Nothing attracts boys like a Lego club
By Abbe Klebanoff — School Library Journal, 07/01/2009
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Go ahead, say it. Toys don’t belong in the library. That’s probably what some of you still think. But my library outside Philadelphia was having such a hard time attracting boys who had outgrown storytime that we decided to try something new. So we started a Lego club.
Photo by Molly Carroll.
Since our June 2008 kickoff, we’ve been amazed by how many kids show up for our program just to play with these colorful interlocking plastic bricks.
Located in an affluent suburb, the Radnor Memorial Library has a lot of competition. There’s sports, music, horseback riding, swimming, and all the things kids do with their computers. But that hasn’t stopped the under-14 set from rushing to our basement community area each month.
Without fail, about 50 kids ranging from toddlers to teens march down to our Winsor Room at 1:30 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month for the sole purpose of building with these simple blocks. And we practically have to kick them out when the session ends at 3 p.m.
Playing with Legos offers them something physical, something imaginative, and something mechanical. And, of course, they love the challenge of building on a different theme each time we meet. Little do these boys know that there’s an ulterior motive—to get them to read.
What’s the connection between Legos and books, you ask? Promoting play contributes to early literacy development by increasing attention span, memory, creativity, and language and vocabulary skills. It also lays the foundation for logical mathematical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving—things they’ll carry with them throughout their school years, says “Play = Learning,” a recent study by Dorothy Singer, a senior research scientist at Yale University’s Department of Psychology and Child Study Center.
Another study published in the journal Science and Children compared traditional textbook learning to learning with hands-on manipulatives like Legos. It found that tactile and kinesthetic learning increase student understanding. In other words, play paves the way for learning—and that was enough evidence for our library to launch a club like no other we’ve had before.
Once children enter our Lego club room, they’re greeted by Ed Seidl, a local father of two and our designated club leader, who comes up with themes and acts as the liaison between the club and its members. We’ve found that parent-driven programs enhance community building and make people feel the library is a friendly family destination.
The sparsely decorated room is open and inviting, with seven large plastic tubs filled with thousands of Legos of all sizes strategically placed around the perimeter—each clearly labeled for ages 0–3, 4–7, 8–11, and 12–14. Duplo blocks, measuring twice the width, height, and depth of a standard Lego block, are for the younger ones. For older kids, we have thousands of pieces from Lego-themed play sets, including space, robots, castles, dinosaurs, undersea exploration, and the Wild West, as well as Star Wars, Batman, and Sponge Bob Square Pants.
Incorporating literacy is deceptively easy. Before starting, I suggest reading aloud three books based on the monthly theme, devoting three 10-minute sessions to each age group. Last month’s club fell on Father’s Day, and the books that perfectly fit the occasion included Daddies (NorthSouth, 2007) by Lila Prap for three- to five-year-olds; Fishing in the Air (HarperCollins, 2000) by Sharon Creech for those ages five to eight; and for older elementary school kids the first few chapters of Football Fugitive (Little, Brown, 1976) by Matt Christopher.
To help with ideas, before we begin I show a three- to five-minute slide show of photos of Lego creations taken from Flickr and Google Images. Then, for the next hour, their imaginations take over.
Photo by Abbe Klebanoff.
One of the most memorable creations was a complex six-story maximum-security prison that a 12-year-old built with his father. Two boys constructed a medieval landscape that included a moat, an enormous castle, and three separate wings. And another boy crafted a huge black-and-red-striped spider with eight long legs to prop it up.
Although girls are a minority, they love Legos just as much. Two girls from Korea who could barely speak English a few years ago always attend, and because of the club, they’re not shy about asking me to recommend books.
When everyone’s done, we videotape and take photos of the completed works, and then everyone presents their creations to the group. The goal is simple—to have fun. Even cleanup becomes a communal event.
Afterward, I send mass emails to those who attended and place the photos and videos on our blog (www.radnorlibrarylego.blogspot.com), along with the date of our next meeting and its theme.
Making sure there’s a current book display based on our monthly theme is key because it sparks interest in a new subject and boosts circulation. For our military theme in May, I laid out Submarines (Lerner, 2006) by Matt Doeden, Inside a Rocket (Grolier, 2001) by Tom Jackson, and for the younger kids, Tanks (Lerner, 2006) by Jeffrey Zuehlke. In all, I placed 25 different titles on subs, tanks, rockets, and ships for children in grades Pre-K to fifth grade near the circ desk—and 18 of them flew out the door. On average, about three-quarters of the books on display always get checked out.
There’s no denying that our Lego club drives traffic to the children’s department. Seidl says the vast majority of attendees—75 percent of whom are mainly boys between the ages of five and nine–either arrive before the gathering begins or linger afterward to browse and take out books.
In just 12 short months, our membership has more than doubled to about 60. And our circulation has shot up, too. According to our stats, on the Sundays that our club meets, the number of circulating nonfiction titles—a favorite of younger male readers—is always higher than on any other Sunday.
Even during the height of summer reading, when the circulation of kids’ books is at its peak, the number of nonfiction titles checked out on Lego days surpasses any other Sunday. Last July, for example, the number of children’s books that circulated on Lego day accounted for 4.5 percent of our total circulation. That number was only 2.8 percent the same day the week before.
The idea for our club began in early 2008, when Dorothy Carlson, our head of children’s services, read about a wildly successful Lego contest in Texas on the online discussion board PUBYAC (Public Libraries, Young Adults, and Children) and asked if we could duplicate it.
The first thing we did was solicit Lego donations (no money) from the public through our Web site and hang flyers throughout the library. We were overwhelmed by the response. Within two weeks, thousands of Legos, from the complex Bionicles kits to the Racers car sets, flooded into the children’s department.
I must confess that I never grew up with Legos. My playtime wasn’t filled with tactile activities, nor did I appreciate their appeal. My childhood was spent devouring the sci-fi works of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ursula K. Le Guin. So when the phone calls inquiring about the contest poured in by the dozens, I was, to put it mildly, struck speechless. We were completely unprepared for the passion and intensity that folks had for these brightly colored plastic pieces. And talk about timing—it all happened to coincide with Lego’s 50th anniversary. The contest, held in February 2008, drew 65 kids and was such an enormous hit that we immediately knew we had to turn it into a regular program.
We’re not the only ones convinced that toys like Legos belong in the library. Just listen to what our young visitors have to say:
“I like Legos because you can just build anything you want with them,” says nine-year-old Daniel Kibblewhite, who has yet to miss a monthly meeting. “You can use a variety of different pieces, new pieces, old pieces, and in-between pieces.”
Charin Park, also nine, says it’s just plain fun, and she loves building with her two young cousins, Yerin and Minchul Ku.
I can’t tell you how many kids—and parents—beg us for a weekly Lego club. But we just don’t have a dedicated space for it.
There is hope, however. We’re exploring the possibility of having the club meet on rainy days. And I think it just might happen.
|Abbe Klebanoff (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the children’s librarian at Radnor Memorial Library in Wayne, PA.|