Children’s building blocks: how lego is being used to help children communicate

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‘Brick therapy’ using Lego to stimulate children with additional needs to communicate and collaborate is taking off in Herts. Vicki Whent explores the toy’s serious side

'Brick therapy' has been shown to increase collaboration and communication among children with addit

'Brick therapy' has been shown to increase collaboration and communication among children with additional needs - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It’s hard to find a child that doesn’t enjoy spending hours playing with Lego. And in Hertfordshire the benefits of these iconic plastic bricks reach far beyond simple playtime. Lego is proving to be the toy of choice to help young people with additional needs to develop communication and social skills.

This month the British Schools Museum in Hitchin is featuring a display of Lego creations as part of its Life in Miniature exhibition. They were made by children with autism and ADHD who attend a Lego Club set up to offer the experience of building miniature worlds as a therapeutic tool.

The free Hitchin club, set up by Hitchin mum Nicola Ponikiewski and supported by the Hertfordshire branch of the National Autistic Society, offers children the chance to come and play with a vast array of Lego twice a month. While creating their masterpieces the children develop their ability to play and communicate with others, something which children with autism and ADHD can find very challenging.

The club is the second to open in the county in the last 18 months. St Albans parent Gayeanna Ryan Allcock set the first one up for children on the autistic spectrum in 2014. The Hitchin club started in September and the benefits for the young people that attend, who often prefer solitary play, are already evident.

There are no rules with playing with Lego

There are no rules with playing with Lego - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

‘The children have started to develop social skills and have started to take an interest in each others’ builds,’ explains Nicola. ‘One of our highlights was when a couple of children identified they were building similar things, they decided to combine their creations to make a huge Lego city.’

Nicola started the club because she was struggling to find a social activity her son Jozef, who has autism, enjoyed. Autism, a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people and the world around them, is diagnosed in one per cent of children in the UK. ADHD, a condition characterised by inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity is diagnosed in around three and a half per cent of boys and less than one per cent of girls.

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It was Jozef’s passion for Lego that led Nicola to search for a way of using it to benefit him socially. Online she discovered the St Albans Lego Club and with advice and support from its founder decided to set up her own. The club has proved very popular. It operates a booking system via Facebook and often has a reserve list for those waiting for places to attend.

‘I think it’s popular because there are not many activities or groups which specifically target children with autism.’ Nicola explains. ‘It gives the children a safe, welcoming environment in which to do something they love and to learn new skills.’

The concept of using Lego as ‘brick therapy’ was the brain-child of Dr Dan LeGoff, an American clinical neuropsychologist who has used the toy to help people with autism, social anxiety, nonverbal learning disorders and related difficulties.

Stevenage based speech and language therapist Lydia Ebsworth is not surprised that parents are starting to recognise the value of the little plastic bricks to support children with additional needs.

‘There is a big value in Lego therapy. With Lego there are no rules, so for children with autism or communication difficulties who get so worried about not knowing the rules of the game or what’s expected, the pressure is taken off. Children just innately know what to do with Lego. It is all about playing and fun.’

In her Lego therapy sessions Lydia creates a team, typically of three children, in which each has a role – a builder, a supplier and an engineer. The children are then encouraged to communicate with each other either verbally or non-verbally to construct something with the bricks. Through this activity the children develop their ability to take turns in conversation, respect what someone else is saying, follow a command and get to grips with the conversation.

‘It can be hard work initially for the children because it does require concentration. But they quickly get into role and enjoy themselves with the Lego. To them they are just playing,” Lydia says. ‘I don’t think it would work as well with any other toy, there’s no explanation of what needs to happen when the brick is in your hand.’

A number of research projects have demonstrated the value of ‘brick therapy’ and Lydia says while it has been a buzzword for a while, its popularity is increasing. ‘I expect to see a greater take-up this year. I believe it will be part of therapy for a long time to come.’

The British Schools Museum Life in Miniature exhibition is on until July 3.

Both Hitchin and St Albans Lego Club can be found on Facebook and on Twitter @hitchinlegoclub and @LegoClubSA

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