Eye on Extension: Building youth skills with building play

VALLEY — Anyone who has visited my office in Monte Vista knows I’m a bit of a LEGO fanatic. My desk and shelves are covered in pirate ships, castles, Star Wars sets, and other fun LEGO creations. I loved building with LEGO bricks as a kid, and I find it relaxing and mentally engaging as an adult.

Many kids intuitively like building, too. Encouraging kids to engage in building-based play with things like blocks, and LEGO bricks is a great way to help them develop crucial skills.

Building with blocks, bricks and other materials can improve kids’ hand-eye coordination, and motor and spatial skills. Not only will youth work with their hands when building, but they’ll also mentally rotate objects and envision possible outcomes. As they work with placing, stacking, and fitting pieces together, they get important practice with these skills.

When building opportunities are open ended, like when kids just have pieces and no directions, they are also great for improving creativity. Youth benefit from open opportunities to use their imagination to create structures and settings for further play. Many times, youth can use other toys, like cars and dolls, to play with their built creations. Left to their own devices, you might be surprised at the variety of creative ideas kids come up with.

Building inherently also helps kids develop planning and problem solving skills. When building, youth can use trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t. They can also make changes, and try different solutions to problems they encounter, such as something falling over, or not fitting in a certain spot. Working through these challenges helps them to work on patience, focus, and perseverance.

Practice kids get building as youth can also help them succeed in certain careers as adults. People like architects, engineers, artists, and scientists frequently rely on building models in their work. Skills youth develop building as kids can help prepare them to enter these fields.

You don’t have to have expensive LEGO bricks to get your kids the benefits of building. You can use any type of blocks, or even things like recyclables. Don’t feel limited to building indoors either! Kids can use sticks, rocks and other natural materials to make forts, towers and other creations outside.

Encourage kids to play by joining in on the fun itself, especially with younger kids. Some kids need someone to demonstrate how to build to get them kick started. You can also help model how they can use their other toys to play with the blocks.

Adults can also give kids specific building challenges for kids to accomplish. Have younger kids try to match simple structures you make, or build to a certain height. For older kids give them some parameters for a successful build, and see what they can do. Challenge them to build a bridge capable of spanning an opening, or something strong enough to hold a heavy object.

Looking for a semi-guided building challenge experience? Your kids or family can come build with me at HobbyTown, in Alamosa, June 26-28 for the Paper Roller Coaster Construction Challenge. From 5 to 7 p.m. each evening, we’ll work on teams to build paper “roller coaster” marble mazes, complete with loops, turns and more. At the end of the event, we’ll run our coasters against each other for fun prizes. It’s $5 to participate, which includes all the supplies. You must register by June 21 to participate. Register at www.tinyurl.com/slvcoaster or by calling 719-852-7381.

Amy Henschen is the 4-H Youth Development Agent for Colorado State University Extension. To find out more about Extension and the 4-H program visit http://sanluisvalley.colostate.edu or call 719-852-7381. Extension programs are available to all without discrimination.

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