Thursday, May 28, 2015

How to Teach Kids Empathy With LEGO

The subject of teaching children empathy is popular among parents today, and for good reason.

A recent study showed that responsiveness (or lack thereof) to others’ distress as early as age 2-3 is a strong predictor of later social success or anti-social behavior. In fact, a lack of empathy predicted later behavioral problems better than the presence of defiance or inattentiveness at an early age. A similar study demonstrated that that “Callous-Unemotional” behavior at 3 predicted behavioral problems in the first grade, at age 6.

A co-author of the latter study, Luke Hyde, says that empathy can, in fact, be nurtured. However, just as early callousness establishes a likelihood of later problems, empathy-enhancing activities have the most chance of success early on. 

It’s easy to see why teaching empathy has become a hot topic. Society is built upon social interaction. Even the most brilliant ideas need a polished communicator in order to reach the mainstream. The integral nature of these skills is reflected in our early development of empathic understanding. By the age of 3, most children show signs of recognition of emotion in others. This ability to perceive and respond to others’ emotions will greatly impact their success in life. This post discusses how to cultivate that capacity.

In order to best approach teaching empathy, we must have a clear picture of what it is. Brene Brown’s excellent RSA Animated Short video The Power of Empathy defines empathy using Theresa Wiseman’s four qualities of empathy:
  • Perspective taking
  • Staying out of judgment
  • Recognizing emotion in others
  • Communicating that recognition
In short, empathy is feeling WITH people.

So how can we foster this feeling-with behavior and thinking? It’s important to understand the powerful correlation between communication abilities and empathy. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that reading literary fiction correlates with increased empathy. These studies have shown that those who read such fiction experience a markedly increased ability to understand the thoughts and emotions of others. Such abstract precursors to advanced empathic abilities don’t translate well to children, who are building foundations for those later growth experiences. We have to look toward an approach that occurs within a social exploratory setting. This holds with a naturalistic approach to learning, where the learning environment matches the learner’s current cognitive stage.

The foundational relationship between communication and empathy starts much sooner than you might think. Infant pointing, possibly the very first expression of communication, has been shown to be an act in seeking shared experience. One study concluded that infants would desist pointing behaviors with any adults who did not do all of these: notice the pointing, look at the thing being pointed at, and demonstrate appreciation or understanding. If the adults did do those things, the infant would show signs of delight and continue attempting to communicate with that adult. So our very first purposeful attempts at communication are driven largely by a desire for empathic experience—to understand or be understood.

Any attempt at teaching kids empathy should bear in mind this important relationship between language and social connectedness. Increasing linguistic and communication abilities will invariably increase empathic behavior.

Empathy games, particularly listening games, are a classic activity for fostering these skills. Below we introduce an easy-to-set-up LEGO listening game, followed by some further reading and tools for teaching empathy.

The LEGO Listening Game

Image from the Stories & Children blog
Download these instructions in PDF form here.

  • LEGO or DUPLO blocks
  • 2 LEGO or DUPLO building plates
  • A divider so players can’t see each other’s boards
How to play
  1. Set up the players across from each other, with the divider in between
  2. Give each player a set of identical blocks
  3. Choose who will be instructor for the first game
    • This player’s job is to place their blocks any way they wish, giving detailed instructions on what they’re doing at every step
  4. Once all blocks are placed, remove the divider and compare the blocks
  5. Switch roles for a second round
Increase the difficulty of the game for advanced learners by adding more blocks and other pieces of different sizes, colors, and shapes.


There are, of course, many other activities that help foster empathy. This Happy Healthy Kids blog post on teaching empathy mentions four parenting habits to introduce for this purpose:
  • Model empathic behaviors: talk about and show how you’re feeling, and inquire/communicate about what others are feeling.
  • Counter negativity with positivity: when you hear your child expressing negative observations about another, offer them understanding thoughts about that person or point out that person’s good qualities.
  • Tell stories of kindness: Cultural anthropologists have shown the integral role of storytelling in the formation of healthy people and societies. Stories of good deeds will often do more than abstract reminders.
  • Do something selfless together: Volunteer, or help out a friend or family member in need. Show excitement about it. Then do something just for fun afterward, like going to the park or playing a game.
These pointers originally come from the Parent Management Training Institute. Parent Management Training is one of the most proven treatments for disruptive and anti-social behavior in children. We recommend that ANY parent read up on the techniques, as they are widely applicable to fostering healthy social skills in any child.

Further Reading & Tools
Parent Management Training
Video: Brene Brown on Empathy
The Empathy Toy
Teaching Kids Empathy

Enjoy our blog post? Shop our store for baseplates and get started with this awesome listening game!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Social Skills Activities for Children: LEGO Clubs


Image from
We at BRICK Marketplace have been exploring ideas for social skills activities for children and recently learned about LEGO Therapy. We have been fascinated and compelled by what we’ve read, and believe it provides a model for improving the social skills of ANY child and should not be seen strictly as therapy. This post explores modern theories about learning and social development, how LEGO Therapy fits these models, and how you can implement it to improve a child’s social skills. These methods are widely applicable in helping any child learn positive ways to interact, despite being first proposed for socializing children with autistic spectrum disorders or sensory impairments.

Development of social skills is of paramount importance for the intellectual development of all children. In fact, many see it as a precursor and fundamental component of proper cognitive development. Lev Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory puts forth several important ideas that support the efficacy of LEGO Therapy for any child.

First, he poses that social interaction precedes and creates space for the internalization of new concepts. Children interact with their environment and the people within it to learn. Second, he puts forth the importance of a More Knowledgeable Other and the importance of a child’s trust in the MKOs in his or her life. Within LEGO Therapy, these are the adults guiding the activities. We’ll delve into that role more below.

Finally, he proposes a concept called the Zone of Proximal Development. This is the ideal space between guided and independent problem solving, which is optimal for learning. LEGO Therapy puts participants squarely in this zone, with a model much like that of a Montessori school. Children solve problems together, in their own fashion and time, with adults available for guidance and answering specific questions but not solving problems on behalf of the children.

LEGO Therapy adheres to a naturalist educational philosophy, which seeks to engage a child’s innate need to interact and experience in order to learn. The practice differs from normal play in the providing of structure and guidance when interpersonal issues arise. It allows children to engage in a task together, completely without adult input. Input only comes when conflict arises. Thus, it builds upon the way children learn about the world naturally: through their own actions and interactions and the responses that arise from them.

Now that we have a framework for understanding the importance of social skills for cognitive development, let’s look at the specific skills we’re trying to foster. Social skills constitute an ability to understand and collaborate with others as much as they do to being understood. To communicate effectively and work with others, we and our children need to understand:
  • How to listen and watch attentively
  • When to lead and when to follow
  • How to motivate action from others using encouragement
Always keep in mind that there is more to socialization than positive interaction and play. Social grace also involves give and take, the ability to understand and be understood, and the ability to take the lead or step back when needed.

How it works

Follow these steps to set up your own LEGO group or club. An ideal number for a starting group is 4, though it can grow as time goes on. This growth can be good for challenging established group dynamics and allowing children to adapt to and integrate new members.

Download the PDF version of these instructions here.
  1. Create intro to concept for kids, with clearly defined set of club rules. Here's a sample rule set:
    • Respect the creations of others
    • Share the LEGO bricks
    • Build on a theme, or build your own creation
    • Building ends 10-15 minutes before the session does to allow cleanup and wrap-up time
    • Clean up when you are done
    • Leave the LEGO bricks when the session is over
    • Have fun!
  2. Introduce the concept and rules to children in individual sessions, where you should also work on a simple collaborative build with the child.
  3. Children are then introduced to the group; ideally, the group should include members without social skills deficits.
  4. Groups meet regularly (weekly is ideal) for about 90 minutes; during this time they undertake a collaborative LEGO building project (and sometimes other collaborative tasks), suited to participants’ skill levels.
  5. Roles and tasks are assigned anew during each session, with different responsibilities going to different members; typical roles include: Director, Engineer, Supplier, and Builder. Feel free to expand on these.
    • Director: Ensures that the team is working together and communicating
    • Engineer: Oversees design and ensures instructions are followed
    • Supplier: Keeps track of type and color of bricks needed, and gives to the builder
    • Builder: Puts the bricks together based on input from the Engineer
  6. The team now undertakes the build, with the following guidelines:
    • Emphasis is on both verbal and non-verbal communication
    • Everyone’s attention should be aligned
    • Any problems require input from the whole group
    • Sharing is encouraged
    • Switching roles mid-project is fine and helps foster flexibility and adaptability
  7. When conflicts arise, adults should instruct participants on social conventions that might help them reach resolution. They can redirect the children involved toward using calm language, negotiation, and compromise to resolve the issue. In fact, guidance on social conventions and thinking modes for staying on the right side of them is encouraged throughout the process. They should never receive help in building, however.
Multiple medical and educational studies in both the US and UK found that facilitated group LEGO building projects can help develop and reinforce play and social skills including:
  • Collaborative problem solving
  • Turn-taking and sharing
  • Verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Task focus and joint attention
Interested in LEGO Therapy for socializing your children? Start a group and let us know how it goes and if you have any suggestions for other parents or teachers trying out this model.

Shop our store for LEGO sets to use with this activity.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

How to Teach a Child to Read with LEGO

Pre-K/Kindergarten & Early Elementary Activities for:
Reading Comprehension, Spelling & Basic Sentence Structure

Photo by,
an arts and crafts blog for kids
Many within the LEGO community are familiar with activities you can do with LEGO to teach & learn Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math -related concepts. The brick-based toys we’re so fond of naturally lend themselves to teaching STEM-oriented thinking. But there are LEGO activities that can be used in a number of areas to help create an authentic learning experience and foster critical reasoning skills. You can use these various LEGO activities either as classroom learning activity or at home to go beyond the generic, rote-learning methods used within many classrooms.

One such example is a set of ideas for how to teach a child the fundamentals of reading with LEGO. In this blog post, we present several preschool and early elementary LEGO activities for teaching language usage and reading comprehension. When considering how to teach kids to read, it’s important to understand their current cognitive development stage and learning style.

The objective of these activities is to help children develop from the Preoperational Stage (ages 2-7), as described by Jean Piaget in his Stages of Cognitive Development model, toward the Stage of Concrete Operations (ages 7-11). During the transition between the two, children develop the ability to think logically by manipulating the environment and recognizing patterns.

Activities like those in this post help with the two most important of Piaget’s four proposed processes by which we learn: “accommodation” and “assimilation” (the other two being “disequilibrium” and “equilibration”). The former two describe modes of interacting with one’s environment and constitute adaptation. Piaget believed adaptation to be the most important aspect of human cognitive functioning. Whether you’re wondering how to teach reading comprehension or any other cognitive capacity, attempting to understand a child’s current learning modes and thinking processes with Piaget’s model and/or others can be a boon to your success and the child’s.

While these activities will work for a vast majority of children, it’s important to keep in mind what sort of learner these activities are most ideal for. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences model provides a framework for understanding various learning modes. While these modes describe a preferred learning style, it is also true that individuals may utilize different styles at different points in their lives. Some styles are also more common at some ages than others. LEGO can provide a bridge for students to take the content they’ve learned and apply it through an explorative process. This enhances their learning by meeting them where they are psychologically and developmentally, providing an opportunity to develop stages of mental faculties sooner and with greater ease.

This post’s activities are particularly well-suited to children whose intelligence(s) within Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences model are visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, and/or logical-mathematical:
  • Visual-spatial: these children think in terms of physical space, are aware of their surroundings, and often enjoy drawing, reading, and writing
  • Bodily-kinesthetic: these children may be good at dancing or sports, are adept at creating things with their hands, and tend to retain information better when learning by doing rather than by hearing or seeing
  • Logical-mathematical: these children are excellent problem solvers who enjoy abstract ideas and experimenting with their world; putting language into a concrete model that speaks to their need for order will be of great help when teaching language and reading skills
While all these children will benefit greatly from this learning approach, it’s important to keep in mind that all children should be challenged to exercise and develop multiple intelligences. While teaching should be optimized with a consideration of their unique learning needs, being forced to break the mold and think in new ways should still be a regular experience. These techniques can be of benefit to most children by providing more vantages and approaches by which to comprehend material.

To do these activities, you’ll just need LEGO or DUPLO bricks and a fine-tipped permanent marker and optional sticker labels for writing on the bricks.

Preschool (DUPLO)

Image by Frugal Fun 4 Boys
  • Teaching the alphabet & capitalization
    1. Write upper and lower case versions of each letter on the side of the bricks.
    2. Have children match upper and lower case versions, then place in alphabetical order.
  • Teaching color names
    1. Write the names of any colors of DUPLO bricks you own on the side of a brick; it’s best to pick the same color of brick for the colors’ names.
    2. Have children match the words with their color by stacking them.
  • Teaching number spelling
    1. Write out  the words for numbers 1-20 (or more!), one number per brick on the side of a brick.
    2. Draw groups of dots on bricks, 1 to match each number on the brick created in the previous step.
    3. Have children match the numbers with the brick that has that number of dots.

Early Elementary School (LEGO or DUPLO)

Image by This Reading Mama
  • Teaching word families
    1. Grab 18 8-stud standard or DUPLO bricks & choose 3-4 word families
    2. Write each word from each word family onto the side of a brick
    3. Lay out in a pile and have children match and stack words into their families
  • Teaching spelling with word families
    1. Write each letter of the alphabet sideways, 1 per 4-stud brick, so when stacked they can create words; if you write letters on each side of the bricks, they can function like spinny spellers.
    2. Write simple endings of word families on stacked 4-stud bricks (e.g. “og”, “ed”, “op”, “at”).
    3. Have children build as many real words as they can think of with the bricks.
  • Teaching sentence structure
    1. Grab at least 50 bricks, preferably more.
    2. Write various nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives on the blocks; you can write the same or different words on either side.
    3. Have children create grammatically correct sentences by stacking the blocks.
    4. For more advanced learning fun, place stacked sentences side by side to create a “story wall”.

As you go through these activities, you may begin to think of ways to expand on them as you transition into next steps for developing language skills and reading comprehension.

Can you think of any ways to tweak or expand on these or know of some other cool activities for teaching these skills? Let us know in the comments below or on social media! We’d love to hear and share your ideas.

Shop our LEGO DUPLO section today and stock up for this fantastic early reading activity.