Meaghan O’Keeffe, RN, BSN, is a mother, writer and nurse. She worked at Boston Children’s Hospital for nearly a decade, in both the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit and the Pre-op Clinic. She is a regular contributor to Thriving.
For kids, play is about more than having fun—it's almost a full-time job. It’s how they explore and process the world around them. But good play isn’t just about having fun. It’s about learning, too.
That's why building toys like blocks, connector sets or LEGOs are so great. Not only do they promote creativity in letting the child come up with new projects to create, but they also offer a crash course introduction to a few physics laws. (Quite literally when they first learn that their tower can't have more blocks on the top than at the bottom!
Building sets are fun and relatively inexpensive teachers that can engage kids of all ages, without keeping them tethered to a videogame controller. Here are just a few ways they promote development during playtime…
Every chance to build is a blank slate. Every structure is a different skyscraper or school or quirky house. Each creation is different in some way. The power of a child’s imagination is limitless and blocks help unleash that creativity
My son has a hard time sitting through a movie. He needs to move, needs a break from the attention it requires. But when it comes to LEGOs, he can spend an hour building. He barely moves a muscle. I see him pick up a tiny piece and attach it in a very specific way to whatever he’s making. The rest of world melts away until it's just him, that small LEGO, and his breathing.
A tower gets too tall and topples over. Why? It doesn’t have a wide enough base to support the height. There are no rectangular pieces left. What to do instead? Try using two square blocks that equal the length of the longer rectangle. Problem solving skills are crucial to how well we deal with other kinds of problems in life. When something doesn’t work, practicing how to find another way that does work is a valuable lesson
LEGOs and other construction toys often come with blueprints telling the builder how to create the desired structure. These instructions help kids determine what supplies are needed and give them a better understanding of the chronological order the steps must be completed in to make the project successful— another rich lesson that can be applied in other areas of life.
Teaching the parent to play
For those of us who have difficulty playing on our children’s level (e.g., no, I do not feel like driving those cars around the living room for the millionth time today), building offers a promising opportunity for parents to get on the floor with their kids and become engrossed in an activity. I find myself getting lost in my own projects. And when my kids and I follow a set of directions together, or come up with a creation all our own, we develop a sense of camaraderie and teamwork. We’ve accomplished something together and enriched our relationship
Dealing with frustration
Any skill that takes time to develop will come pre-packaged with a certain amount of frustration. Things don’t always work out the way we plan. We don’t always work out the way we plan. On a microcosmic level, the frustration associated with a building project falling apart or having a degree of difficulty too high for the child gives her an opportunity to talk about and work through those feelings. It’s normal to feel frustrated. Try taking a break. Or try taking a few deep breaths. Or try talking about how it’s okay to find a task difficult, maybe even too difficult. The more we practice, the better we’ll get.
Building is all about the pieces. Oh, my, the pieces. All those countless tiny blocks and connector parts are great for building, but not so great for picking up. But it is a good way for you and your child to approach a somewhat overwhelming task. Together, little by little, you'll make progress until everything is put away. And you can use all the time it takes, (trust me, it's going to take plenty), as an opportunity to talk with your kids about taking care of our possessions.
After a LEGO session, my kids don't want to take their creations apart. They want to keep them as is. Forever. “But how can we build anything new if we keep the blocks like this?” I always ask. I try to talk them into dismantling, but if it’s too difficult, I let them hang onto their work for a day or two. By then, they’re usually ready to let go. It’s natural for us to want to hold on to things and objects, especially those that we helped create. But learning to be flexible and allowing things to come to an end is a helpful tool that can make life down the road much easier.
…And beginning again
One of the most beautiful things about tearing down a recently built structure is for the child to look at all of her raw materials sprawled out on the floor and recognize them not as a mess but as a chance to build something else. Something new. Something that hasn’t ever been built. There is always possibility. Each time we build we can convince ourselves we're working on our most perfect creation. Until the next one.
New beginnings, even when it simply relates to some plastic or wooden blocks, exist all around us. I think that's an important fact for us all to remember, no matter what age.
*Please note: not all building toys are appropriate for all ages. Choking is a particular risk for kids under four years old because they tend to put objects in their mouths. When buying building toys for your child, make sure she's within the recommended user age, which should be clearly printed on the box. If you're unsure what the recommended age for a toy is, try using a small-parts tester, or choke tube, to see if the set has parts that are too small. They're made to be about the same diameter as a child's windpipe so if a piece fits in the tube it could fit in their throat and could be unsafe.