If your family is anything like mine, you have LEGO bricks in every nook and cranny of your home. I find them under sofa cushions, inside the vacuum cleaner, and even squirreled away inside my purse at times! From recreated dramas of Xerxes pitching a fit and whipping the waters of the Hellespont with chains to the less classical epic Ninjago battles in the living room, LEGO toys has been an integral part of the creative childhood play in my home.
Today’s guest author, Holly Geiger Lee of My Little Brick Schoolhouse, challenges some of our assumptions. She claims LEGO building toys are more than mere fun and games; in fact, Holly suggests that LEGO bricks support a Charlotte Mason approach to homeschool education!
I’m delighted to welcome Holly today to Humility and Doxology. Be sure to read to the end of her article to get access to a unique LEGO®-themed printable Holly has for us.
LEGO® is a trademark of the LEGO® Group, which does not sponsor, authorize, or endorse this website.
LEGO® in a Charlotte Mason Homeschool
by Holly Geiger Lee
Disclosure Statement: As an Amazon Associate I may earn a small percentage from the purchase of some of the books mentioned below, at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support!
They are ubiquitous, colorful, and quite painful when stepped on. They make you “ooh” and “aah” but they can cost a lot of money! While the level of pain experienced in paying for them or stepping on them is up for debate, we can know this is certain: LEGO (singular and plural forms are identical) reside in just about every American household.
Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) never laid eyes on a LEGO in her entire life, which is unsurprising. Given that LEGO creators are known for their imaginations, analytical thinking, and spatial skills, it is unsurprising that many people who play with LEGO commonly tout its benefits. However, I must ask the question, “Would Miss Mason have approved of my using LEGO in my homeschool?” Would I be able to back up my LEGO set purchases with a rationale that adheres to Charlotte Mason’s principles of education? I think so. Let me explain why you can use LEGO in a Charlotte Mason homeschool.
1. Using LEGO® Bricks Supports Ownership of Knowledge: Narration
Narration is a commonly practiced art in the Charlotte Mason homeschool. First, let’s define narration as it relates to children. Have you noticed how children are naturally curious, and are usually interested in telling you about something they are doing, watching, or reading? We people have a desire to tell. When we apply that desire to education, it becomes a more formal practice called narration.
Narration is the practiced art of knowing. It is taking something we naturally do, then making it more powerful through practicing it. Extracting meaning and truth is no easy task, but it has enormous benefits. Karen Glass’s 2018 work, Know and Tell: The Art of Narration, speaks to narration as a relationship-building exercise between the child and the material he is narrating. “When we lift narration out of its everyday context and use it as an educational method, we are giving each pupil-narrator the opportunity to create, build, or strengthen his relationship with knowledge.”
You cannot own knowledge until you can express it. One of Charlotte Mason’s twenty principles is paraphrased: “Since one doesn’t really ‘own’ knowledge until he can express it, children are required to narrate, or tell back (or write down), what they have read or heard,” (AmblesideOnline). The best way to know your material is to teach it.
So, why not use LEGO® toys to narrate? If people are designed with this innate desire to tell, why not use different media to accomplish the same goal? Personally, I think this adds variety to a practice that can become repetitive and lackluster. Have you tried building a scene from a fiction story or recreating an historical event yourself? Attention to detail is not overlooked when narrating with LEGO® bricks. It requires an enormous amount of attention to detail. In addition, the creativity and personal artistic license a child must employ makes it a fun challenge. I am not the only one with alternative narration ideas. Check out the unconventional narration ideas Simply Charlotte Mason offers.
2. LEGO® Play Educates Children in their Natural Environment: “Education is an Atmosphere”
“’Education is an atmosphere’ doesn’t mean that we should create an artificial environment for children, but that we use the opportunities in the environment he already lives in to educate him. Children learn from real things in the real world” (AmblesideOnline).
“We should take into account the educational value of the natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let the children live freely among the proper conditions” (Glass, 2019, p. 171).
Therefore, when we use LEGO® bricks in teaching our children, we use the opportunities already present in their environment to educate them.
I think if Charlotte Mason were alive today, she would see the value that LEGO® toys add to a child’s understanding of his world and the way it enriches the home environment. The LEGO® world is full of imagination and problem-solving. Building with LEGO® bricks allows freedom within the bounds of natural laws.
Let’s examine the atmosphere piece of using LEGO® toys in a Charlotte Mason (CM) education.
I walk into my kids’ playroom. Ouch! Immediately, the pang of sharp plastic against bare skin pulsates throughout my foot. Why do we have all these little plastic pieces called LEGO® bricks in our home? I ask. I know the reason, though. They are a part of our natural home environment.
LEGO® sets might seem like child’s play to some, but did you know, they are not solely marketed toward children? Hardly! Browse some of the popular adult LEGO® sets.
In keeping with a 21st century world, the LEGO® company has caught on to the fact that people in our generation are not only looking for a product, but for a personalized experience. So, whether your interests are history, BMW motors, or botanicals, there is a LEGO® set experience for you, adults. This makes LEGO® toys more than just a child’s system of play. Those bricks are here to stay for a while. It might as well be part of lifelong learning, a valuable aspect of a Charlotte Mason education.
3. LEGO® Encourages the Training of Good Habits: “Education is a Discipline”
“‘Education is a discipline’ means that we train a child to have good habits and self-control,” (AmblesideOnline).
I study my son’s face when he makes his LEGO® creations. Sometimes, he bursts into a quick fit of frustration when a piece of his creation falls off. Other times, he is absorbed in his work, making great effort to use symmetry and precision in creating the jet or ship he will later use in his imaginative play. How I pray he will apply that focus and care to other areas of his life!
Using what my son already knows, building with LEGO® bricks, affords many opportunities for teaching him good habits in other areas of his life: making his bed with precision and care, executing his copy work with diligence and attention to detail, and practicing his math with accuracy and good effort. I love that playing with LEGO® toys has forged a way for my son to understand that hard work and attention to detail pay off.
When I watch him build, I acknowledge and affirm his hard work. I show my investment in his life when I make time to ask him about what inspired him to build a particular creation. I also try to help him care for his LEGO® masterpieces by offering a safe place for him to display his work. A shelf high up in the bedroom closet is the best thing we have at this time, but I am dedicated to helping him practice these habits of care, dedication, and hard work. When he follows the instruction manual, he is practicing the habit of attention. I am particularly amazed by his ability to oscillate between the skill set needed for following an instruction manual and the creative skills to dream up and execute the construction himself!
My son builds something every single day from his LEGO® cache. Interview any child who takes LEGO® construction seriously, and they can tell you that it takes great discipline to build regularly. I’d like to think that Charlotte Mason would agree.
4. LEGO® Play Affords the Acting Out of Living Ideas: “Education is a Life”
“‘Education is a life’ means that education should apply to body, soul and spirit. The mind needs ideas of all kinds, so the child’s curriculum should be varied and generous with many subjects included,” (AmblesideOnline).
“In devising a curriculum, we provide a vast amount of ideas to ensure that the mind has enough brain food, knowledge about a variety of things to prevent boredom, and subjects are taught with high-quality literary language since that is what a child’s attention responds to best,” (AmblesideOnline).
I adhere to the idea that giving children a feast of ideas is a hallmark of a Charlotte Mason education. I offer my kids books of many kinds, with a big emphasis on books in narrative form written by authors who are passionate about their subjects. These “living books” fire the imagination and touch the emotions. They are well-written and engaging. The ideas communicated exemplify timeless virtues. So, what about LEGO® bricks?
I’m in the kitchen, a normal spot for anyone to find me on any given afternoon. What do I hear in the adjoining room but my two older kids acting out a scene from the French Revolution with their LEGO® scene and characters. The guillotine is about to drop! It’s actually music to my ears. I sense they are holding on to the living ideas found in what we are reading. The aristocrats had it bad, didn’t they? Even when the revolutionaries tried to make their new order reflect a government completely by the people, there were problems, big problems. I am not sure of the depth of my seven-year-old son’s and five-year-old daughter’s understanding, but it is neat to see them acting out factual events, adding their own dialogue to support the overall intensity of the time.
The LEGO® company wants people to embrace this kind of play.
“LEGO® Disney allows your child to build and play stories from their favorite fairytales. Disney characters will come to life as your child recreates romance, adventure, and heroism!” (Lego.com)
On the company’s site, LEGO® touts the endless possibilities of imaginative play. Children are encouraged to mix and match their LEGO® sets. The collision of two different worlds allows more imagination, more open-ended play, more living ideas. Just think about what could happen if we merged a Batman Lego® set with a Lego® Friends set? How about recreating the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, or Ancient Rome? The possibilities really are endless, aren’t they?
5. LEGO® Toys Give Children of Different Learning Styles Experience with Real-World Things
“’Education is an atmosphere’ doesn’t mean that we should create an artificial environment for children, but that we use the opportunities in the environment he already lives in to educate him. Children learn from real things in the real world,” (AmblesideOnline).
LEGO® pieces are divided into categories, I have recently learned. Here is a chart showing what some of the categories can be.
I also categorized some of my son’s LEGO® pieces for reference (see below).
Do you see the “Technic” category? These pieces make me think of real-world machines. In fact, LEGO® has its own line of sets specifically geared toward real-world machines (pun intended):
LEGO® Technic™ toys take LEGO® sets to a whole new level. With functioning gearboxes, wheels, and axles, there’s no better way for young builders to start learning about real machinery while they play. Take LEGO® Technic™ kits even further with CONTROL+, the free app that connects with many motorised Technic™ sets to add movement, sound, and even brand new challenges. (Lego.com)
“SPIKE Essential curriculum units are designed around playful narrative-based problem-solving with relatable themes that can develop young students into independent STEAM thinkers” (Lego.com).
Your child might be a budding engineer. If he has a proclivity for LEGO® building, that is great. Nonetheless, all children can benefit from using LEGO® bricks to teach mechanical concepts. Given our different learning styles, using LEGO® materials beat the typical textbook-based or even computer-based learning we see so often in traditional school. Hands on, real-world examples make education more effective. Using LEGO® bricks in the school room not only includes those kinesthetic or visual/spatial learners, but it allows everyone to have access to experiential learning.
6. LEGO® Pieces Can Be Used in Charlotte Mason Math Lessons
There is research that backs up the idea that it is best to start teaching children math in the concrete before moving to the abstract. I remember attending the Charlotte Mason Together Retreat in the summer of 2021. Hearing Richele Baburina speak on teaching math facts and tables, I was reminded of my formal training as an educator and a research-based practice in the math world called Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI). Carpenter and colleagues write about the premise of CGI in their 1999 work, Children’s Mathematics:
Initially, children model the action and relations in problems, reflecting the distinctions portrayed in the analysis of problem types. Over time, these physical modeling strategies give way to more efficient counting strategies, which are generally more abstract ways of modeling a problem (p. 4).
Like the CGI pioneers, Charlotte Mason circles emphasize teaching math in the concrete first using manipulatives. Think of manipulatives as concrete aids in solving math problems. Manipulatives should be a variety of real-world, concrete objects. The focus should not be on the manipulatives themselves, but on the math concepts.
LEGO® pieces are appropriate concrete manipulatives and can be used in a variety of ways. In their most basic application, LEGO® pieces can be counted out as young children model addition and subtraction problems, as in this concrete model of the equation 2+3:
“Tommy goes to the store to buy fruit. He buys two bags of oranges and three bags of apples. How many bags of fruit does Tommy buy, in all?”
To take concrete modeling a step further, it is quite easy to use the pegs on each LEGO® piece to represent exact quantities. For example, you have 4 LEGO® bricks, and each LEGO® brick has 4 pegs:
“In Mom’s flower garden, there are four planters with four flowers planted in each planter. How many flowers are planted in Mom’s garden?” (4×4=16)
Bricks of the same type can be used to model repeated addition (multiplication). Bricks of different dimensions can be used to show the difference between 2×3 and 6×1. The dimensions are different, with the products being the same.
More advanced math concepts such as area and perimeter can be modeled with bricks and flat plates. The possibilities seem endless. When memorizing multiplication facts, you can model with arrays of 2×2, 2×4, 2×6, etc. Length and width are more easily understood with a concrete LEGO brick or flat plate. When given a perimeter problem, children can take the flat, long plates and form the border to model the length and width around an area.
The way we teach math matters. Math, by nature, cultivates habits. Miss Mason’s principle, “’Education is a discipline’ means that we train a child to have good habits and self-control” (AmblesideOnline). The physical habits children are taught in modeling their math problems in the concrete before moving to the abstract support Mason’s principle that education is a discipline.
In a Charlotte Mason math education, we are teaching the habit of accuracy through orderly modeling, then orderly notation. It does not need to be fancy. In true Charlotte Mason form, lessons include an example at the beginning of each short lesson. LEGO can be a real-world material used in the CM math lesson. Your kids will love it, too!
7. LEGO Can Be Used as a Handicraft
A handicraft is a staple piece of a CM education.
This may seem like a stretch, but you can make LEGO creations that serve others. Handicrafts take practice to develop. This is certainly true with building with LEGO. I remember the very first time my son held a Duplo piece in his hand. He made connections quickly, but it did take some instruction and showing him how to follow the instruction manual. His four-year-old brain picked it up quickly! Now, he makes foot-long aircraft from his own imagination. He had to start somewhere.
In reading Simply Charlotte Mason’s blog post on handicrafts, I gather that handicrafts and life skills should have these elements:
- The end-product should be useful. The children should not “be employed in making futilities such as pea and stick work, paper mats, and the like.”
- Teach the children “slowly and carefully what they are to do.”
- Emphasize the habit of best effort. “Slipshod work should not be allowed.”
- Carefully select handicrafts and life skills to challenge but not frustrate. “The children’s work should be kept well within their compass.”
(taken from Home Education, p. 315, qtd. in Simply Charlotte Mason)
I will never forget the time my then five-year-old son made me a knife for cutting salmon. He even included various attachments for different degrees of cutting. It was very sweet! The beauty of a LEGO® handicraft is that you can work on separate projects side-by-side, or you can work on one project collaboratively. Instruction manuals typically require zero to minimal reading, which is a perk for my young crew.
Parts of the Whole
Synthetic knowledge is different from analytical thinking. Synthetic, or relational knowledge, “tastes good and gives us an interest and desire for more” (Glass, 2014, p. 37). Synthesis is about oneness. Synthetic, or relational knowledge “speaks to the heart, not to the intellect only” (Glass, 2014, p. 35). Analysis is about separating.
If we only ever examined LEGO® pieces in isolation, that might be interesting for a bit, but would we really develop a true relationship with the LEGO® world? If we lack firsthand experience with a completed masterpiece, when we see a true masterpiece, do we even recognize it?
Holding the LEGO® piece in hand, a child is compelled to do something. Acting upon that LEGO® piece, placing it into a synthetic whole, is where relational learning resides. The masterpiece could be an historic battle, useful futuristic machine, a scene from a poem, or anything a child is getting acquainted with in an intimate way.
If LEGO® play creates an additional way to live out a beloved Charlotte Mason philosophy, then I am happy to embrace it! Not only do I know I am offering the best atmosphere, discipline, and life I can to my children; I know that I can give them unlimited play potential for lifelong learning.
AmblesideOnline. (2002). CM’s 20 principles: original side-by-side with paraphrase. Ambleside Online. https://www.amblesideonline.org/CM/20Principles.html
Carpenter, T.P., Fennema, E., Franke, M.L., Levi, L., Empson, S.B. (1999). Children’s Mathematics: Cognitively guided instruction. Heinemann.
Glass, K. (2014). Consider this: Charlotte Mason and the classical tradition. Karen Glass.
Glass, K. (2018). Know and tell: The art of narration. Karen Glass.
Glass, K. (2019). In vital harmony: Charlotte Mason and the natural laws of education. Karen Glass.
LEGO.com (2021). https://www.lego.com/en-us
Simply Charlotte Mason. (2005-2022). Narration Ideas. Simply Charlotte Mason. https://simplycharlottemason.com/timesavers/narration/
Stay Tuned for More from Holly Lee at My Little Brick Schoolhouse:
Holly is publishing a new picture book biography with Blue Sky Daisies about the life of Ole Kirk Christiansen, LEGO founder!
She cannot wait to share with you the wonderful ways to connect LEGO® to everyday learning.
Follow her newsletter by signing up here. Each newsletter issue contains links to Holly’s booklists and blog posts, plus a few exclusive read aloud suggestions, project ideas and other freebies for newsletter subscribers only. Having an engaged audience will also really help this first-time author get the word out about her book (illustrator to be announced)! This next year will be exciting!
To use one of Holly’s Living Projects with your own family, you are welcome to the free printable found at the link here.
Holly Lee is a homeschool teacher and wife, as well as a mother to three children. Holly grew up teaching her stuffed animals and later became a public elementary school teacher. After she ended her teaching career in the public schools, she earned a graduate degree in counseling. Now, Holly has combined her love of teaching and forming relationships with real, historical figures as she reads books to her own children. When she is not reading to her children, Holly enjoys going outdoors in her beautiful state of North Carolina. Her relationship with Jesus Christ is paramount to any other pursuit in life. It is a driving force behind her life’s work of helping her home to flourish. You can find Holly’s writing on her blog, My Little Brick Schoolhouse. She is also on Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram as My Little Brick Schoolhouse and on Etsy as Brick Schoolhouse.