Lego bricks are a wonderful thing.
Anyone who spends time around kids knows how great they are for young children, encouraging creative play, fine motor development, spatial reasoning (a fancy name for understanding how things work in a 3-D world, a very early precursor to mechanics / engineering / physics concepts), sorting into various different categories (color, size, etc. — this is a cornerstone of both early math and science), even teamwork and following directions (for the kits that come with building plans). Later on, a world of motors, gears, and programming robots awaits to take older kids deeper into the increasingly important STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) areas.
I’ve even heard it said that they could be used for home defense, as any parent who has found Lego bricks in the dark with their bare feet can imagine.
There are many ways that Lego pieces can be used as math manipulatives. Just do a web search for Lego and math, and you’ll discover tips and lesson plans for everything from preschool-level color identification, sorting, and pattern-making to fractions, graphing, statistics, and more.
One concept that popped up here during Lego play one day was multiplication. Although it will be a while before my own kids are memorizing their times tables, they are already “getting” the concept of multiplication while working on addition: they know that 2 + 2 = 4, and that 4 + 2 = 6, so it’s a short logical jump to 2 + 2 + 2, or three twos, is also equal to 6. Did you get that? Three twos make six. 3 x 2 = 6.
They didn’t quite get it at first, but one of the most common Lego bricks illustrated the concept perfectly. See the red one there in the middle? Three rows of two studs each. 3 x 2. I pulled a few more bricks from the bin and we looked at their “multiplication stories” — 2 x 6, 2 x 2, 4 x 4, 1 x 4 — which happen to be very similar to the names commonly used to refer to the size of a brick or plate (“one by four” or “two by two”).
Suddenly I saw light bulbs flicker to life above my little students’ heads. Multiplying is almost the same as adding, which they already understand. In fact, multiplication is adding, just a shortcut to adding the same number together many times. As is true for other math ideas, it’s a lot easier to see in some concrete way for the first time, or the first several times. When the manipulatives are something as fun as Lego, the learning sometimes seems to happen all by itself!