By Rabbi Joshua Fenton
On a recent afternoon, a group of second graders stand around a table. Taped the long way down the middle of the table is a strip of blue construction paper, a river. On either side of the river, on the table, are piles of Legos. As we begin the year, the children are building models that reflect how they feel about learning Hebrew. “Learning Hebrew is kind of like being in a boat that’s moving really slowly, and maybe sinking a bit.”
“I built a bridge over the river because learning Hebrew feels like a challenge.”
“It reminds me of blasting off on a rocket.”
This is one of the ways we’ve been using Legos in our afterschool program, Edah. It all started a couple years ago when we hosted our first text study program using Legos, Tikkun Lego Shavuot. Over 50 parent/child hevrutot (learning pairs) showed up for an evening of exploring Jewish text and ideas through…. playing with Legos. At the time I thought we had stumbled onto the next best totally obvious idea nobody had thought of before. Then I started poking around a bit. I was wrong. Educators have been using Legos in learning for decades, and there are some really good reasons why.
Legos Are fun
Who doesn’t love Legos? Big kids, little kids. Even the long-lost children inside many of us adults, when sitting in front of a pile of Legos, can’t help but begin to build. Everyone (just about everyone) has played with Legos before and a familiar material helps level the playing field of a given activity or program. But they’re not just familiar. While design might speak to certain people and skill sets, Lego building is amazingly democratic and equalizing. When working with Legos, there’s truly a job for everyone. Legos draw learners in empowering everyone to create, interpret, construct, and play.
Legos Are reusable
Legos are not disposable and, more than that, they’re valued precisely because they can be used again and again. Children understand that about the material. They know that whatever they build will ultimately be destroyed in order to build something new, again. It’s a powerful realization for children to have. Lego’s are all about process. And then, rebirth. Unlike other materials that may be thrown away at the end of the project, Legos are taken apart. And while there’s no taking the project home to show parents or to put on the mantel, what does stay with the learners are the stories. The description of the product, the story of the process, and the idea behind the design.
Legos Concretize the Abstract
Legos, like other kinds of modeling, concretize the abstract. Whether exploring a narrative, a concept, or even an experience, Legos are a powerful modeling tool able to be used to visualize any number of things. We use Legos to build installations that explore elements of stories or narratives. At Edah, children might be introduced to a midrash or asked to reflect on an experience or an idea, using modeling and Legos. A group can explore the midrash that Abraham and Sarah’s tent had no walls and then design tents or structures they believe would be perfect for hosting. Legos can also be used to unpack experiences. We’ve prompted children to use Legos to “design a machine that will help you stay away from your worst bad habit” or “to build something that symbolizes Tikkun Olam.”
Legos give even pre-literate children the ability to express complex ideas and concepts. “Legos are a good introduction to communicating ideas with physical objects…. 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.” – Tiffany Tseng, engineer in the MIT Media Lab/ParentingScience.com
Legos Are a Cognitive Workout
Some folks extol the virtues of the Lego building kits. They focus on the skills kids develop when using building directions included in the box, the spatial awareness required to replicate a design, and the ability to identify patterns. While we don’t include directions in our Lego work, the problem-solving involved in imagining and executing a design is a great brain workout. If the wall needs to be perfectly flat, or if every row must be a certain length, do the math. Figure out the many different ways to create four walls that are 10 pips long (a pip is the official name of the little bumps that attach) and eight blocks high. Or determine how to make a roof twice as big as the house. Or a tower tall enough to cast a shadow of a particular size. Or perhaps there’s a pattern that needs to be replicated – all great learning activities.
In the age of educational technology, learning apps, and so on, Legos offers a welcome alternative that feels both old school and innovative all at the same time. They can be used to explore the weekly Torah portion. They’re wonderful for practicing making the shapes of the Aleph Bet. They can be used for imaginative play and also to concretize more conceptual thinking. And they can be disinfected and used over and over again! Not to mention there are families in every community with boxes of Legos in their basements, ready to donate them if only someone would ask.
Rabbi Joshua Fenton is Executive Director of Studio 70: A Jewish Learning Laboratory.