Occupational therapists have a fun, difficult, and rewarding job. Their goal is to help people with specific physical, emotional, social or developmental needs participate in a full range of activities regardless of disability or other perceived barriers. In short, they provide specialized assistance to people of all ages who want to lead independent and fulfilling lives. Using elements of physical therapy, speech-language therapy, art therapy and more, occupational therapists create an environment that mimics the activities required in daily life – albeit sometimes in fun, creative ways.
This is where LEGO toys come in. Not only do the blocks provide a much-needed break from the hard work of an occupational therapy routine for early learners and school-aged children; they also build important rehabilitative and occupational skills! Below are just a few of the abilities that occupational therapists are able to facilitate in their clients by incorporating LEGO into their work:
- Fine Motor Manipulation: Fine motor skills help students make small, detailed movements – usually with their hands – while also engaging in hand-eye coordination. LEGO projects require fine motor skills in spades, as students pick up and manipulate each block to put it in its proper place.
- In-Hand Manipulation: In-hand manipulation skills allow people to move or manipulate an object within one hand, like spinning a pencil into writing position. As students pick up and orient LEGO blocks in a way that best fits their project, they develop more dexterous in-hand manipulation skills.
- Bilateral Coordination: In contrast to in-hand manipulation, bilateral coordination is the ability to use both sides of the body at the same time to accomplish a task. So when students use one hand to steady their LEGO project and the other to add a new piece to the build, they’re engaging their bilateral coordination skills.
- Motor Planning: Motor planning is the “bigger picture” application of bilateral coordination; essentially, it’s the ability to plan a motor act in sequence from beginning to end. The motor act must be non-habitual and require some skill. LEGO projects require a good deal of motor planning as students engage with the process of completing their structure.
- Following Multi-Step Instructions: Occupational therapists also love LEGO toys because they can be tailored to a range of ages and abilities. At the more fundamental end of the spectrum, the occupational therapist might be the one giving the instructions; for example, “find a red block and a yellow block, and put them together.” On the more advanced end, the student might be following the set of written instructions that accompanies the specific project. Either way, the ability to synthesize and carry out instructions is one of the most significant skills a student can develop.
- Problem-Solving: Sometimes, a student’s LEGO build simply does not look quite like the one in the directions. This is a great time to exercise those observation and problem-solving skills!
- Visual Perception Skills: Whether it’s shape, size or color discrimination, LEGO toys offer a wide array of opportunities for students to exercise their visual perception skills. More advanced students may even choose to create patterns that rely on color or size.
- Math Skills: From multiplication to fractions to basic counting, LEGO is there for you when you need to help students learn math! Check out our blog for additional fun tips on encouraging math skills in students.
- Creativity: Sure, we recommend providing instructions, but sometimes it’s best to just throw the instructions away and let students go wild with their own build. Or, give a basic set of guidelines, such as, “I want you to build me something using just the red and yellow blocks.” The same crucial task completion and follow-through skills will still apply, with the additional bonus of engaging the student’s creativity.
- Visual Ground Skills: Visual ground skills are the ability to focus on one single, important piece of information even in the midst of a busy background. People who can solve “Where’s Waldo” puzzles quickly, for example, have very good visual ground skills. The rest of us activate our visual ground skills whenever we’re looking for our keys or need to find a sock in a pile of laundry. Students can activate their visual ground skills when they search for one particular LEGO block in a large pile.
- Refocus/Relaxing: If a student has sensory issues, they may need frequent breaks. This is true not just in an occupational setting but in a classroom, too. Allowing them to work on a small LEGO project or to keep a few pieces on their desk to arrange as they please is a fun, appropriate way to help the student readjust. This can also help with anxiety issues.