26 Expert Ideas To Use LEGOs in Facilitated Play
The holidays are a great time to brush up on your play nurturing skills. You’ll probably get an influx of new toys into your home. You’ll likely wonder where you’ll put them all or how you’ll support your child to manage new sources of sensory stimulation. After you have everything organized and sorted, you might feel too exhausted to play!
Facilitated play is one of the primary ways children with autism can learn from their environment. In facilitated play, you as the parent play with your child to help them learn how to play with new toys, or do new things with toys they already have. However, structuring play with open-ended toys like LEGOs is hard to do. You may draw a blank the second you sit down to play with your child. And, it can be extra tricky to keep children with autism engaged in an activity for long enough to make it feel worth it.
Parents need quick solutions for facilitating play that are easy to remember in the moment. The more simple strategies you have in your toolbox, the more flexible you can be in facilitating play that is fun and educational. Meaningful play doesn’t have to feel hard.
One of the most popular toys your child might receive this Christmas are LEGOs. LEGOs can be difficult to keep track of and painful if you step on a stray brick, but they are also an incredible source of skill building opportunities for children with autism. Here’s our alphabet of strategies for playing with LEGOs:
A. Attach bricks for your child. At first, LEGOs might present too much of a fine motor challenge for your child to put them together independently. Encourage your child to practice their pincer grasp by picking up individual pieces and handing them to you. Then attach them yourself and show them what you made.
B. Classic brick style LEGOs are great for beginners. It’s OK if the kit or set you have has other types and shapes of pieces as well. But start by showing how basic rectangular and square pieces can fit together.
C. Color coding is optional. Sorting LEGO pieces by color can be really fun for some kids. You can use this type of play to teach colors, counting, comparison (light blue vs. dark blue, et cetera), collaboration (“let’s build a gray house together”), confidence (“you did a great job collecting all the yellow pieces together!”), concepts (“there are only a few pink bricks, but there are a lot of blue ones”), and mental calculations (“there are three red bricks here; there are two red bricks over by the couch – that means we have five red bricks”). However, you don’t have to color code LEGOs for storage – if it’s too time consuming to do so, keep all the bricks together in an under-bed plastic storage container.
D. Define nouns, verbs, and abstract concepts as you go. “I’m going to build a car. A car is a type of vehicle. Other types are planes and trains. I will put the wheels on first. The wheels make the car go. It will be hard because I have to fit each wheel onto the bar, and click the bars onto the bottom of my car.”
E. Extra pieces from LEGO sets that are assembled according to the instruction packet can be used to build small creative structures. This is a great way to encourage generative building skills in addition to following prescribed steps. Or, they can be added into your general LEGO storage bin for later use during generative building play.
F. Following directions from kits with instruction sets is a great way to build structure into what would otherwise be open-ended play. But, if you are not playing with a kit and are building creatively with a random assortment of LEGOs, you can still work on following directions. Practice giving your child a variety of basic instructions, helping them follow them as part of play, and giving them specific praise for the direction they followed.
G. LEGOs can grow with you and your child. Start with Duplos if traditional LEGOs are too hard to manipulate. Give as much help as your child needs at first. If they want to spend the entire playtime watching you build something, that’s great!
H. Higher is just the beginning. Yes, building towers is a great beginner skill to practice with LEGOs. But if your child has mastered that task, experiment with other structures, like houses, pools, launchpads, vehicles, farms, and oceans.
I. Increase independence gradually. Break down the steps and help your child with them, or do all but one step. For example, have them give you the piece while you put it on. Or put the piece loosely on the other piece and show them how to press it so it clicks fully into place.
J. Junior LEGOs are a great intermediary product to use in between Duplos and traditional LEGOs. They are a little bigger and easier to attach and take apart than traditional LEGOs, but more advanced than Duplos.
K. Keep extra pieces in a general or miscellaneous container. Pieces that are superfluous one day might be critical the next.
L. Longer is not better. Short bursts of play can maximize your child’s motivation to practice new skills. End the play session early enough so you both feel successful. Start with five or ten minutes, and expand from there.
M. Practice crossing the midline. Help your child assemble pieces directly in front of them so that both hands are working together and crossing the invisible “line” in the middle of their body. Encourage them to reach across to their opposite side to get a certain piece. This helps them develop body awareness and practice motor planning.
N. Narrate what you are doing. Keep up a running commentary of what you and your child are doing, even if you’re not yet building a structure. “You put the red piece over there. I am going to look for a piece with six dots. You have a lot of pieces in a pile. Maybe a six dot piece is in that pile!”
O. Bricks don’t have to be organized. You can organize as part of your play session if your child likes to do that. Beyond keeping LEGOs together in one place without other types of toys getting mixed in, there is no need to categorize them further unless you want to.
P. Prepositions are perfect to practice during LEGO play. Up, under, in, out, down, on top, over, through, around, inside – the possibilities to talk about and demonstrate these concepts are endless!
Q. Quell the urge to direct play to go in a certain way. Follow your child’s lead and adjust your expectations in the moment. Facilitate with flexibility, not rigidity.
R. Respect your child’s wishes if they want to keep a structure built after playtime is over. Displaying LEGO structures for a few days after they’re done promotes confidence. Your child will experience permanence as well as ephemerality related to play experiences.
S. Keep it simple! You don’t have to do more than attach two pieces to each other to successfully build with LEGOs. And, if your child shows you they would prefer to play with their LEGOs alone, that’s OK too. You can also build next to each other without talking sometimes, as an alternative to all of the above ideas. Follow your child’s preference.
T. Take turns adding pieces to a collaborative structure. Practice taking turns with pieces, too. Ask your child for a certain piece and help them give it to you – then reverse the roles.
U. Undo structures with as much reverence as you build them. Taking things apart shows kids how things work. When you detach LEGO pieces, you can demonstrate the function each piece served. For example, take apart a LEGO car to show how the wheels made it go.
V. Incorporate variety into play by building ten different structures that each have a different amount of pieces, or build with all yellow pieces one day and all gray pieces the next day. Use only pieces that are on the right side of the bin, or build what the inside of a rocket ship would look like instead of the outside.
W. When you’ve run out of ideas of what to build or how to play, think about the 5 Ws: Who, what, where, when, and why. You can also use the 5 Ws to help you come up with ideas of what to say to narrate play.
X. Exercise pre-academic skills and concepts, like counting with one-to-one correspondence by touching each piece as you count, or identifying colors and asking your child to find a piece that is that color.
Y. Say yes to your child’s ideas. If they want to build something you think will be too hard, identify a productive alternative. Example: “I want to build a kitchen.” “OK. Let’s start with building a stove.”
Z. Use zones to organize play. This is especially helpful if you have multiple children. Identify a space for collaborative play, a space for each person’s independent play, a space for “discards,” and a space for display.
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.