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A LEGO Master Builder On Turning Your Kid Into A Tiny Architect

For more advice on fun stuff to do with your kids, from ridiculously overqualified experts, check out the rest of our 940 Saturdays.

You want to introduce your kid to the wonders of LEGO, not just because they’re awesome little blocks that foster creativity, but because you look way less ridiculous playing with them if there’s a kid sitting next to you. Chris Steininger can help. It’s his job to travel the country constructing everything from a life-sized model of Buster Posey to a gigantic X-Wing Fighters made out of tiny plastic bricks. Incidentally, he doesn’t look at all ridiculous if he does all that without a kid sitting next to him.

“I was one of those LEGO nut kids who was really into it and always building crazy stuff,” Steininger says. “I got my father involved with LEGO growing up. He would actually come home and build with me.” In the world’s best father/son business story, his dad loved building with his son so much, he went on to become a Master Builder for the company. Now, both Steininger and his father are 2 of 7 Master Builders in the world.

The chance of your kid joining their ranks might be limited (and your chances are even worse — no offense), but just playing with the stuff improves everything from spatial recognition to problem-solving to motor development. Here are some of Steininger’s tips on getting started and getting awesome.

Engage A Toddler’s Natural Inclination For Chaos
Steininger had his son and daughter playing with the LEGO-precursor DUPLO bricks by the time they were 2-years-old. Those are big enough that can’t get lodged in a nose (or a windpipe), and they’re easy to manipulate with digits that are still more fat than muscle. “When [my son] Chase and my daughter Ella were young, the best part about playing with DUPLO was they got to knock it down. The faster I could build that tower, the faster he’s tearing it down. That’s just good family time at a very young age.”

Little Kids Stack, Bigger Kids Build
“I’d say 5 to 6 range, they’re going to start to, start actually making things,” says Steininger. Once you notice your kid wants to be Bob The Builder (instead of Bob, Destroyer Of Worlds), it’s time to get them some “system bricks,” which is LEGO Nerd for “the classic ones you grew up with.” Once they get their mitts on pieces like the wheels with tires and window frames, just building towers is going to feel so 2014 to your kid.

When To Help
When you first move beyond basic sets and start working on specific builds, don’t worry if your kid seems impatient. If the box shows an awesome LEGO Star Wars Tie Fighter, they’re going to want the completed one now, now, NOW! and not the one that looks like it was already destroyed by the Rebel Alliance. “At a younger age you might want to help them build the model quickly, so they can then start playing with the model and the mini figures,” he says. You can still involve them in the building process, which sets seeds for future curiosity.

Give Them Problems To Solve
Here are a few games that Steininger played with his kids when they were younger:

  • Bridge Building: Set a timer. Have your kid(s) create a bridge they think will hold the most weight possible. Then put actual weight on it and test until destruction.
  • Tower Building: Set a timer again and have your kid build the tallest tower possible in the allotted time. Then, see if they can move the tower from one location to another without it falling over. Steininger recommends using this challenge to introduce the concept of interlocking bricks. Rather than build straight up, show them how to lay one brick over the seam of 2 bricks below. Structure, meet integrity.
  • Pizza Relay Race: Start by creating a “crust” of blocks. Then, using tongs, have the kids assemble “toppings” on the pie. Let them get creative on what constitutes a topping — Steininger uses red satellite dish pieces for “pepperoni,” 2×2 rounds for “sausage,” and curved boat pieces for “onions.” But don’t discourage colorful pieces for “jelly beans,” or “random pharmaceuticals.”

Ain’t No Party Like A LEGO Party
“There’s nothing more exciting for a kid than to be able to show off their creation and have an audience of their peers,” says Steininger. “It is definitely fun for them rather than just building at home by themselves.” He suggests inviting some of your kid’s friends over, dump a big pile of LEGOs in front of them and say, “I need you guys all to build your favorite animal.” Stand back and watch their tongues stick out in deep concentration. Try not to judge the results too critically.

Build Sideways
Once your kid has gone from stacking to building, the next step up is building sideways. “Just about every kid has some sideways-building bricks in their assortment,” he says, referring to bricks with nubs on both the top and the sides. Show your kid how to build off them to create design features, like the structural soffit on a mid-century modern home or textures, like the zits on a face. “That helps bring their building to the next level.”

Once They’re Better Than You
From the LEGO Architecture sets that recreate the Louvre to the LEGO Mindstorm sets that pre-create our robot overlords, there are no shortage of ways for those little bricks to scale with your kid’s skill level. Steininger is particularly fond of the LEGO Digital Designer, which lets them create models in a virtual environment and then print out instructions to build those in the real world. The results will look awesome on your kid’s application to Space X.

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