Brick Invasion: How to get more out of your Lego

After our Legotastic June , I decided we should really broaden our Lego horizons. We’ve always had Lego lying around, but in the past few months, I’ve been on a mission to get the girls to move beyond the “dolls house play” they usually end up doing with their Lego Friends sets. While there is great benefit in using Lego for role play and storytelling, it has taken some deliberate effort to get a different kind of learning out of our Lego – to use it to think about designing, engineering and testing. We’re still feeling our way forward, and I thought I’d share what we’ve been up to.

In the Chu household, it’s Little Miss who spends the most time with Lego. It’s pretty much the first thing she gravitates to after waking up, and she’ll be dipping in and out of it all day. So while she’s usually not at all interested in making videos of her own, when it comes to Lego, she has actually stepped up to the task of presenting her own episode! Here it is:

If you’re interested to know how we’ve been journeying into the world of Lego, read on. Here are my tips for getting more creative with your bricks!

Step one: Stockpile some basic bricks and larger baseplates

For a long time, I really believed we had more than enough Lego for the girls to get creative. We’d bought and had been gifted quite a few Lego Friends sets. We had cafés, salons and pet shops galore. And yet, the girls’ Lego play was somehow more constrained, or limited, than I had imagined it should be. After assembling the prescribed design, the girls would build and rebuild variations of it, but were not really building anything too different from the picture on the box.

After taking a closer look at our brick collection, I realized that all these themed Lego Friends sets didn’t really have many basic blocks at all – in fact, shockingly few, considering the number of pieces advertised on the front of the box. One of our 1120-piece Friends sets yielded only 14 proper “bricks” (as in, the 2×2 brick or larger). A huge proportion of pieces in these themed sets are specialized custom pieces, tiny decorative studs and fairly useless random accessories. (Is this the same for “boys” sets I wonder?)

We had too many of these…

 

…and not enough of these!

So we added a box of these colourful “Classic” Lego pieces to our stash. Surely that would do it – 500 pieces of basic bricks, right? Wrong. (I’ve now learned how to look up the brick inventory of each set). The medium Classic box only contains 42 bricks that are 2×2 and larger.

How many 2×4 bricks in a set like this? Only 27!

Slightly frustrated by these official sets, I finally managed to beef up our collection by buying second hand off eBay and Bricklink (Bricklink is fantastic!), and have tried some Lego-compatible bricks which work well too. Apparently, all relevant Lego patents have long expired, so compatible bricks can be legally produced. However, brick quality can be very variable. I found one reliable brand (Wange) that produces its own, simple mechanical kits which have proved an easy way to introduce the girls to Technic (as official Lego Technic sets are very much aimed at boys).

If you google “Lego Technic”, these are the image results. Nothing my girls would get excited about here.

I’ve also discovered that offering the kids larger baseplates is like giving a child A0 sized paper when they are used to drawing on A4. It definitely expands their ideas and perspective!

Step two: Organise your Lego

Our Lego used to lived in mixed disarray in a few Ikea Trofast drawers: easy to tidy up, but this popular storage solution makes it fiendishly difficult to find that particular brick your kid really needs. So I bought one of those “small parts organisers” and spent a whole evening decanting our collection into tiny drawers. Only to find that in the end, every drawer was crammed full with no space for new bricks whatsoever.

It helped, but I soon conceded defeat – this ultra-fine sorting of pieces was too finicky for my enthusiastic 5 year old to manage, and within a day my meticulously organized drawers were alarmingly contaminated with wrong parts.

So I abandoned it, and finally decided on Muji drawers. These drawers look great. They’re stackable, come in a variety of sizes and can be fitted with castors to create beautiful rolling towers of organized Lego. The drawers are wonderfully shallow – great for sorting through tiny pieces – and ideally proportioned for our compact apartment. And as more Lego drifts in, I can just buy more drawers. I love Muji.

Our Lego now happily resides in Muji drawers

Organised Lego makes a huge difference. The girls are so much less frustrated when they can find the pieces they need. Plus they actually know what we have. We have organized by type rather than colour, and deliberately do not bother keeping pieces belonging to the same set together. Organising our stash has helped us learn a proper Lego lingo too – no longer do we use such imprecise terms like “long flat stick” and “roof-tiley piece”, no – now we expertly say “can you pass me a white 1×14 plate and three of those 2×2 pink modified slope bricks please.”

Step three: Get some inspiration

If you’re new to Lego, it can be incredibly helpful to get some inspiration beyond the manuals that come with the box sets. There are loads of books out there on creating with Lego; we found some great ones just in the local library. I particularly liked Yoshihito Isogawa’s picture books of his intricate Lego creations, which seem like a good starting point to learn the basics of using Technic.

Isogawa’s friendly-looking picture books on building with Technic. (He’s got a good Youtube channel too!)

Klutz also do these quite unique Lego kits which come with useful parts, and they are ideal for mini Lego projects.

Klutz Lego books also offer a good way-in to building with Technic

Of course, there is a wealth of ideas online. The Lego site itself is a great resource, as is their YouTube channel. Several blogs offer detailed instructions for simple builds and activities that kids can try with any basic Lego collection. Little Miss was captivated by the Lego spinning top tutorials we watched online, which then sparked off a streak of making. I loved that she could quickly make and alter her ideas, testing and refining as she went. And when making the spinning tops, we could immediately feel the impact of changing the distribution of mass/centre of gravity on the ease, speed and duration of spin – a mini hands-on physics lesson.

Over a few short weeks we’ve made fidget spinners, marble runs, zipline runners and catapults; none of which would have happened without putting some careful thought into expanding our collection of pieces and actively researching Lego activities.

The likelihood is that you will come across interesting ideas which require pieces you don’t have. Bricklink is the best resource I’ve found to fill in the gaps – you can find pretty much any piece you need at very reasonable prices, although less so in Singapore, as the pool of sellers is much smaller. I’ve been buying from UK Bricklink sellers and sending back to Singapore via any friend or relative who happens to be flying our way – which thankfully happens quite often!

Next steps:

In future I hope to inject more motorized, electronic and robotic capability into our Lego collection, but I think I’ve used up this year’s Lego budget already! I’ve also seen some fun third-party products to try out, like Mayka tape (Nimuno Loops) and Flexo, which could add a whole new dimension to Lego’s traditionally rigid builds.

Mayka Toy Block tape – adhesive tape with Lego studs!

 

 

So having peeked in at the Lego keyhole, we’re slowly discovering that there really is a vast Lego landscape out there to explore. It’s also a surprisingly male-dominated world of bricks. We noticed that almost all the Lego authors, bloggers and Youtubers out there seems to be men! But maybe, we can do something about that…!

6 Comments

  1. Yes, I feel your pain with the Lego. We are in a slightly better position having invested a HUGE amount of money over the years in those £100 sets where you can build enormous buildings. We use one of these playmats to deal with it. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Agooding-Childrens-Diameter-Organizer-Building/dp/B01GDOQ8HK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1506762067&sr=8-1&keywords=lego+mat We did experiment with ordering bricks by size for a while, then by colour (which seemed to be much more important at the time), but now we just throw most of it in together except for the minifigures bits. JJ went to an engineering club during the summer where they had a great setup using Lego for many of their experiments, but now I’m realising we’re on the cusp of having to decide whether to throw at lot of money buying Lego Technic bits. Caitlin (who is now 5 and in P1) is not overly bothered about Lego, but is a fervant YouTuber, and is much more focussed on her channel than JJ. One of her favourite female YouTubers is Audrey who is 17 and records in-screen commentary with Roblox gameplay. Caitlin has done quite a few videos of her own Robxlos gameplay but without the in-screen bit, mainly because I haven’t quite figured out how to set that up yet. The P4’s at St Mary’s are learning about forces (magnets in particular this term) and are using ‘Manga High’ online for a lot of their maths. Music seems to have stepped up with a lot of instruments being included in the classroom.

    • Ahhh…if we were still in Edinburgh I’d be picking your brains about Lego during drop off in the mornings ?. It really is a bit of a money pit. Wow Caitlin is in P1 already! What’s her YouTube channel? I’m sure the girls would love to see it. Thanks for the St Mary’s updates!

  2. Once again, great stuff! I’m especially very happy to see Little Miss take her place in the lime lights!

  3. We’ve lined the edge of shelves with the tape to stick mini figures on – looks good and keeps them out the way. Like the look of the flexo bricks as haven’t seen that before

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