Friday, August 20, 2010

Bricks and Brains

Sculpture by Nathan Sawaya
Last year, when we first learned about an artist named Nathan Sawaya who created life sized masterpieces entirely out of Lego bricks, we were immediately interested. We were fortunate enough to meet him during a museum demonstration, and I think I was as impressed as my children. First of all, his art is amazing. Second of all, he seemed like a very nice guy when he was talking to the kids.

Apparently, he had been a corporate lawyer in New York, and he gave it up to follow his art. Now, some people would frown upon a grown man deciding to let go of a lucrative career in law to play with Legos all day, but I personally thought it was a wonderful example of living life in a way that makes you happy. And, it seems to be working out pretty well for him. My Boy Child was very inspired to even imagine that such a career was a possibility. It sure makes growing up sound more fun and exciting than a job in a suit!

Art by Nathan Sawaya

We bought Sawaya's book Art of the Brick, so we could be inspired more at home, and because I wanted to support the idea of following your dreams even if it seems risky to the rest of the world. I probably never would have given thought to conveying feelings and struggles or making statements with Legos, but he has certainly managed to do just that. In talking with Nathan, we learned that he is more than a tad more organized with his Legos than we are though. He has drawers separated by color, shape and size, while we have a huge mixed up bin. Obviously, he buys in bulk too, since he uses thousands of pieces in his sculptures and they are glued down as he goes. I requested that my kids use the camera to preserve their sculptures. For one thing, the glue Mr. Sawaya was using was really stinky and probably not very good for young brain cells, and for another, we don't have the customers, display space or budget to handle large scale productions at this time, unless we re-use the pieces. His exhibit and book did get some very large scale productions going when we got home.

A Lego Duck by my Boy Child
As an eclectic homeschooling family, we're quite a bit more flexible with what we consider valuable educationally than some people are. To me, if a person is interested, engaged and learning- it's educational. Since building with Legos uses problem solving and creative skills, it qualifies in my book. Apparently, the folks at Lego seem to agree, and are marketing products specifically to the education market. At first I thought we were just way ahead of our time- we've been using Legos in our homeschool for years, but I guess the Lego Education Academy has been around since 1980! I had no idea there were educational experts out there to back up the validity of our creative building. Part of me wants to giggle, and the other part wants to roll my eyes, but I guess mostly, I am glad that it will open up the door for lots of other kids to try some fun school projects, and that many teachers will be getting interesting ideas of ways to tie Legos into those standards they are bound to.

Favorite Chicken inspects Lego Duck
A few months ago I signed up for Lego Smart Challenges, and was sent a kit of 20 bricks. It hasn't been easy keeping those 20 bricks out of our mainstream mixed up Lego population, but we've done it. The reason is because we've been getting sent emails with challenges to make with those specific bricks. I let the kids take turns, and they time each other and photograph the results. It's interesting to see how differently the solutions from two different kids can turn out using the same materials for the same problem.

Blind Replica of a one eyed robot by my Girl Child

One particularly cool challenge involved one person making a sculpture, and committing it to memory before taking it apart. We also took a picture for future reference. Then, sitting back to back to back with the other person, the original builder tries to explain how to recreate the piece, and the new sculptor tries to follow the directions. This little exercise was a challenge on several levels- planning and building, memorizing, explaining clearly, listening, and following directions.

The Skyscraper by my Boy Child
We also found a bunch more educational Lego activities online, where we can use a lot more bricks, and spend a lot more time. The projects that require moving parts seem to really get them thinking. All of the challenges have been great if I have a little bit of work to do, and need some uninterrupted time because the kids seem to be pretty focused and self sufficient at them. Plus, they're having fun and using their brains.

We'd be doing lots more brick building / brain building projects this year anyway, but now that I know I have an authorized stamp of approval on it as an educational activity, maybe I'll mention that to all the grumblers who condemn the way we combine learning and fun- "Kids need to learn to work hard, that learning and life isn't always fun, blah, blah, blah.."

My kids of course do work hard on lots of things in life, and while I know that no one can enjoy everything they have to do, I do hope my kids are able to have a good time with most of what they do. I'd rather encourage them to live and enjoy life than just endure it. These same people will probably also tell me that having kids who are inspired by the possibility of being a Lego artist is a bad idea because "it's not very likely that your kids will be able to do that when they grow up." Well, it's not very likely that I'll someday be a Picasso or a Mozart, but I'm still inspired by them.
Do you have other fun ideas, activities and people that inspire your family? I'd love to hear about them...
And for some Lego activities you might like to try, check these out.


  1. This is awesome! I have a young boy who will love some of these activities! Do you have a link for the Lego Smart Challenge? I'm finding a Lego Smart 2010 Creativity Contest, but I'm not thinking its the same thing.

  2. Thanks Mrs Random. Here is a link for some of the activities we've been doing:
    Somehow these are tied to the Creativity Challenge- Though I can't remember where exactly I signed up to start getting the emails and the set of bricks, these are the kinds of activities they've been sending. Have fun with your kids!

  3. This is great, thank you! We are also eclectic in our approach and most of our math curriculum is Lego-based (I call it "Lego Math"). We use Legos as math manipulatives and have also culled ideas from a few websites for learning patterns, measuring, etc. Most of the resources are for older kids, unfortunately, but what I already have is working fine so far.

    My husband (an engineer who is thrilled our daughters are such Lego fans) and I been scouring used brick websites for extra pieces or large lots, and stumbled onto a site called It's a site that has scanned copies of all of the catalogs and instruction booklets from between 1958 and 2006. I plan on printing a bunch of these out for my older daughter for Christmas--she loves to build furniture and accessories for her dolls and there are instructions for household things from the 70s and 80s that I think she'll enjoy.

    I love the idea of the Creativity Challenge and will look into it! I like Lego's Lego Education website, but again, I found way more for older kids than for younger ones. Perhaps I'm looking in the wrong places...

    Take care,

  4. Love this post! I can't wait to tell my boys about this Lego Artist =)

  5. I'll have to check out your link as well as that Lego Challenge you mentioned. Sounds fun.



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