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May 19, 2016 Using LEGO to Build Math Concepts By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5

    I was not one of those LEGO® kids growing up. Sure, my brothers had LEGO bricks, and every so often I’d kidnap some tiny LEGO men for a make-believe game. But I didn’t truly appreciate the engineering capacity of those studded plastic bricks. They were just so rigidly rectangular!

    As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate LEGO, both for its rectilinear aesthetic, and even more so, for its mathematical might. In the classroom, the tiny bricks are now my favorite possibility-packed math manipulative! Read on for a sampling of math activities that use LEGO pieces to build and reinforce key math concepts.


    LEGO – Not Just for Playtime

    Chances are that if you are a parent or teacher, you already know, at least in theory, that these sturdy plastic blocks have huge intrinsic educational value. Along with the obvious creative implications, while children play with LEGO blocks, they are also building their spatial and proportional awareness. Advanced LEGO kits are even used on the high school and college level for computer programming, robotics, and more.

    Let’s face it though – many elementary school teachers are women who, like me, did not grow up as LEGO experts. And until you’ve had some firsthand experience playing around with the blocks, you may not be comfortable using it as a teaching tool. So, here is my plea: Find some LEGO bricks in a storage closet or basement, and take some time exploring how they work. Count the studs, explore the dimensions, build some towers. And I guarantee, you’ll now be thinking … MATH!

    You'll undoubtedly find mathematical inspiration in a pile of LEGO bricks.


    LEGO for Building Part-Part-Total Thinking

    For younger mathematicians, composing and decomposing numbers is a key component of building the number sense needed for arithmetic operations. Students begin with small landmark numbers such as five (one hand) or six (a standard die,) and build towards the all-important ten.

    LEGO bricks are awesome for part-part-total explorations! As with other popular part-part-total math manipulatives such as dominoes or dice, these bricks have clearly marked chits (on LEGO we call them studs) for students to count. The studs are often grouped in twos, which facilitate counting by twos rather than counting the studs individually. With practice, students will recognize arrangements of studs, and will not need to count them at all (subitizing).

    Students can group combinations of two or more LEGO bricks and find the total number of studs, or students can start with a larger brick, cover part of it with a smaller brick, and figure out the amount of remaining uncovered studs.


    Download the LEGO Part-Part-Total Six and Ten Frame template.

    Download the LEGO Part-Part-Total Diagram template.


    LEGO = Colorful Ready-Made Arrays

    As a third grade teacher, I’ve spent hours and hours drawing arrays, modeling how to skip count with arrays, deconstructing arrays, and building arrays with a myriad of tiny things. (Raisins, pennies, grains of rice …) After all, internalizing why and how arrays work is a cornerstone of building multiplicative thinking among my budding mathematicians. (For more ideas about building multiplication concepts, see my blog post Total Recall: Helping Our Students Memorize Multiplication Facts.)

    Having a collection of LEGO pieces on hand during multiplication lessons is so useful. I whip a few out to reinforce the area model, to demonstrate square numbers, and to remind my students about the commutative property of multiplication. Here’s a photo tour of some of the possibilities for using Lego to teach multiplication, and of course, its twin sibling, division.

    Students can combine LEGO bricks to make a wide range of arrays.



    Exploring the factors of 48 using the area model and Lego bricks.

    Download my Multiplication and Division Exploration with LEGO for students to complete independently or with a partner.


    Tackling Fractions with LEGO

     Fractions always seem to trip up my students. Things get murky when we’re talking about different size “wholes” or when we switch from thinking about the fractions of one whole to fractions of a set. The only way to combat fraction-mayhem is to provide students with a LOT of opportunities to experience fractions with tangible objects. Pattern blocks are a popular fraction manipulative, but I like LEGO even more. (Pattern blocks can only be broken down into sixths when using the hexagon as one-whole. LEGO blocks have many more possibilities!)


    With guided inquiry packets, students can work independently on exploring new math concepts.

    Download my Equivalent Fractions Exploration with LEGO activity.


    Exploring Mean, Median, Mode, and Range with LEGO

    When analyzing data, upper elementary students explore various ways to express the “central tendency” of their data set; that is, various ways to express the average. When finding the mean (arithmetic average), students quickly learn to add all of the data and then divide the total by the number of data points. But very few students fully understand why they do this add-then-divide dance to find the mean. While evening out LEGO towers of varying heights, students have a first-hand experience of what “mean” means.


    Students "add" and then "evenly divide" four LEGO towers to discover the mean value.

    Download my Mean, Median, Mode, and Range LEGO Activity.


    Two Tips for Teaching with LEGO

    “Explore” Not “Play”

    Let’s be honest, the first time you put out a bunch of LEGO pieces during a math lesson, the students are going to be itching to build towers, stage battles, and trade bricks. Don’t fight the tide – embrace it, for a bit.

    Give your students a predetermined amount of time to “explore the mathematical possibilities of their bricks.” Really, this is just a fancy way of permitting the students to play around, but it will go much smoother later on if you get this sanctioned playtime out of the way. (For more ideas about managing the use of math manipulatives, check out Meghan Everette’s fabulous blog post Math Manipulatives: Learning to Control the Chaos.)


    Bag your LEGO into Kits

    When preparing for a LEGO lesson, I rarely give students access to the full range of LEGO pieces. Ahead of time, I prepare Ziploc bags with a careful selection of the pieces I know my students will need to complete the assignment.

    I also make sure my students understand how to return their bags of bricks. Bags are to be sealed and bricks are separated, unless they received a bag of “towers.” I often use LEGO-math as a math center activity, and the students are remarkably independent when they are provided with clearly labeled bags of specific bricks.


    What are your favorite math manipulatives? Do you use LEGO in the classroom? Share your suggestions, questions, and comments in the Comments section below!

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