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How LEGO Therapy Uses ‘Play Time’ to Develop Your Child’s Social Skills

lego therapy

Takeaway: LEGO therapy is a fun, multisensory type of group play therapy that can help your child develop her social (and other) skills. Sessions happen at regular intervals (ideally every week), a facilitator guides the group through a semi-structured LEGO play session, and the children take turns trying out different roles. These roles and the club rules help your child expand her type of play and teaches her important skills that carry over into her everyday life. 

Playing is serious business for children. It’s what helps them learn about the world around them and sets them up for the future.

Of course, they’re having fun roleplaying ‘families’ or being their favourite superheroes. But by taking on different roles and characters, they’re slowly learning to recognise and prioritise other people’s feelings — a precursor to empathy. Then, by playing organised games, they learn to follow rules, work as a team, take turns, and strive for a common goal. Not to mention the physical exercise they get in the process. All these things matter to the concerned parent looking to nurture a well-adapted child.

So what happens when some children play a little differently?

Some children with special needs don’t play like their friends. Children with an autism spectrum disorder, for example, prefer fixed patterns and routines, so might play by constantly reciting lines from their favourite shows or pushing a car along a fixed route over and over again. And they might get anxious and stressed if you were to try and get them to play ‘like everybody else.’ But sticking to a fixed, solo play routine can be a problem. They don’t get to explore and expand their interests — which is one of the long-term functions of play. And they don’t get to learn how to socialise — which will later help them make friends and be part of a community.

‘Play therapy’ is a useful way of helping children expand their playing style.

It was developed to help children cope with difficult life situations (e.g., anxiety, trauma, or mental illness). Even if they weren’t able to talk about their feelings, they would act out a lot of their inner emotions while playing. And a skilled therapist would be able to read these signals and dig deeper. Nowadays, play therapy is used to help children with all sorts of things — like improving their mobility, developing social skills, and training their attention. Rather than overhauling a child’s regular play routine, a play therapist would subtly modify it. For example, if your child keeps using the same route for her toy car, the therapist might put a wooden block in the way. Now your child has to interact with her to keep playing, which expands her playing style.

LEGO therapy is a fun type of multisensory play therapy that can help your child develop her social (and other) skills.

It was developed by American psychologist Daniel Goff in 2004 when he noticed two children with autism actually interacting with each other while playing with LEGO. Goff soon realised that LEGO helps develops a range of useful skills:

  • Fine motor skills: Since she’ll need to move the bricks around, your child’s hand strength and dexterity improve.
  • Spatial reasoning: She’ll get practise imagining the finished model and using the bricks to make it a reality.
  • Concentration span: She’ll start with simple, quick models, but work her way up to complex ones that take increasingly longer stretches to complete.
  • Social skills: With LEGO therapy, she’ll be building the models with other children, so she’ll learn to take turns, share, and solve problems as a team.

Nowadays, specialists use LEGO therapy to help any child who has problems communicating or interacting socially.

It was developed, and primarily used, for children with an autism spectrum disorder, but it can be tailored to fit the special needs of any child. The beautiful thing about it is that LEGO therapy lessons cross over perfectly into your child’s regular life.

So, how does it work? Well, it begins with a club, regular sessions, and a bit of role-playing.

LEGO clubs (a ‘club’ is more fun than ‘therapy,’ after all) are about more than just playing with LEGO bricks. There’s a structure and purpose to the play, and it’s carefully supervised by a trained specialist.

1. Sessions happen once a week, for about an hour, in the same room.

It doesn’t always work out like this, though, and it’ll depend on what’s convenient for you and the group. Having weekly sessions makes the learning smoother and keeping it in the same room is reassuring for your child — especially if she likes consistency and predictability. Sessions could start at 30 minutes but gradually lengthen to an hour, if everyone is okay with it.

2. Each session begins and ends with a setting-up and packing-away routine.

The first 10 minutes are for setting things up — your child will be encouraged to greet the others, and the facilitator will go over the club rules. The last 10 minutes are for putting things away and reflecting on what went well during the session. This helps point out good behaviour vs not-so-good behaviour, which is a huge part of learning to socialise well.

3. The children build LEGO models, taking turns playing the following roles.

These roles help add structure to the play.

  1. The Engineer coordinates the whole process. She looks at the instructions for the model they’re building, asks the Supplier for bricks, and tells the Builder how to put them together.
  2. The Supplier controls the bricks and gives them to the Engineer when asked.
  3. The Builder does the actual building — receiving bricks from the Supplier and putting them together based on the Engineer’s

4. The playing can be as elaborate or simple as the children want it to be.

If they want to, they can add a bit of storytelling and drama to the session. For example, rather than build just any old model, they can build one from a story they’ve heard. And while the building is happening, they can act out mini-dramas and adventures.

5. The children follow a set of carefully-crafted rules.

The rules may change, depending on what works for the group. But these are some of the essentials:

  1. Only one person speaks at a time
  2. Use a calm voice and kind/polite words
  3. Listen when others are talking
  4. Keep your hands and feet to yourself
  5. No putting the Lego bricks in your mouth
  6. Tidy up afterwards

6. An adult facilitator helps the group throughout the session.

The facilitator could be a speech and language therapist, an occupational therapist, or an educational psychologist. She’ll need to

  1. Keep reminding the children about the club rules (e.g., when Sarah puts a brick in her mouth or pushes Harry).
  2. End the sessions with reflective questions.g., “Were any rules broken today?” or “Sarah, how did you greet Harry?”
  3. Get the children to speak, when possible. For example, asking probing questions like “What colour is that brick?” Or, “Which is the biggest brick?”
  4. Encourage problem-solving by describing issues as they arise and prompting solutions. E.g., “Harry is feeling bad because Sarah pushed him. What can we do to make things better?”
  5. Encourage good behaviour. A huge part of LEGO therapy is about teaching children to get along. So, the facilitator can praise good behaviour, give a thumbs up, a high five, etc., depending on what works best with each child.

LEGO therapy seems like such a simple idea, but it works!

The rules encourage discipline, the groups and facilitators encourage healthy social interactions, and the LEGOs are just plain fun. Also, these lessons translate well into the world outside the club. For example, if your child interrupts her brother, you can remind her about the ‘LEGO club rule about listening to others.’ And best of all, kids all over the world love LEGO, so it’s a common interest your child can use to make friends!

Do you think your child might benefit from LEGO therapy? We’d be happy to help.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

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