When London teacher Shafina Vohra was seeking inspiration for engaging lessons for her spirited science class, she turned to an unlikely tool: Lego.
Seeing that traditional teaching methods were failing to capture her 11-year-olds' interest, she began incorporating the toys into lessons.
She believes the brightly coloured toy bricks can improve cognitive skills and has found they can be adapted across a range of skills and subjects.
Her teaching with Lego has proved so successful that it has been incorporated into her school's curriculum.
David Whitebread, a developmental cognitive psychologist and early years specialist, has seen similar prospects in the popular toy.
He fears schools are not producing pupils equipped for the challenges of the future and says an emphasis on structured play and testing in schools cannot anticipate societal changes in the coming decades.
“The problem is we’re educating children now to go into the world in 20 years and none of us know what that world’s going to look like,” he said, stressing the importance of adaptable, play-based learning methods that can prepare children for an uncertain future.
Lego's integration into classrooms worldwide highlights its value in enhancing young learners' creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
For nearly 40 years, the Lego Foundation has been developing the concept of learning through play.
Dr Whitebread, who was a consultant for the Lego Foundation, has delved deeply into the importance of play in childhood development and the future of learning.
He has explored the concept of "private speech", when children talk to themselves during play, paving the way for internal thinking.
“Playing with a toy like Lego bricks often generates that kind of talk,” Dr Whitebread says.
He says children are naturally inclined to set themselves challenges working with the bricks, noting: “Very often they’ll learn a lot from that sort of play.”
Tom Hall, general manager for Lego Education International, told The National the benefits of incorporating Lego into education had been proven and could revolutionise classroom learning.
“Schools need to create pathways from the classroom to careers, and hands-on learning is the best way to prepare students for success,” Mr Hall said.
“Lego Education is purpose-built for the classroom, providing hands-on and engaging learning experiences that meet students where they are and deliver strong learning outcomes.
"Learning through play is an effective teaching tool in any classroom and subject.
"Our solutions are designed to be cross-curricular, easily integrating into the existing curriculum and aligned with local standards.”
How one teacher introduced Lego to the classroom
Ms Vohra, a psychology teacher at the London Design and Engineering University Technical College, found incorporating Lego into her teaching paid off and has now led to her work being recognised for an award.
She was nominated as one of 10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize, an award set up by the Varkey Foundation to celebrate extraordinary contributions to the teaching profession.
The use of Lego in her lessons began with the construction of plant or animal cells.
“The children were able to think in different ways,” Ms Vohra told The National, recalling the abstract thinking and creativity among the pupils through the use of Lego.
It created a “3D visual form” of ideas, helping to establish a “contextual hook” for retaining knowledge.
She has since refined her teaching strategy, travelling to Denmark to become a Lego education trainer in robotics and Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) learning.
Lego's impact in educational settings
Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen began producing Lego wooden blocks in the 1930s before switching to plastic when his factory burnt down.
The company now produces 60 billion Lego bricks annually, making it the largest toy maker in the world by sales. The company name derives from the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning "play well".
There are about 4 billion Lego mini-figures in the world – equal to more than half of the world’s population. Its ubiquity has given its charitable operation worldwide reach.
The foundation arm, an independent non-profit group owning 25 per cent of the overall company, was established in 1986 in Billund, Denmark, and dedicated to improving children's lives and strengthening communities through play and innovative learning.
The education element of this develops tools for teachers globally, taking advantage of its products such as Duplo and Mindstorms.
Ms Vohra has developed her approach to promote the design of workshops that resonate with real-world scenarios and global challenges such as conservation and green energy.
“As a student of design engineering, I realised that they needed to connect with real-world problems,” she said of her pupils.
“Students often recall Lego activities during exams and express how these activities assisted in answering questions effectively."
The foundation has been involved in a variety of projects, such as Play for All, a $20 million accelerator programme to support and celebrate the strengths of neurodivergent children.
A $100 million grant from the foundation helps the International Rescue Committee in developing play-based educational programmes in Ethiopia and Uganda.
Back in the UK, Ms Vohra pioneers similar techniques but here too faced some challenges, as other educators did not immediately see the value of incorporating Lego.
In the face of questions such as “How on Earth are you supposed to teach with a toy?” Ms Vohra says leading by example was the solution.
She uses Lego to represent complex psychological concepts through memorable activities.
For example, when teaching about the Stanford Prison Experiment and the British Psychological Society’s code of ethics, she integrated Lego to help pupils understand and retain key ethical concepts.
“I gave them some key terms … you've got two minutes to create this keyword … that relates directly to the experiment,” Ms Vohra told The National.
“I also use Lego to help them to write essays, give them colour-coded essay blocks.
"Sometimes I use it for them to design experiments. I get them to think about the flaws within studies, I even get them to use Lego to come up with criticisms of theories and studies."
It is now used in subjects such as English, maths, humanities and computer science.
Ms Vohra’s initiative has led to the integration of Lego into the curriculum, as a cornerstone in the school's educational approach.
Structured Lego programme
She has introduced a structured Lego programme, consisting of four distinct laboratories that feature workshops, professional training, project centres and a free-play lab.
Her work with the Lego programme is intertwined with her academic pursuits.
Through her PhD, she is aiming to “publish papers and possibly release chapters that are aligned with my teaching methodology, focusing on design engineering as a learning model”.
Ms Vohra's approach is fine-tuned to unique needs of each learner.
“There seems to be a very tangible aspect to this kind of learning that seems to live in their memory,” she said.
Ms Vohra said she hoped the curriculum would serve as a model for others.
“I want this – our model, our curriculum – to be a kind of a model for others to take inspiration from,” she said.
In one of her classes, Lego bricks were used to represent different parts of the human brain. In the hands-on classroom activity this is made real by movement.
Each colour or combination of the bricks corresponds to different areas or functions of the brain, as indicated by a diagram.
The Lego models are built to match the key on the diagram that identifies these regions.