Lego Therapy

Paul Main

How can LEGO therapy and block-building enhance learning outcomes?

What is LEGO Therapy?

LEGO Therapy is a therapeutic intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a range of communication and social skills challenges. However, when the practice first emerged, interventions initially centred on children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but now it is also used therapeutically by adults.

Autistic children can tend to be drawn to certain things with intense interest. Therapists’ specialist in play has for years built on passions that help primary-aged children to learn skills such as social communication skills and symbolic thinking. Now some researchers have found out that LEGO building activities are a very rewarding tool for autism therapy. They have also discovered that Lego-based therapy is a great way to help autistic children build interest in social communication skills

Play is part and parcel of childhood, and it is an important way that children learn through. Block play enables children to expand and improve their understanding by imagining new ideas, playfully. Play, sports, social interaction and physical activity, and observation are vital in developing communication skills as well as social skills.

Language skills are also developed by imitating grown-ups like parents or personalities they know. By practicing talking like the people they know, they develop their speech. Organized games or clubs for children are also very helpful, especially where KS2 children are supposed to follow instructions and work together with teammates towards a common goal. So how exactly can Lego therapy and block play more widely be used in your school? In this article, we will explore how this methodology can be used to enhance the wider outcomes of children and also how it can be employed as a mainstream teaching tool.

How does LEGO therapy work?

Children with autism are sometimes initially hard to detect. They could be just like anyone else that you can think of. They could be the quiet type or the chatty type. They could be peculiar or aggressive, be good at school or be poor performers in school. It is important to know that you cannot take one symptom or action to suggest you have met with a child with autism spectrum. There should be an alarm only when the behaviour of a child really interferes with a child’s way of doing ordinary things making the child incapable of doing anything.

Autism in children makes them have a problem with their speech hence may experience social difficulties. Some may not be able to speak at all while others experience delays in speech. Some children may sound quite flat in their speech, or they may plainly memorize speeches from people around them. A child with autism may find herself speaking quickly or speaking the same thing repetitively.

Children with autism can also have difficulty in communication, and it may be detected in diverse ways. Their social interaction may be very poor in that they may be seen just preferring to line up or just spin objects. They may also not have a sense of when to stop an activity. Sometimes they may look and sound selfish or very passive. They may have a challenge in their social competence. This is one of the reasons why they may need a skilled therapist to help them with both verbal and nonverbal communication skills

Autistic children may also have a challenge of their senses. They may desire or evade loud noises, strong smells, or intimate hugs. They are also very sensitive to light, and they are distracted easily by small movements. They are distressed by funny sounds like squeaks or cries from babies.

We can sometimes notice quirky behaviours in children with autism. Even in play, there might be some very subtle differences. Unlike many other children, you might see children with autism playing alone but doing the same thing the other children are doing. That is parallel play. These children have a challenge in taking turns or collaborating with teammates. They are however very good in repeating patterns and routines. When imitating another child sing, they may sing the same way and do the hand motions the same way but asked to try a different hand motion may be very challenging for them.

Various types of play therapy endeavor to help children with autism overcome challenges by expanding communication, social skills, and imaginations through building on prevailing interests. Play therapists use a range of techniques to improve and enhance their activities instead of showing disapproval of children who continue with their repetitive activities. All this will help in building language as this will require the child to negotiate and work together with the therapist. Countless therapists have seen substantial improvement in language skills, social interaction, communication, and even physical skills through play therapy.

Using block building conceptually
Using block building conceptually

Why Lego-based Therapy and Block-play?

LEGO building toys are extremely popular among children with autism. They offer a simple, anticipated, repeatable activity that can be done alone without extra help. These toys look and work in similar ways. They are also advantaged in that they require a strong fine motor skills and substantial hand strength, requiring spatial, visual, and logical skills. Having essential value in the wider world (LEGO play is worldwide and LEGO models and structures have become well-recognized also as art forms.) The idea when it was started was to have an operational social skills program that could be used in many settings and be transferable to real-world peer interactions. While there is a diversity of behavioural and developmental means to the therapy, most use the same techniques for preoccupying the children and requiring them to build skills in order to accomplish their play-related targets. The actual goal is to build the varieties of skills that can help children engage in a better way with their peers, share experiences and work together. Though children with autism may find it puzzling to grasp what they are expected to do in a social situation they are able to comprehend when LEGO activities come to play. This is because LEGO therapy comes in a structured way where each person is assigned what to do in the group. This makes children with autism feel relaxed and peaceful as they enjoy doing what they love to do.

LEGO Blocks for learning grammar
Blocks for learning grammar

In  a traditional LEGO Therapy scenario, each child takes on one of the four roles below:

  • One oversees reading and dispatching the instructions. He must tell the Supplier what pieces to recover then tell the Builder how to build the model. He is known as the engineer.
  • The correct LEGO pieces have to be found by the Supplier who acts as the supervisor. He must pay attention to the Engineer and figure out what to retrieve, and the pieces should then be given to the Builder.
  • The Builder is in charge of overseeing the building of the model. He must listen to instructions provided by the Engineer and whatever is retrieved by the Supplier should be handed to him.
  • The foreman supervises everything and makes sure everything is running well. His objective is to make sure that the project is complete. He gives much needed assisted in any social challenged area and also helps in solving any arising problems. He is also known to encourage the workers so that they do not give up by complimenting them as they work.

This format provides the children involved with skills that include language skills in the process of taking and giving instructions. The negotiations, turn-taking, sharing, and getting involved in the interactive social problem-solving helps them to reflect on their own engagements. However, children who are likely to benefit from LEGO therapy should be able to follow simple instructions. In LEGO therapy, a facilitator works with the group of children as needed to encourage them to solve their challenges, help them communicate and help them get involved. Sometimes, speech therapists, occupational therapists, behavioral therapists, or even psychologists work together, using LEGOs to build motor skills, enhance social communication and facilitate speech. The therapy can also be expanded to inspire creative play and teamwork through dramatic activities, storytelling, and innovation. For example, one version of LEGO therapy has children team up to build forms of a pretend world told in a story.

Using LEGO bricks with older learners
Using bricks with older learners

Building and learning from blocks

At Structural Learning, we have been developing our own therapeutic brick building concept. This approach is not just aimed at autistic spectrum children but deeper learning outcomes in general. We know that building from blocks is a fundamentally creative activity that children engage with. We use these building toys to help children organise information and make conceptual connections. The building process becomes an outward projection of the mental learning process. The basic idea is to help learners see patterns in information, the brightly coloured bricks can be used to break ideas down into easily digestible chunks. The teacher then provides building instructions that pupils follow to achieve their learning goals. Ultimately, this type of learner-led approach puts thinking into the hands of every child. For the last two years, we have documented the best-practice approaches to this type of pedagogy. Our blocks are based on the basic idea of Lego bricks but allow students to write their ideas into the blocks. You will find many examples of how this type of approach can be used in different education settings. Please do get in contact with us if you would like a demo of this approach to see how it could work within your context.

Blocks for Learning
Blocks for Learning

How effective are LEGO-based therapy resources?

There is no one specific type of therapy that is always successful for every child with autism, and much depends on the chemistry of the facilitator and the therapy group. Some children will come away with improved skills, while others won't. LEGO therapy programs will help your pupils build social competence skills and possibly significant friendships built around common interests. LEGO therapy is founded on risk-free and effective therapies. As with any social development program, there would be an initial financial and time outlay but otherwise, there are many positive outcomes if your student:

  • Is stirred to build social relationships with peers.
  • Can change his/her set of ideas without getting upset emotionally.
  • Has shown some social competence when playing
  • Can follow verbal instructions
  • Enjoys to actively building models with LEGO
  • Can easily interact with the other children in the group.

Blocks for Maths
Blocks for Maths

Lego Therapy Training

There are numerous organisations offering training courses in LEGO therapy for educators and professionals working with children with special needs. These courses provide participants with the knowledge required to implement LEGO therapy in their schools and institutions. Participants learn about the theory behind LEGO therapy, the practical application of LEGO therapy, and how to integrate LEGO therapy into existing programmes.

LEGO therapy is based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which has proven to be very effective in treating anxiety disorders such as OCD, phobias and panic attacks. CBT focuses on changing thoughts and behaviours that lead to negative emotions and dysfunctional behaviour. It teaches people to identify and challenge irrational beliefs and faulty assumptions that may cause emotional distress.

The LEGO therapy programme was developed by Dr. Richard J. Davidson who is a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has studied the effects of meditation on brain function and found that meditation produces measurable changes in brain wave patterns. His research shows that meditation increases the ability to focus attention and reduces stress levels. In addition, he discovered that meditation also increased the speed of neural transmission between neurons.

LEGO Block building training from Structural Learning
Block building training from Structural Learning

Concluding thoughts about LEGO Therapy

You would like to give LEGO therapy a shot? First, it is advisable to have a conversation with a therapist/educational psychologist to clarify what their goals are, what the mix of children is like, and what their therapeutic approach consists of. Have the therapist evaluate your child to decide whether they are ready for this form of play therapy. You could request your child to participate for a trial period in case you are sure about the whole thing. If financial resources are scarce, you could always use other branded bricks with a little help from Google. 

We know that children have been playing with blocks for centuries, and this fundamental play activity can be put to good purpose in educational contexts. There is a subtle difference between 'playing' and being 'playful'; what we are doing is giving children permission to try out new days without worrying about failure. This relatively risk-free activity can be put to work across different cohorts with fairly little investment in specialist programs. So go on, what are you waiting for, give building a go and use your favourite childhood play activity for educational purposes.

Enhancing outcomes by learning through block-play
Enhancing outcomes by learning through block-play

Further Reading on LEGO Therapy

The LEGO Group. (n.d.). The LEGO Group History: https://www.lego.com/en-us/aboutus/lego-group/the_lego_history

LeGoff D, Gomez De La Cuesta G, Krauss GW, et al.LEGO®-Based Therapy: How to build social competence through Lego®-Based Clubs for children with autism and related conditions. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014: https://scholar.google.com/scholar_lookup

Lindsay, S., Hounsell, K.G., & Cassiani, C. (2017). A scoping review of the role of LEGO therapy for improving inclusion and social skills among children and youth with autism.Disability and Health Journal: 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/19366574