How Legos and blocks help make your child smarter

CTY researcher looks at spatial skills learned through play

CTY's Director of Research, Amy Shelton, shares tips for boosting learning skills in early childhood. Hint: go play!

Video: Center for Talented Youth

Those Lego bricks and wooden blocks littering your floor aren't just pain-inducing clutter. These favorite toys are helping your kid achieve in school and beyond.

"When kids are building with blocks and Legos, they're using spatial reasoning skills," says Amy Shelton, a cognitive psychologist and director of research at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. "These skills not only have a relationship to academics, but to the fields you might gravitate to, and where you're going to excel."

Shelton and her colleagues have several block play studies underway in the CTY Research Lab. In one, young children are given a Lego structure and asked to build a similar structure. Using electronic devices, investigators track the movement of Lego bricks as they observe how the children build. So far, they've discovered that kids with lots of block experience—so-called "master builders"—were deliberate in their movements and generally built structures from the bottom up.

Now Shelton, who has a young son and has stepped on a Lego or two herself, is working to quantify how these master builders create so she can develop a language of block building and determine how these building skills can be learned through training. Then she'll connect these spatial skills to the children's academic profile, cognitive skills, and school performance to see if there are any correlations.

She's certain that spatial skills learned through block play could soon be recognized as a factor in training tomorrow's scientists, mathematicians, tech professionals, and engineers.

"If you want to build future STEM enthusiasts, you need to start with fundamental skills and they need to come early," Shelton says. "Something as simple as making sure kids have exposure to block play would set them up for a future where they can build the right kinds of skills for whatever field they want to go into, and they won't be restricted because of their lack of early experience."