Not just child's play: How Lego is helping to improve memory among the UAE's elderly

'Lego educators' have worked with children for years. Now they're building on that success to help their grandparents

An elderly play session in Dubai led by Lego educator Saira Gulamani. Photo: Golin Mena
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Lego was once considered purely a children’s toy, but a therapist in the UAE has introduced a new way to use the small plastic bricks that helps the elderly improve their communication, memory and motor skills.

Trained Lego educator Saira Gulamani has been working with children for years, but earlier this year began holding regular workshops with 4get-me-not, an Alzheimer’s patient support group, in addition to other elderly groups in Dubai.

“I think the approach is something very new,” she told The National.

“The seniors are enjoying it. One of the sessions that we just had was supposed to be one hour and it ended up being two hours. They didn't want to go. They were still playing, which is a good sign that that they're feeling that engagement.”

Lego may have originally been designed to be a child's toy, but many adults like playing with it, too.

According to Lego Group’s 2022 Play Well Report, 92 per cent of adults in Saudi Arabia and 94 per cent in the UAE say that play is fundamental to their happiness.

We’re looking to take it to Abu Dhabi next year when they start opening some social centres for seniors
Saira Gulamani

In addition, 95 per cent and 94 per cent of those surveyed in Saudi Arabia and the UAE say that playing with Lego bricks helps to improve their mental health.

Seniors who have taken part in sessions with Ms Gulamani have also seen many benefits, including improved social skills, collaboration, gross motor skills and better memory.

“They’re a great way to stimulate interest in learning exercises and group bonding. Everyone has a creative side and Lego bricks are a simple and appealing way to bring it out into the open," Ms Gulamani said.

"Not everyone has the confidence or talent to sing, draw or paint. But all of us can express ourselves in some shape or form with Lego bricks. That’s part of their beauty.”

The technique involves using six Duplo bricks, a larger Lego version for younger children.

Ms Gulamani, who is the only certified Six Brick facilitator in the UAE, said you could do a surprising amount of activities with a small number of bricks.

“You can build different shapes and things, but it's also playing games, you can do logic, you can do sequences, which are very popular.

“We do memory games with them,” she said.

“We tested one where you take a brick and you cover part of it, and say that's a half, that’s a quarter, and so on.

“You can even do maths where it is just one plus one, or denote a colour to a brick and make words like in Scrabble.”

The seniors also build towers with the bricks and use them to tell stories from their past.

“The first time they did it they were a bit nervous, they weren't sure,” she said.

“Now they're telling us stories about their childhood using the six bricks.”

She said the technique improves memory by using repetition.

“If I give you six bricks in a certain order, and I would say five seconds to build it, maybe you won't get it right the first time. But the next time I do it, your brain is now getting conditioned to look at it and build the memory skills again.

“What we found is the first time we did it nobody got it. The second time we did it two people got it. The third time, more and more are getting it because they're training their minds to build memory.”

Desiree Vlekken, founder and chief executive of 4get-me-not, said: “We play chess and other popular board games to encourage socialising, boost serotonin levels and improve cognitive function. Thanks to Saira, we have also rediscovered the world of Lego bricks.

“So far, we’ve had two group sessions incorporating Lego play.

"Just the sight of the colourful bricks is enough to bring out their inner child! It doesn’t take long before everyone is lost in a happy world of their own imagination.”

Ms Vlekken told The National they aim to hold at least weekly Lego sessions with the seniors.

“Since 4get-me-not depends on corporate sponsorships, we have managed only three sessions so far since September 2023,” she said.

“It's still an ongoing challenge and hopefully we can get more sponsors on board to subsidise costs for renting age-friendly venues, Lego facilitators, plus food and beverage.”

Ms Gulamani entered the programme into Wyakom, an initative run by the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development to identify solutions to address challenges faced by seniors.

Her submission, entitled the Young Again Movement, proposed creating a socially integrated and inclusive programme for the elderly based entirely on Lego bricks and was awarded for being one of the top 10 finalists.

The sessions have been such a success that Ms Gulamani is hoping to add sessions in Dubai and expand to Abu Dhabi.

“We’re looking to maybe take it to Abu Dhabi next year when they start opening some social centres for seniors – just get them together and just come and play,” she said.

Updated: January 05, 2024, 6:00 PM