a long way from Legos: the latest, greatest building sets {and how to use them in the classroom}

by Elizabeth Cossick, M. Ed.

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Legos and Lincoln Logs used to rule the roost when it came to building sets. Not so these days, my friend. Magnets, gears and pulleys make today’s building sets more engaging–and mind-bending–than ever. Whether you’re looking for sets for a classroom, birthday gift, or just a rainy day, here are our top picks for kiddie-approved, creativity-inspiring building sets, followed by some ways to incorporate them into your classroom.

Gears, Gears, Gears!

The fun Gears, Gears, Gears! sets allow young builders to construct buildings, vehicles, factories and the like. There are a variety of sets, from beginner to themed kits (like this cute Movin’ Monkeys set), but all are interchangeable. Sets include spinning gears, pillars, connectors and cranks to set creations in motion–plus interlocking plates for limitless building.

Magneatos

I first discovered these magnetized balls, rods and plates when my son received a Magneatos set from his Popi. Three years later, they’re still a favorite. No wonder why Magneatos have garnered so much praise: recipient of 2005 & 2006 OPPENHEIM AWARD WINNER; featured on NBC’s Today Show and Featured in MONEY magazine; recipient of Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Award (Top Honor); recipient of Oppenheim SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Product) Award Winner.

Thistle Blocks

Thistle Blocks are an oldie but goodie– a cousin to the Bristle Blocks from my own childhood. Guess what? These stick-to-each-other squares, rectangles and rods are still tons of fun. 

Flexiblocks

What set allows children to build movable bridges, creatures, vehicles and reptiles all with the same blocks? Flexiblocks! These wonder blocks, shown below, can be configured into a limitless variety of critters and formations: a boredom buster for sure. 

In the Classroom

Here are three ideas for using building sets in the classroom to encourage critical thinking and creativity, while practicing  hands-on geometry, public speaking, measuring, graphing and writing.

  • Hold a Building Challenge.

Break students into groups or pairs. Give each group the same number of blocks (or have pairs bring in building sets from home) and set the clock. Give the groups 15 or 20 minutes to build. Then, have each group present their creation to the class. The class can vote on which structures win Most Creative, Most Impressive, Most Blocks Used, Most Movable, etc.

Skills utilized: critical thinking, cooperative learning, oral speaking/presenting

  • Create (and Write About) a Fantasy World.

Allow students (individually or in small groups) to build a fantasy world with sets of blocks, including buildings, creatures, people, vehicles, bridges–whatever their imaginations hold. At the end of a set building period (around 20-30 minutes), students will then write either fiction stories, descriptive narratives or poems about their fantasy world, explaining what it looks like, who lives there, and how life works within the world of their imagination.

Skills utilized: critical thinking, cooperative learning, writing, grammar

  • Have a Race and Chart the Results.

Lots of building sets have circle or disk components that make great wheels. Allow students to build vehicles and then hold a race. Make predictions about which vehicle will go farthest. Create a starting line with tape, line up students two-at-a-time to race their creations. Then, use a ruler or yard stick to measure the distance traveled. Chart or graph the distances as a class on a piece of a bulletin board or chart paper. Be sure to note which are creative and aesthetic, even if they don’t go the distance! :)

Skills utilized: critical thinking, predicting, math, graphing, measuring, comparing/contrasting

For more great building sets, click here and here and here.

Build on!

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