did include movie and character tie-in’s such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Batman. Other sets are of the LEGO City line such as police vehicles, cranes, and construction trucks. We also own a small amount of the LEGO trains which run on electricity which are only sold through

I was shocked to hear (yes, shocked) that an acquaintance of mine allows her son to make a kit only exactly as specified then it is to remain 100% intact and played with. When he is done with it (the longest went one full year), she herself takes it apart and stores it in zip lock bags, with the original box and the original directions in very neat shape. She said she intends to resell them on eBay to collectors. I had never heard of such a thing being done before, especially with a young boy. She said she did this from the very first set he ever got through now, when he is ten years old. They are free to do what they want, I am not judging them, and I was just surprised. The mom did say that he played a little bit with free play from one small bin of LEGOs he had from the Creator line.

But compared to my friend, I am a sloppy Mommy. No, actually, what I have my kids do is to let them use their imagination and to play in freedom. Whether they are creating their own things or doing pretend play with finished kits, it is all good. After making a kit the way it was intended, they can do whatever they want with it. They end up all over the floor and in bins.

I want my children to be free-thinkers, creators and leaders. I don’t care so much if my children get a lot more use out of their LEGOs based on their unique original play after the original set crumbles apart. I want my kids to think outside of the box. I also am most concerned that the LEGOs are used and loved rather than trying to preserve them for future resale.

At first I used plastic sheet protectors and a three-ring binder to neatly store the directions in. I thought if the directions were all in one place it would help my sons find them. However when the three inch wide binder was full I replaced it with a sturdy box. All I ask is that the directions go in the box rather than ending up all over the house or in the trash bin.

In February I bought two rolling cart things by Sterlite with three deep drawers for about $14.75 on sale at Wal Mart. These have helped matters much. The smaller bins and drawers we had been overflowing.

As I’ve shared before, I do limit the LEGOs to being stored in one area of our living room. While my kids do play with their finished products all over the house, I try to corral the pieces to one place in the house. I am sick of stepping on little pieces in every room and also once the vacuum cleaner sucked up a piece and broke something inside it and it cost $40 to have it repaired!

These are some things that my children have constructed on their OWN, not following directions. I am sharing this to show the variety of things they made.

Various new people, different outfits and hair styles than LEGO designed themselves
Cars and trucks of many shapes and sizes
Race cars, like dragsters and NASCAR type cars
Space vehicles for rolling on planet surfaces
Flying space vehicles, rockets, space shuttle type things, etc.
Newly created vehicles that my children imagine might appear in a Star Wars movie
Hybrid vehicles such as a car that also flies into space, a car that turns into a boat
Houses and buildings of various sizes
Robots (many different sizes up to two feet high)
Large command center for little homemade LEGO robots
Jelly bean dispenser thing
Treasure chest to hide treasure in
Submarines that they do submerge into water
Boats that they do try to float
Time machine
Goblet of Fire (as in Harry Potter’s), which leaked when liquid was added
Aircraft carrier about three feet long
Passenger airplane over three feet long with interior designed as well
Trains, unique designs that go on the LEGO train track
A bank for LEGO coins aka “studs” like in LEGO Star Wars video game
A Transformer ™ (didn’t transform though)
A big worm that transforms into a wheel
A spinning top that did work
Guns, of various sizes, a BB gun/rifle like one to space ray type guns

Each of my boys plays with their LEGOs by themselves as well as together. When friends and relatives visit, if the guests want, they play with the LEGOs, too. The only problem with cooperative play or group play that has happened is when a special thing that was created is being played with by another child and my child worries that it might be destroyed.

We have also had some children who intentionally destroyed LEGO creations as they think it is fun and hilarious to smash a LEGO creation and see the many pieces go flying in many directions. Those children are usually NOT the ones who normally play with LEGOs in their own home and they seem to show no understanding for how much work goes into making something out of LEGOs and why smashing it to bits should only be done by the creator of the project.

One day recently a boy came over to play and used our LEGOs to design his own submarine. He cried when he had to leave as he didn’t want to leave it behind. My heart broke and I nearly gave it to him to take with him. The boy didn’t want to go and I finally agreed to save it for the next time he comes over. I didn’t know what else to do. (It is still waiting for him to visit again.)

I can’t tell you how many homeschoolers have said that their boys (and some girls) had LEGO as their main toy for many, many years. These parents claim to have bright children who grew up to be smart adults so, hey, if free-form play with LEGO is one way to get my kids to that same end then I am all for having a zillion LEGOs in the house!

Actually the most important thing for me is that both of my children have plenty of time for free, unstructured play. They love LEGOs and they choose to play with LEGOs. I don’t make lesson plans around LEGOs and I don’t force them to use the LEGOs. (We did do the Junior First LEGO League but that was more about a project and research, about a concept that then had a model built of it with LEGO. That was also a short-term project that had nothing to do with the hours of free play that my children have.) So as long as my children want to play with LEGOs they can play with LEGOs and I’ll grant them the freedom to use them however they want.

Did you know that play is considered the work of a child? There are a few books on the subject specifically of the value of play in childhood—free, unstructured play, not forced play supervised by adults.

Children Developing Imagination and Creativity
I once gave a presentation about how to help a child ages 3-5 develop creativity and imagination. I did a lot of research on the topic at the time. The bottom line was free play and exposure to certain kinds of open-ended toys as well as allowing a child time to play and not doing or saying things that can squash creativity is what a parent should do.

An interesting twist that I learned was that everything that it takes to provide a child with the optimal atmosphere for developing their imagination and creativity is also the foundation toward not just book smarts and success in school but it is also what most colleges and employers seek. Giving a child time to play in an unstructured play environment with certain types of toys (and avoiding certain others) helps them become creative and develops their imagination which also is linked to logical thinking as well as the ability to think outside the box, to imagine things differently and to pave the way for the child to be a leader rather than a follower.

So as far as I’m concerned any and all child-led play with LEGOs is “all good”.

This post was inspired as a reaction to my feeling horrified at this news story which I blogged about yesterday.

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Heidicrafts said...

No-longer-necessary Lego instruction booklets make good fodder for art cards...

Dana said...

I so agree with you! Especially for kids in a public or private school setting, free play is of vital importance.

Structure is great and all, and some families may need more of it, but mostly I see parents who are a little hyper involved to the point that the children don't really get to create things for themselves.

It sort of robs them of their accomplishment. So much is learned through play.

christinemm said...

Dana, One thing that just dawned on me is that you are right. Especially for the chilren in that before-school and after-school program that I blogged about the other day, should they not be allowed to have some plain old FREE play time instead of being directed and taught before school, at school, then after school? When can they think for themselves?

christinemm said...

Heidicrafts, You are right. You cracked me up. I also tend to try to use nearly anything to make artist trading cards (or other crafts)! We think alike!

K said...

My son also uses his sets for all sorts of things. He usually builds the planned set once, but then it's parted out. At this point, he looks at the sets to see what pieces come with them, thinking of what he can do with the special pieces.

His wish list is based on this, and he's told us not to worry if there are duplicates from family in other areas. He can always use the parts.

When he was a baby, I had someone aghast that I had removed the tag from a Beanie Baby he had been given. Oh my, I'd ruined it's value! I pointed out it was a toy, to be played with, and if the person was really concerned, they could tell someone to thank me for increasing the value of the others of that style. Sheesh.