English Teaching Resources: Incidentally, That Lego Could Earn You Six Figures

Our “Incidentally” column shares English Teaching Resources & opinions about the state of education, from a teacher who has worked the systems for almost 25 years.

L.L. Barkat is K-12 permanently certified, holds a Masters in English & American Literature from New York University and a Master of Science for Teachers from Pace University, and has taught at every level of education preceding graduate school.

From college teaching of business and group dynamics to elementary teaching at a troubled urban district, from high school teaching at a private Hebrew day school to high school teaching at a leading U.S. public school, then on to K-8 of home educating two daughters (who are now enrolled in accredited distance learning schools for 9-12), Barkat has managed to form a few strong opinions about education along the way—and a whole lot of love for learning that she now pours into the business of Tweetspeak Poetry.


She used every last bit of string. Hangers. Stuffed animals. Ribbons. Blocks.

Whatever could be hung was strung. Whatever could be stacked was stacked. The dining room was a mess. A huge web of seemingly disparate connections. But to my daughter, aged 3 at the time, the “mess” was a grand sculpture, dynamic and intriguing (if not a little, um… obstructing… for the mother of the house).

Did it test my patience to have Charlotte’s Web plus The Guggenheim in my dining room, when I turned the corner from the kitchen? It did. (At least the part of me that could only imagine what this all meant for the future of house cleaning, as well as the question of where dinner might be placed in the scheme of things).

Recently, this same home educated daughter (now 16) was asked to “weigh in” with me, for an article at a major magazine that I didn’t get invited to write for until I was past forty. She and her sister are endlessly creative, thinkers to the nth degree.

Now I understand (partially) why.

And I am not going to stop talking about this: the power of legos, play doh, blocks. Yes, even in the high school English classroom. For, while it would be a source of pride to claim my children are geniuses, it simply isn’t true. Due to our approach to home education, they were (and are) allowed to spend hours on end in play.

In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Stuart Brown explains the genius phenomenon: the verdict is in, and it looks good for those who spent their childhoods (and still spend a portion of their adulthoods) in play.

That Lego there? Seriously. It could earn you six figures. It could shape your brain and make you smarter than the next guy.

One of my favorite stories in Brown’s book is about Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Brown notes, “You might say that JPL invented the Space Age. No matter how big and ambitious the goal, the researchers could always be relied on to say, ‘We can do that.'”

But then something happened. Researchers began to retire. New hires from top schools like MIT, Stanford, and Caltech were missing something. It is well worth reading the whole story, but here’s the bottom line: when JPL delved into the issue, they discovered *play* was not at play in the new hires.

“Those who worked and played with their hands as they were growing up were able to ‘see solutions’ that those who hadn’t worked with their hands could not.” The discovery was stunning. And now? JPL queries applicants during interviews, wanting to know… what was your play quotient as child?

Maybe that Lego won’t actually earn a kid six figures some day. Maybe it will simply develop “key cognitive functions such as attention, language processing…and more.” The very things we English teachers are pining over, as we watch declining attention and language skills and wonder where in the world we are going wrong.

Set it right today. Don’t make them *work* at English. Let them play.

play how it shapes the brain english teaching  resources


Teaching Tool: Lego Stories. No really. Try it. Give the kids Legos. Even if they are high schoolers.

Here at Tweetspeak, we’ve heard about insurance adjusters who play with toy cars to figure how to settle a claim. Why not let your students build their own stories, without you telling them what to build? Just ten minutes at the beginning of class (or two hours, if you are home educating!). Remember, play is more powerful if it isn’t weighed down with guidelines. Let the only guideline be: here, take some Legos and do something by yourself or with a partner.

Of course, kids really need more than ten minutes at play. How can you promote change in your district (college), around the issue of sustained play? Can you sometimes extend the ten minutes of classroom playtime to a half hour? Remember, the brain-sculpting play that is effective is three-dimensional, not screen-based.

Photo by Daspader, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by L.L. Barkat, author of Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing

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  1. says

    Oh! Ah! I’m married to an engineer and toy inventor, so this excites me to no end.

    And this: “Even if they are high schoolers”? I might even say, especially if they are high schoolers.

    • says

      Such a great point, Monica. The thing is, I’ve noticed, that once kids get to high school, we drown them in a deathly work approach.

      And we wonder why businesses are flailing, looking for better hires, for people who can think and communicate!

      • says

        I know, it’s ridiculous. My 10th grader has so much homework, he doesn’t have time to do some of the really great things he used to do (write a family newspaper called The Sharman Times, write/illustrate a page-length comic (Prince Valiant-style) based on the Battle of Britain, play Boggle with his mom). My husband wrote a letter to the principal and counselor…

        • says

          Okay, that brought tears to my eyes.

          We need to make serious changes in education (I know, you’ve all heard that before, but this time it is at crisis level).

          We need to truly “educate,” to “lead out” (love that cue from etymology) by motivating means. Not to push kids into dark, quiet boxes where play and language is absent.

          • says

            Rotten story!!! The comic and the family newspaper and Boggle with mom should BE the homework.
            Oh! to fill our classrooms with play and language….what a wonderful world this could be.

          • says

            In fact, perhaps “home work” should be replaced with “home play,” and an understanding that this is crucial for brain development and language facility.

  2. says

    From the beginning, the idea of play has underscored the approach at TweetSpeak. That approach is certainly one reason I enjoy being part of this community, why I’m still learning.

    Yes, poetry and writing can be serious stuff but poetry writing can be enormously fun. Being able to play with language opens one up to sounds and images and how words fit (or don’t). Forms like found poetry challenge discovery and creativity.

    Put that fun quotient in the English classroom and it will change students, and help make them all better writers.

  3. says

    That was one of my favorite stories in the book too, Laura. It made me want to teach my boys carpentry. It’s true we have more book smarts than hands on diddling these days. I wonder why that is? Or maybe, as your home education approach suggests, it depends on the parents. So many good tidbits in Brown’s book. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it.

    • says

      More than enjoyed. It is *must-know* information, and I’m so glad I found it in your book! :)

      Yes, let them be carpenters. Anything but just screen-play for pastimes. (That info about how the MRIs showed radically different brain response to 3D versus flat screen was amazing. Parents need to know these things. And educators. Heck, just everyone who doesn’t realize what builds the brain and life satisfaction.)

  4. says

    Ah! This is a portion of something I wrote this on my timeline yesterday… “My son’s bedroom is a DISASTER ZONE. He’s a collector of sticks and rocks and antlers; a builder of sling-shots and swords and bows; an inventor of all sorts of devices that run on boy-power.

    The good majority of our home education material also lives in his room.

    Today I ordered an auto body shop storage cabinet system for his bedroom. He wanted red, but it was sold out. Gray it will be. We’re all terribly excited about this upgrade. I shall post images along the way. You may pass out in utter disbelief at the current state of his bedroom; however, you shall not hold it against me. It’s not filthy or grimy, just cluttered. Really cluttered.

    Anywho… that’s what’s shaking in the woods.”

    I hesitate to suggest order to his chaos, because I don’t want him to confuse containment with boxing it in. BUT I can no longer get to his bed for nighttime prayers without a guide dog &/or repelling ropes.

    Open-faced, deep shelves haven’t worked, but the auto-body theme is something he’s all about. Plus, (and the main point) is that it’ll be funTastic.

    Thanks, miss L.L. for this piece, for this series.


    • says


      Darlene, I’m thinking I know I was a teacher, but you can be relieved now of calling me Miss. It makes me feel like an old school marm 😉 And your blessings will always go without saying. (I know, I know, I am probably being teacherly now. I’m just wanting to let go of the formalities between us and be the peers we actually are, because you are a teacher too, and a darn good one, I’m sure.)

      Okay, that aside.

      I am thrilled to no end that you give the boy what he needs to build his brain. You won’t be sorry for it. Between the current brain research and the play research, your method is absolutely the rockin-est type. Of course there is the matter of finding a path to the bed 😉

      • says

        You’d be astonished at what the kiddo builds. Someday I’ll do a photo inventory.

        And yes, ma’am, I shall try to drop the formalities, but I still fear a spanking and some thought processing time in the corner.


  5. says

    Laura, sometimes I think we live in the same brain reading your words….ones I’ve repeated and played with over and over again in the 25 years I’ve been in Education.

    I subbed in music last week and the teacher briefly began to relate a lesson about teaching the staff lines acronym–‘Every Good Boy Does Fine.’ When I paused to listen quizzically, she asked me if I’d taught music before. I told her I’d been singing most of my life and teaching music and movement for over 20 years. “Fine,” she said, “do what ever you want.”
    So the 5th graders and I sat in a circle with hand drums and rhythm sticks and beat out patterns, played ‘Secret Song’ and sang “Here We are Together” on the floor.

    I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.
    And all they could say was, “Man this is fun!”
    Still continuing to be subversive and help turn the tide (or at least throw a pebble in the water) where I can.
    No less than a revolution is called for, you are correct.


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