LEGO and Blocks: Building Opportunities for Open-Ended Play

Classic construction toys have the potential to promote creativity and innovation. Here's how.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
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Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
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Give a kid a box of basic LEGO bricks and you are likely to see him play attentively for hours. LEGO and other simple blocks and construction toys facilitate kid-directed recreation — the opportunity to play without structure, to build and take apart as necessary. For a kid furnished with a big box of blocks or basic bricks there are no directions, no mistakes and no external goals. While she may want to construct a house or castle, the goal is simply in her mind and may change over the course of play.

Playing with blocks, LEGO and other construction toys is a very natural activity for toddlers and kids. Construction toys have been a staple of children’s play for centuries. Simple toys such as wooden blocks tend to elicit less goal-directed play, do not come with a set of instructions and are often considered to be a means to promote open-ended play. However, a downside to only playing with very simple toys is that kids’ imagination and play are limited by their own experiences.

Construction toys have been a staple of children’s play for centuries.

When the blocks are a bit more sophisticated, as LEGO are, a broader range of things can be built. Adding wheels, mini-figures and specialized pieces and shapes allow kids to construct a variety of objects and environments. These additions can shape kids’ play; they might be encouraged to build a car because they have wheels, or an entire town because they have people to populate it. Without a set of specific directions, kids are still engaged in a form of open-ended play in which the specific outcome is not imposed on them and, instead, they dictate their own pace and process.

Taking themed sets beyond the box

Let’s take this idea a bit further with LEGO play. If your kids like LEGO, you undoubtedly know about things such as “The Lego Movie,” video games like “Lego Star Wars,” and the seemingly endless variety of themed LEGO sets based on “Minecraft,” “Batman” or the “Lord of the Rings.” When kids are playing with these themed sets they have an extensive set of directions, which requires a variety of organizational, planning and metacognitive skills.

However, there is also a clearly set external goal as well as the likelihood of performance evaluation based upon how effectively a kid is able to construct a model. This type of structured play may undermine creativity and self-direction. Nevertheless, after a model is completed, children’s play can become highly imaginative and exploratory. They may make up stories about what they’ve built, engage with other action figures in their play, or combine one themed set with another to create a brand-new scenario.

After a model is completed, children’s play can become highly imaginative and exploratory.

Interestingly, the LEGO Learning Institute has documented the ways that LEGO aid “systematic creativity.” The institute describes systematic creativity as a “particular form of creativity that combines logic and reasoning with playfulness and imagination.” Systematic creativity plays a major role in art, science, engineering and design. The LEGO Learning Institute identifies three ways of being creative: combining existing ideas, exploring and expanding by developing new ideas, and transforming the way one understands the world.

Creativity through open-ended play

In a similar fashion, open-ended play using a variety of open-ended toys can lead to creativity and innovation. A great opportunity for open-ended play occurs with LEGO and other sets of construction toys when models are taken apart and combined with other themed sets. This can engage kids in the type of systematic creative play that combines elements of one thing with another to construct something completely new. Kids may need to be flexible in their thinking to try innovative ways to use the materials at hand to make their own unique creations.

A child’s imagination and creativity are not truly limited when her LEGO or other building blocks lend themselves to a particular theme or construction. In the real world, any type of play activity is likely to be limited by one’s environment and the materials available for play. While some scholars cling to an idealized construct of free, unstructured play wherein the child is given only a blank canvas (or an old refrigerator box) as a play object, more often than not, children’s open-ended play is about playing for the sake of playing.

A child’s imagination and creativity are not truly limited when her LEGO or other building blocks lend themselves to a particular theme or construction.

Certainly an old refrigerator box can be made into a fort, a car or a sled, but the spontaneity and captivation of play come from within the child. Rather than viewing the goals that accompany some LEGO blocks or other 21st-century toys as impediments to free and unstructured play, perhaps it is better to think about them as opportunities to use a child’s imagination with the materials he has on hand to create his own type of play.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids

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