The building blocks of learning

Young architects and designers of the future learning through play with Lego

Young architects and designers of the future learning through play with Lego

In 1987 Sara and I, along with out two sons Tom and Toby cycled around part of Denmark. It was our first family holiday abroad and by travelling on bicycles and using youth hostels we managed to experience a new country and culture within our limited budget. We had a great trip taking in the Danish countryside, visiting museums, nature reserves and beaches and eating too many Danish pastries. Tom and Toby learned sufficient language to be polite and to order their favouring pastry and we all enjoyed meeting friendly people and the languid pace of travelling by bike – something that we have continued to do in many parts of Europe.

For the boys, one of the highlights of the tour was a visit to Billund and the original Legoland, which we managed towards the end of the journey. At home in England we were all familiar with the coloured plastic bricks and other components that make up Lego, surely one of the most incredible toys available on the market. Building houses, cars, towers and all kinds of imaginative constructions had occupied hours on the lounge floor and had brought pleasure and learning to the whole family. I am sure that I gained just as much enjoyment from Lego as did our sons and I am secretly looking forward to the time when our grandchildren are a little older and we can blow the cobwebs off the little plastic bricks and introduce them to hours of fun. (Actually, why wait? I might just get them out this weekend).

Yesterday I wrote a piece about the importance of play, citing recent research by David Whitebread who argues, with good reason, that play is important for children’s development and learning and should be recognised as such by parents and teachers alike. In response to my blog, my friend the artist Jean Edwards (do visit her work at ) drew my attention to a recent television programme about the importance of Lego. I use the word importance deliberately here, because the “Culture Show,” the programme, celebrating Lego as a toy also shows how it has had a major influence upon learning. In particular it focuses upon a number of significant architects, including Bjarke Ingels designer of the Tallin City Hall in Estonia and the Shenzhen International Energy Mansion in China who describe how their early informal experimentation with Lego shaped their ideas and taught them much about construction and design.

Early in the programme the presenter describes how a generation of architects, including Frank Lloyd-Wright and Le Corbusier had been inspired by Froebel’s simple wooden blocks to play at building and construction and experimenting with the use of shape and gaining an understanding of form and balance. However, Lego with its simple method of forming a more secure means of joining bricks afforded even greater opportunities for creative minds. Meccano, that other wonderful engineering toy also gets a mention and made a similar contribution to the development of others who went on to become significant designers – apparently it was a great favourite of Richard Rogers, architect of amongst others the European Court of Human Rights building in Strasbourg, the Welsh National Assembly Building in Cardiff and The Millennium Dome in London.

The Culture show programme, in addition to conducting interviews with a number of architects provides clips of children from across the last 60 years playing with construction toys – including Lego and Meccano. They are clearly learning, but equally important they are having fun. If ever there was concrete evidence (no pun intended) to justify the claims for the importance of play made by David Whitebread and others, it is to be found in this programme. Not only are the children shown learning how to handle materials and developing the fine motor skills required for construction, but they are also developing their imaginations, exercising natural creative instincts, solving problems and  experimenting with shape, space and form. Many of these skills and the knowledge that comes through experimentation are closely aligned to those that teachers of science, mathematics and technology seek to achieve, often through far more formal approaches. The imagination that is clearly portrayed in the excerpts of children playing with materials in the film must surely bode well for their potential as writers and thinkers.

It would undoubtedly have the potential for causing a nervous breakdown amongst some teachers if I were to dare to suggest that, even just once in a while, rather than setting homework they tell their students to spend a few hours playing and experimenting with any materials that come to hand. Yesterday I urged our politicians to make sandcastles or jump in puddles, today I am suggesting that we should all make time to build a den in the woods, dig a hole in the garden or get out the Lego bricks and better still do this with our children, our grandchildren or with other like minded adults. If you are frightened by the thought of how others might regard you, you could always do these things under the cover of darkness!

You can watch the Culture Show Programme at the link below


This 1954 Mecanno set shows French learners from two generations achieving engineering wonders with Meccanno

This 1954 box from a Meccano set shows French learners from two generations achieving engineering wonders with Meccanno