Building with Legos

My Kids Unlocked the Magic of LEGOs by Ditching the Instruction Manual

When I was pregnant with our first daughter, my husband rubbed my belly and whispered, “I can’t wait for the time of playing with LEGOs with you.”

While my children’s love for LEGO seems to be hereditary, they have since made it a passion that is all their own. These days, when we are all cooped up inside, playing with LEGOs has become the center of their play universe. Everything begins and ends with what they can build, brick by brick.

My girls are only 3 and 5, yet some of their creations are far beyond what even I had imagined they would be able to create. These days, the two of them can sit quietly next to their bright yellow LEGO bin and build for an hour or two at a time. If you have ever encountered a 3- and 5-year-old, you know that is a major accomplishment.

It wasn’t always this way, though. Getting my kids to focus and play independently with LEGOs took a little bit of work, both on my part and theirs.

First, we had to get rid of prescriptive life.

Playing with Legos 3

Like most kids, my children live prescheduled lives (at least they did in “the time before”). At school, someone tells them when to play outside and when to sit in circle time. Someone tells them what to eat for their lunch and how they should share with other children they have just met at the park. Then someone tells them when it’s time for creative play and when they need to get in the car for their skating lessons.

This highly structured existence has led to them not knowing how to make their own choices. Even at 3 and 5, they have the ability to figure out what they want to do, but they don’t have many opportunities to exercise it.

When COVID-19 reared its ugly head, however, everything changed. My kids’ carefully organized lives were bound between the four walls of our house, with two very stressed-out parents who somehow had to manage entertaining their children while working full time from home.

Thankfully, LEGO provided something we all needed: a creative outlet for our children—and time for the parents.

Everything begins with confidence.

When we first sat down to explore the new bin of LEGOs with our children, they immediately ventured to the instruction booklet. “Read how we make the things, Mama! What do we do first?” They knew that if they followed the instructions, they could transform their pile of colorful bricks into the image on the box. They had seen their father do this for them many times.

And while creating the LEGO theme the set is designed for can be rewarding, it can also limit children’s imaginations and desire for creative play. As a result, we have been opting for the classic LEGO sets that allow for multiple builds rather than the themes that are specific scenes or brands.

The most difficult part about playing with LEGOs in this way was persuading our children that they had the freedom to make anything they wanted. “But the box has a picture of a campsite! That means I have to make a campsite!” Our 5-year-old didn’t know how to proceed.

So, I randomly took bricks and piled them on a small plate piece to show her that the campsite could transform into a house, or a car, or a plane, or whatever she wanted to call what I was making. “Oh,” she noted, “I can do that, too. I’ll make a rocket ship.”

And then she was off.

Think abstract art, not realism.

Playing with Legos 2

After my 3-year-old saw what her sister was coming up with, she didn’t want to be left behind. She has become a far more prolific creator than anyone in our family, crafting multiple structures a day and setting them neatly in a row next to my laptop while I work at the kitchen table. “This is an ostrich that’s hungry for noodle soup. See my school with no virus and all my friends. This is a helicopter for a moose.” The list is long, and it goes on and on.

Of course, none of those structures look like anything other than a random pile of bricks on a plate.

As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I had the twitching impulse to go sit with her and show her how she could put together a realistic helicopter. But I stopped myself. She did great on her own, creating stories with intricate plot lines and detailed characters who had motives.

Sometimes, helping our children increase their attention spans and spend more time with their toys has nothing to do with them and everything to do with us. I realized my kids didn’t need instructions every step of the way. This was a great way for them to experience loose parts play.

My daughter would learn how to make her helicopter the way she wanted, and I would let her be.

We discovered the basics are everything for playing with LEGOs.

For the most part, my girls will use LEGOs to tell stories and create vehicles and buildings for their Paw Patrol and My Little Pony figurines. However, like any toy, LEGO loses its appeal from time to time. There are days when the kids fight over the bricks or can’t decide what they want to build, asking me every 30 seconds for new ideas. That’s when I remind them of the basics.

For my 3-year-old, sorting LEGOs is something she can do independently for a long time. I think her current record is 90 minutes. First, she begins by sorting the bricks into piles of the same color. Then she sorts those color piles by size, from biggest to smallest. She is incredibly proud of her work.

My 5-year-old often joins in the sorting too, but she loves building high towers out of the two-by-four bricks. These simple activities are a great way for the kids to focus on play without really thinking. These are basics they have done hundreds of times before. What usually ends up happening is that they think of new ideas while their little fingers are working. These basics act, like a reset button, giving them the ability to recharge their creativity.

Now we have a new normal filled with creativity.

Playing with Legos 5

These days, the sound of little hands rummaging through the LEGO bin echoes throughout our house. When we get back to our usually hectic lives, we’ll be sure to make time for more exploration with LEGOs.

LEGO has helped my children cope with an abrupt change in their lives—and it has given them an outlet to make whatever their immensely creative minds come up with. Through playing with LEGOs, our girls have taken control of their decision-making abilities and learned to figure out what they want to do. Not only that, LEGO has given my husband and me hours and hours of quiet time to work.

By being less prescriptive and removing any sense of limits with what they are able to build, we have all gotten what we so desperately needed.