Think inside the toy box: boosting your child's learning potential

A digger that flies and shoots slime, a house with a waterslide in it, a dinosaur farm: when it comes to creating stuff, kids are expert 'outside the box' thinkers. Mum of five children and head of Child Forum, Dr Sarah Alexander, shares her tips on how playing with LEGO® DUPLO® bricks strengthens important building blocks in your child's learning development.

Dr Alexander Duplo

Problem solving

As little ones grow, they start to develop the ability to think in unusual ways, solve problems and ultimately pave their way to becoming an adult, says Dr Alexander (pictured left).

“Learning how to problem solve is about shifting the responsibility back to the child to find a solution.

"Playing with LEGO® DUPLO® bricks will consistently involve problem solving. DUPLO and creative play opportunities are unlimited in terms of increasing the level of difficulty and possibilities of what a child can create.”

There are different types of problem solving with DUPLO, Dr Alexander says, such as  STEM skills, where kids are learning the basics of engineering - how to ensure a structure is secure and safe. Making the base of a DUPLO tower strong and sturdy enough to keep the tower standing, is a good example of developing STEM skills.

DUPLO can also boost a child's imagination, Dr Alexander says.

“When the child is participating in imaginary play, they can create problems within that world, for example, the cat is stuck up the tree, what can we build to get the cat down safely?”


Co-construction is when an adult and child are learning together, says Dr Alexander, and gving your child ownership of the project strengthens their learning.

"Put yourself in the position of a learner and ask the kids to show you how to do things. This is huge for the child’s development, showing them that you value their thinking.”

Early maths

Introducing the language of numbers and maths through playing with DUPLO means children are having fun - without realising they are doing maths.

"You could ask, how many blocks have you got? We’ve got one block, do you need four more blocks, okay one, two, three, four. Eventually they will start to pick up on the order of numbers, then they learn to match objects to numbers, they know that in their hand they have two blocks and now they have three blocks," she says.

In the future when they're learning equations, they’ve had that concrete experience doing them, they've gained knowledge and a good grounding of maths through play, says Dr Alexander.

Recall and memory

Dr Alexander says it's important that kids do more than 'just learn'.

Research has shown that if you talk with your child about their project later, then it's more likely they'll remember  what they did, she says.

"The child is more likely to go back to their house and build a more difficult version of it".

"Your presence within their learning is vital, bring their play up in conversations. For example, you could say to your child, 'do you remember yesterday when we were building that tower and you told me that it fell over to easily, why don’t we have a go again and see if we can make it sturdier'?”

Scaffolding techniques

‘Scaffolding’ is a term for a method of teaching, about giving support to children with their learning – similar to the support and structure a scaffolding base gives in construction.

Dr Alexander says parents could use scaffolding techniques to help extend their child's knowledge, and help them constantly adapt to changing circumstances.

“Children’s knowledge will be changing all the time, and parents/teachers need to adjust their support techniques accordingly. Scaffolding can help support a child to a higher level of performance. Creating opportunities for a child to reach a new level of development. For example, there are some more bricks over there, can you add them into your construction?”

Dr Sarah Alexander is the chief executive of Child Forum – New Zealand’s leading childhood education national organisation, and a former early childhood education teacher. She is also a mother of five, and has a wealth of knowledge in pre-school development and learning through play.


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