Want to Grow an Engineer? Add Legos

Playtime with Legos and other building sets can help kids train their brains to better understand spatial relationships. (Photo: Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock)

A new study out of the University of Colorado at Boulder has confirmed what many parents already know: Playing with Legos and other building block sets can help kids develop better spatial relationship skills.

But what researchers also discovered was that those skills could impact a child's success in school — particularly in subjects such as science and engineering — later in life. The scientists also found that when kids play with these toys, it helps level the playing field by eliminating the gender bias that's usually present in fields that require a strong understanding of spatial relationships.

The impetus for the study was an informal survey conducted by Anne Gold, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a partnership of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado at Boulder who study weather, climate and the relationship between people and the planet.

Gold gave her undergraduate students in geology a test on spatial relationships. An ability to visualize the physical structures of the Earth is critical to understanding geology, so Gold was surprised to discover that her students' scores were all over the place; they got from 6 to 75 percent of the answers correct.

Spatial Skills test
For the spatial skills test, students were required to mentally rotate objects or visualize the cross section of an obscure shape. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Anne Gold/CIRES)

For the spatial skills test, students were required to mentally rotate objects or visualize the cross section of an obscure shape. (Photo courtesy of Anne Gold/CIRES)

Gold decided to dig deeper. Why did some students just seem to get it while others didn't? Gold and her team resurveyed the 345 geology students about not only their spatial relationship skills but also what (if any) sports they played as kids, what science courses they took in high school, what grades they got on standardized tests and what toys and video games they played with growing up.

The researchers discovered a link between kids with better spatial skills and their childhood play routines. Kids who played with Legos or certain video games had an easier time mentally rotating objects and visualizing how objects fit together. What's more, Gold's study found that playing with Legos and video games negated the gender bias. While men performed better overall than females on the spatial skills test, when researchers looked specifically at the kids who played with Legos and video games, they found men and women performed equally.

"I'm excited there's this positive message that we can train our brain and make a difference," said Gold.

Spatial relationship skills are useful in many fields, from architecture to engineering to the natural sciences. They also help kids succeed by helping them excel in everything from navigation to sports. So it's good news to learn that there is a way to help kids improve their spatial relation skills simply by playing with their favorite toys.