The building blocks of STEM-skills

Issue: Volume 103, Number 6

Posted: 15 May 2024
Reference #: 1HAgXU

Explore how Ōtāhuhu Primary School is building engagement and supporting the development of STEM-related skills through LEGO workshops.

Meritiana MacShane (associate principal), Clare Thompson (founder of The Brick Pit NZ), Jenny Bernard (principal) and Rachelle Peterson (associate principal).

Meritiana MacShane (associate principal), Clare Thompson (founder of The Brick Pit NZ), Jenny Bernard (principal) and Rachelle Peterson (associate principal).

Gathered around five tables piled with colourful building elements, Ōtāhuhu Primary School’s Year 5/6 bilingual Samoan class are fizzing to get creative.

Mixtures of multi-coloured LEGO pieces are ready to be transformed by the young hands, some of whom are getting to grips with the building bricks for the first time.

Aligned with the inquiry topic, ‘Where have all the bees gone?’, ākonga are poised to interpret the theme in 3D while learning about the environments and conditions these insects need to thrive.

“There is no right or wrong when engaging in these activities,” says Clare Thompson, founder of The Brick Pit NZ, who have been organising LEGO workshops in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland for the past five years.

“Students are learning at their pace and have the freedom to create original designs within the school’s inquiry topic, and beyond.”

After 25 years as a full-time art teacher, Clare founded The Brick Pit in 2019. Her love of sculpture led to her using LEGO in the classroom and she saw the impact it had on people of all ages.

“I initially introduced LEGO to the classroom as an extension of my art programme. Then I realised students were more interested in playing with LEGO than learning about art! I thought, ‘OK, how can I make this bigger?’”

Over the past five years, Clare has led LEGO sessions in schools across Auckland and the wider North Island, each designed to cater for the specific learning objectives of that school. Funding from the Ministry of Education has enabled her to bring ‘thousands’ of LEGO pieces to schools where she can make the greatest impact.

Engagement through self-expression

The sessions provide challenges that encourage children to problem solve and express themselves, says Clare.

“By incorporating LEGO into their curriculum through these workshops, schools foster creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and enable hands-on learning experiences that really light up their students.

“There is consistently 100 percent engagement in these activities. That is something that cannot often be said in a classroom setting.”

Ōtāhuhu Primary School principal Jenny Bernard sees firsthand the outstanding engagement this programme delivers.

“The most important thing for our children is that they are engaged. And here, they are not only engaged but they are creating – collaboratively.

“There are no barriers to learning for any children, including those who have English as a second language or have different abilities and needs.”

Jenny adds that many of their children wouldn’t have access to LEGO at home.

“For some, this is their first time experiencing creating with LEGO. Look around, there is not one child that is not engaged in this.”

By combining various shapes, colours, and sizes, students can be endlessly creative with building brick structures and models.

By combining various shapes, colours, and sizes, students can be endlessly creative with building brick structures and models.

Tangible and interactive

Clare has collaborated with various schools and educational institutions, including the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) and the New Zealand Maritime Museum, to incorporate LEGO into STEM and literacy learning. STEM learning draws on the science, technology, and mathematics and statistics learning areas of The New Zealand Curriculum. It also offers opportunities to connect with other areas, such as the arts and social sciences.

“LEGO provides a tangible and interactive medium for children to explore various concepts and ideas, allowing children to engage, experiment, make mistakes, and learn from them,” she says.

“Building with LEGO, children develop spatial awareness, fine motor skills, and logical thinking abilities.”

Promoting teamwork and communication skills are also key as children often work together in groups to complete tasks or solve challenges.

Clare says, “This aspect of LEGO workshops encourages students to share ideas, listen to others’ perspectives, and work towards a common goal. It also fosters a sense of community and belonging among participants.”


At Ōtāhuhu Primary, Year 5/6 bilingual Samoan class teacher Fiu Semo Letufuga is buoyed by what he sees.

“It’s great to see the children loving the activities, being engaged and concentrating on the tasks so well. They are so creative!

Fiu Semo Letifuga is the Year 5/6 teacher in the Samoan bilingual unit.

Fiu Semo Letifuga is the Year 5/6 teacher in the Samoan bilingual unit.

“I like to see them working on their own unique creations, as well as sharing, collaborating and communicating as part of a group at each table. They’re asking each other for ideas and sharing suggestions, as well as physically passing pieces ... Language skills are being developed on top of so much more.”

Pivot pieces of LEGO consisting of a ball and socket help teach children biomechanics and extend learning further. For example, beyond using such pieces to create a bird’s head that can rotate at different angles, discussion ensues around similar joints in the human body and what they are used for.

Year 5/6 student Hale steers sideways from the bee theme to create another flying creation.

He says, “I made an aeroplane because I wish I could fly! I want to test how it flies and how it lands or crashes.”

His fascination with flying is developed in an unexpected off-shoot from the inquiry topic.

Another student shares his thoughts in Samoan, ‘’Wow! Ua matou fiafia tele e galulue ile faaogaina o LEGO! Manaia tele.” Translated, he said, “Wow! My first time getting to use LEGO. I love it!’’

Creating a platform on which to ignite passions and light up young minds while putting the fun into furthering learning proves, as Clare and countless kaiako have discovered, there’s a lot more to LEGO.

Integrating building bricks in inquiry learning

Clare discusses the benefits of building bricks, such as LEGO, in inquiry learning.

Promoting creativity and innovation

LEGO bricks provide an open-ended platform for students to express their creativity and imagination. By combining various shapes, colours and sizes, students can develop unique structures and models, encouraging them to think outside the box and explore new ideas.

Fostering collaboration and communication

When working on LEGO projects, students need to communicate their ideas, listen to others, and collaborate to achieve common goals. This process helps them develop teamwork and interpersonal skills while also improving their ability to communicate effectively..

Encouraging critical thinking

LEGO activities often involve solving complex problems and making decisions based on available information. This process challenges students to analyse situations, identify potential solutions, and evaluate the consequences of their choices, thus enhancing their critical thinking abilities.

Enhancing spatial reasoning and maths skills

Building with LEGO bricks requires an understanding of spatial relationships, symmetry, and geometry. As students work on their projects, they develop spatial reasoning and mathematical skills without even realising it.

Increasing engagement and motivation

LEGO activities are fun and engaging, which helps maintain students’ interest and motivation throughout the learning process. When students enjoy what they are doing, they are more likely to invest time and effort into mastering new concepts and skills.

Best practice for successful inquiry learning

To maximise the benefits of inquiry learning activities, Clare suggests that educators consider the following best practices.

Clear learning objectives

Establish clear learning objectives that align with curricula and guide students’ exploration and discovery. Make sure activities support the achievement of these objectives.

Open-ended challenges

Provide challenges that allow students to explore different possibilities and develop creative solutions. Avoid giving too much guidance or providing specific instructions, as this may limit  imagination and innovation.

Collaborative workspaces

Create workspaces that encourage group discussion, idea sharing, and hands-on building. Provide enough space and resources for multiple students to work together comfortably.

Differentiation and scaffolding

Cater to individual  needs by differentiating activities and providing appropriate scaffolding. This may involve adjusting the complexity of tasks, offering additional support, or extending challenges.

Reflection and evaluation

Encourage students to reflect on their learning experiences and evaluate their progress. This can be done through group discussions, journals, or presentations, allowing students to share their insights and gain valuable feedback.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:08 pm, 15 May 2024

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