June 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

How To Organize 250,000 LEGO Pieces

I remember when I saw my first LEGO wall. It was on a blog called Total Geekdom in 2012. This wasn’t just a flat LEGO wall. This installation wrapped around the room and extended onto the ceiling. LEGO minifigures scaled the walls and ceiling.

For a moment, I was transported back to 1979 and my 10-year-old self was in heaven. It was around the time of seeing the wall that I read Diana Rendina’s post “How To Build an Epic LEGO Wall.“ Within a few weeks, I had installed a LEGO wall in our library makerspace at the Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, IL. The kids loved it, and it’s still the part of our makerspace that gets the most smiles.

LEGO walls at the Hubbard Woods School.

We have a lot of LEGOs— I’d estimate close to 250,000. Many were donations over the years. Keeping that many pieces organized has been a challenge.

I wondered, how were other educators organizing theirs? I’ve seen beautiful home storage solutions. These don’t work with hundreds of builders a week. Thus, I set off on my quest to find the greatest LEGO storage solution on the planet.

I started by asking my PLN on Twitter for examples of their favorite organizational tools and tips. Interestingly, I didn’t get much. But I did get a lot of people saying, “I’ll be following this post carefully.” That told me I was on a worthy pursuit.

We use our LEGOs for a lot more than just building on our wall. They’re involved in stop-motion animation, mathematical investigations, mosaics, storytelling, and of course lots and lots of free building.

My first organizational strategy was to sort by color. I did so and stored them in small clear plastic bins next to our wall.

It worked fairly well, but cleanup was tough. Kids struggled with sorting due to the small bin size and their proximity to the wall.
It was while I was on a school visit in Colorado that I stumbled upon the single best LEGO storage solution in the world.

At the Colorado school, these beautiful sorters were being used in a makerspace to hold a variety of tools. But I knew that they would be perfect for LEGOs. I came home and immediately started searching for them. It was a lot harder than I thought. After many hours of searching, I found them online. The sorters are made by a company called Akro-Mills. It lists several retailers on the site where you can find them. They weren’t cheap, but they’re worth every penny.

The sorters are perfectly sized for kids to grab and go, but also for them to sort them when they are done. We took our organizational game up a notch when my colleague, Jennifer Calito, found each LEGO color’s official Pantone designation. We taped these swatches to the sorter sections. This is especially helpful for the kids putting bricks back in sections that are completely empty.

I keep other types of LEGO, like minifigures, wheels, and more odds and ends, in their own special bins. Minifigures tend to walk away, so they are now enclosed in our display boxes.

If a student wants to play with a minifigure, they trade me a shoe. When it’s time to clean up, I find those kids and trade their shoe back for the minifigure. It works beautifully! We have a ton of what we call “people parts”—essentially LEGO costume character pieces—from some of our kits. We store all of these extras in medicine bottles that are labeled appropriately. These come out a lot whenever we are doing stop-motion or are using the LEGO for storytelling.

For our special LEGO sets like LEGO WeDo and LEGO WeDo 2.0, we broke the kits apart (they never stay together anyway) and opted for a nut and bolt sorter box. We hot-glued one of the what’s inside each drawer to make gathering and cleanup easier.

Nobody likes sorting LEGOs, but our kids have become quite good at it. We use the smorgasbord model. Whatever you take you either have to build with or put back. So, we encourage them to start with a few handfuls. They can always go back for more.

It usually takes our Kindergartners a few rounds of LEGO play before they realize that it’s a lot more fun to build than sort. This year I added a tub full of green and blue base plates to our collection. Some kids like to build horizontally and then anchor their base plates on the wall once their creation is done.

LEGOs are a fabulous tool that inspires both creativity and innovation. When they are well sorted and organized, students spend less time looking for what they need and more time creating their own awesomeness!

Fun Fact: You can sterilize your LEGOs by tossing them in a mesh bag from the Dollar Store and running it through your dishwasher or washing machine on the gentle cycle. I purchased color-coded mesh bags so that we didn’t have to completely re-sort our LEGOs after each wash.

Those of you who have a huge amount of bricks, you might be interested in this awesome machine that sorted two metric tons of LEGO bricks.

I’ve collected loads of great ideas over on my Pinterest Board. Check them out, and please add yours as well.

Todd Burleson, SLJ’s 2016 School Librarian of the Year, is the resource center director at Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, IL. 

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Comments

  1. Shelley DeLosh says:

    Great article! I especially love the way the kids have to leave a shoe as collateral when using mini-figures. You’re right … mini-figures walk away easily!

  2. Todd Burleson says:

    Thanks! I buy what seems like 100 new characters a year. This helps for sure!

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