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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang
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How Lego Therapy Can Help Children With Special Needs

One of my family’s most successful activities this past summer was a kid swap: I sent my younger son to play at a friend’s home, while the friend’s older brother came to play with my older son at our home.  Both of the older brothers have special needs, but it was easy to supervise them, because they share a common interest: building with Legos.  Within an hour, we had one finished castle and two smiling boys in the living room.

Both formal and informal Lego groups have been popping up all over the world – in fact, Lego therapy is now considered a successful type of play therapy.  Several educational and medical studies in the UK and the USA found that facilitated group projects with Legos can help develop and reinforce play skills and social skills such as:

  • Verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Joint attention
  • Task focus
  • Sharing and turn-taking
  • Collaborative problem-solving

How Lego Therapy Works

Building with Lego bricks is a multi-sensory, open-ended experience, so the building projects can be tailored to any person’s unique needs, such as blindness, deafness, mobility impairment, autism or ADHD.  But the format for most Lego therapy programs is the same.

1. Set the ground rules

Participants suggest and agree upon simple rules that everyone understands.  The group agrees upon a project that is not too easy and not too difficult.  The rules are posted as a reminder.

2. Assigned roles

Each participant is assigned a role, and roles are rotated through the group during the task:

  • Engineer – oversees the design and makes sure it is followed
  • Builder – puts the bricks together
  • Supplier – keeps track of the type and color of bricks that are needed and gives the bricks to the builder
  • Director – makes sure that the team is working together and communicating

3. Stick to principles of play therapy

Lego therapy has a greater long-term benefit when it incorporates the fundamentals of play therapy:

  • Creating a dedicated time and space for the activity
  • Using non-verbal communication as much as possible
  • Using declarative language instead of commands or questions
  • Joining and challenging at each step of the activity
  • Encouraging collaboration and pretending

If that seems too ambitious, start with just one or two elements of play therapy and gradually expand the repetoire.  The great thing about Legos is that you can start from scratch at any time.  you can follow an instruction booklet, you can improvise the whole project, or you can do a little of both.  At our home, we usually start by building a project exactly as it is shown in the booklet, then we customize it and mix it with other kits – going wherever inspiration leads us.

4. Role of adult facilitators

Emotions can run high during a Lego project.  There’s usually one person who insists on doing things in the “right” way, and another person who loves to try things several different ways just to see how each one looks.  An adult facilitator can support positive interactions, suggest compromises, provide prompts as necessary and keep the group on task.

5. Get more ideas

Lego offers free apps that allow virtual building.

  • Bricks & More is an app for the iPhone, iPad and Android, approrpiate for ages 4 and up.
  • Lego Digital Designer is an app for PC or Mac for ages 5 and up, and users can share their creations (with building instructions) on the Lego website.  It’s a great introduction to computer-aided design.
  • Master Builder Academy (MBA) is an online training program for advanced builders – sign up for a free trial here.

Lego therapy got started because therapists noticed that children and adults naturally gravitated toward Legos in a room full of toys.  It’s a fun way to build upon existing interests and emerging skills – and the possibilities are endless!

Lego Collage

Top Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Karen Wang

Written on October 14, 2013 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
  • smita

    I can vouch for Lego therapy as my son who is now a young man grew up with Lego and we used it with him – not as a formal therapy but playing with him and implementing the ideas from his speech and language therapy. He is now running a business with myself called e2 Young Engineers. Basically, we are working with all children (mainstream and SEN) building motorised Lego models. The programme is more structured however we have been running very successfully classes and workshops where children with needs including autism have interacted with everyone, played, talked, team worked and role played. message me if you want more information

    • Rita Olufunmilayo

      good morning smita. my name is Rita and I also work with e2 Young engineers here in Lagos state, Nigeria. we are planning to start a program for children with needs specially autism. I will really love it if you could share your idea with us on how to go about it. This is my mail address [email protected] really looking forward to get a reply from you. thanks

  • Al Pfadt PhD

    I wrote an article over 20 years ago that described types of psychotherapy in terms of the types of materials used, the structure imposed by the therapist, and the objectives to be achieved. By that definition, Lego therapy is a form of psychotherapy and should be studied as such.
    I don’t have the article in electronic format but could mail a hard copy to you and to anyone else interested in this topic.

    • Sue

      Hello. I am a speech and language therapist and currently use Lego therapy as part of the social skills group for children with Autism.
      I would really appreciate reading any related material you have.

      many thanks
      Sue

      • Karen Wang

        The Pub Med links in the second paragraph of this article will direct you to some of the recent research on Lego therapy.

        The ASD Aid website also has information about Lego therapy: http://asdaid.org/lego-and-asd/lego-therapy

        • Sue

          Thank you Karen.

          Much obliged.
          Sue

      • Al Pfadt PhD

        Hi Sue
        I don’t have electronic copies of the articles but would be glad to send you hard copies if you give me a mailing address.

    • PES School Counselor

      I would love to read your article. Could you please send it to Gail, Plainfield School, 92 Bonner Rd. Meriden NH 03770? Thank you!

    • Pablo Cheyre

      Hi! I would love to read your article. I work in psychotherapy with kids and I´m very interested in the topic. Please let´s contact by email at [email protected].
      Thank you so much!!

    • sam

      Hi, i would love to read your article,as I am doing some training in therapeutic lego.

  • Barbara Dewar

    I have always used Lego as a special needs teacher as a way of interacting and developing a huge range of skills. Don’t ignore the youngest children either, Duplo the babies Lego can be a wonderful way to encourage early play. I have a big sack of pieces which includes animals that provides endless opportunities, and can be used by older children too.

  • Yes! Both my kids have different needs and LEGO are such a strength for both. I’ve been in contact with local LEGO groups to find one for my son (my schedule would not allow me to moderate our own) and I’ve looked into LEGO-specific therapy groups. Fab post!

  • anne

    why does something so typical as legos have to be turned into therapy? It is called play…and everyone can do it and you don’t need a label. Let’s just see the value in “play”.

    • Karen Wang

      Not all children learn in the same way. Some children need extra support in their play to learn the skills that other children develop intuitively.

  • Jenn_Choi

    I love this post, will be sharing!

  • elizabeth

    My son Ryan responds very well to LEGO’s. I am so Proud of him!!!!

  • Twana

    I will introduce LEGOS play to my 12 year son. Thanks for a few guide lines.

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  • Karen – Thanks for posting this. For anyone interested in LEGO Therapy, please check out legotherapy.com. I have been trying to establish a forum page for discussions there. You can also find links to several international resources and publications on the topic. Anne – I think you’ll see that there is a big difference between merely placing a bunch of LEGO and children in a room together for fun (which certainly IS a great way to play!) and the structured and researched methods used by those of us practicing the actual therapeutic version. Dr. Pfadt – Check out our peer reviewed, published studies.

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