Demolition crew: Challenging your child to build stronger structures

If your child shows an interest in construction equipment or frequently asks how buildings are put together, that’s a curiosity worth encouraging.

Research shows early spatial intelligence can predict a child’s performance in mathematics and reading, while middle school students skilled at mental rotation are more likely to succeed in science classes. Further, such skills can be improved upon even when they’re seemingly not innate. And that’s where building with LEGO can be a remarkably effective tool.

“There is compelling evidence showing people can enhance their spatial abilities with practice,” notes anthropologist Gwen DeWar on ParentingScience.com. “Moreover, the results of training studies can be dramatic. A growing body of research suggests kids can improve their spatial abilities by engaging in structured block play — the sort of play where children recreate physical structures by following a model or blueprint.”

To promote your child’s ability, you might suggest a game in which he uses LEGO to build different towers, then tests their strength by knocking them over — either by swinging a pendulum that simulates a wrecking ball or by hitting them with a rolled ball at a constant speed and velocity. As an option, you can make the game more challenging by setting guidelines, e.g., each tower must use the same number of bricks, lie within a given range for height and width, and/or offer the most “offices with windows” (with each outward-facing two-by-eight-peg LEGO block representing an office).

After observing results, you could challenge your child to improve his LEGO structure versions that broke most easily. Some possible lessons or observations:

  • What’s the difference in strength between towers joined at the top and towers joined at the bottom?
  • What effect is created when the base of the tower is enlarged?
  • How does extra bracing via trusses, columns or beams affect the outcomes?
  • What’s the difference when mismatched pieces are stacked, instead of pieces of the same size?
  • How might earthquake-like vibrations affect the different structures? Hint: Heavier tops or support trusses between floors or building layers may offer improvements. Scientific American offers simple directions for simulating the lateral movements of an earthquake using both sides of a three-ring binder, four rubber balls and two rubber bands.
  • Budding architects may be interested in learning how tall a LEGO tower can become before it literally crushes itself.
  • Discuss with your child how different stakeholders in real-life building processes have different priorities. For example, the building owner likely wants to maximize rentable space, the architect wants it to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible and the engineer is tasked with creating a building that’s long-lasting, safe and up to code. Related lesson suggestions are here.

Looking for more fun ideas? Bricks 4 Kidz offers LEGO building and robotics sessions for children at locations worldwide.

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