Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Are Legos Academic?

Occasionally, I'll have a parent mention to me that their son is so advanced with Legos, putting things together that are super hard and advanced in age.  Others mention that their six year old daughter reads at a graduate school level, how smart she is.

They know I'm the one person on the planet who's actually interested in what they have to say and would enjoy a conversation on that topic.

What they are really saying, besides "my child is so smart and gifted", which is true, is "what is the standard for cognitive ability and are we meeting it as a parent/child team?"  That was one of the first things I had in mind when began my research project.  What is this standard?   The assumption I have at the beginning is that if there is a standard, there is no reason why my child can't meet it.  It's just that I'm in the dark on how other parents are fairing, and I don't want either of my sons to get to graduate school at Harvard and find out that they blew it because I didn't have them read Harry Potter twice by the end of third grade.

    Before we get to Lego's, here's the brief version of some standards:
  1. The reading standard is pretty easy - read a lot.   Read to your child at least 20 minutes a day, and have them read to you or on their own at least 20 minutes a day (30 by second grade, more after that).
  2. The math standard is also fairly easy.  Have them plod along 3 times a week with a workbook that is 2 grade levels ahead, and then spend one or 2 sessions a week on age appropriate computation (adding, subtracting, multiplication, etc.)  It helps if you have 3 years of graduate math training.
  3. The music standard is having the Mom be a music major at Northwestern and teach your son classic piano.  Since there are no music majors in this family, and I need to preserve my ranking in Competitive Parent Magazine's Top Competitive Parents, I'm having my son teach himself (I'm helping as needed) until he's in the 4th grade, after which we are going to do all instruments I can find used.  Think composer.  
Back to Legos.   I just sat down with my 4 year old for the last 3 days to build the Lego Knight's Castle.

The academic skills required by the average Lego set for a young child are pretty comprehensive.  Counting, reading direction (via pictures and numbers), short term memorization and differentiating (searching in piles for a list of parts) by shape, number, and shade of color, spatial orientation, fluid intelligence, problem solving, asking for help, focus and paying attention.  Legos directly develops my favorite academic skill of all - Executive Functioning - which in this case involves seeing a long multi-step project through to completion.

At very young ages, these are valuable skills to learn, and mentoring my little Lego builder is time well spent.   For a 4 year old, I expect lots of mistakes, snack breaks, breaks to spontaneously build something, and loss of interest.   When I joined in (searching, fixing), his concentration increased substantially.  Nothing special here, but lots of good brain practice.

At later ages, there's nothing wrong with this interest.  It tends to go hand-in-hand with science and math geekdom.  But you have to raise the bar if you want your child to actually be above average.

One parent I know finds second hand stores and has amassed hundreds of thousands of Legos in various colors, shapes and sizes.   I wasn't that clever and frugal, but just ordered tens of thousands from the Lego's US headquarters.  Regardless, we recycle old sets.

The next step is to go online and find the directions of sets you haven't bought, and try to put them together from parts you don't have.  For a 7 or 8 year old to put together any of these sets quickly and flawlessly doesn't automatically equate to the 99th percentile.  I need to see some innovation.

At age 8 and up, if you want to stay ahead, plan on programming Lego robots.

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