I love Lego – always have, always will. From a young age I could sit and build with it for hours (still would given half the chance!). I cannot describe the amount of pure pleasureI derived from placing one coloured plastic brick on top of another. And, joy of joys, it was the toy that grew with you. I remember getting my first ‘Technical Lego’ set - the cool holes in the bricks, the cogs and levers… I could go on.
Of course this passion with Lego has led me to buy virtually nothing but Duplo, Lego, and other construction toys, for my children and grandchildren at every given opportunity. And, quite rightly, they’re all addicted too. You could dump the lot of us on a desert island with nothing but a giant tub of Lego and we’d be quite happy. I guess we’re just a little bit odd.
Because of this mild Lego obsession I have to admit it was an absolute joy to discover that there are a few Lego style applications that would allow me (okay – and other people) to build away to my heart’s content without the need for gazillions of bricks. Even better, they were all free. Result thought I! I also figured that there were probably a large number of like minded pupils at school who would love it too, and I wasn’t wrong.
The first application I came across was BlockCAD – a simple program that used Lego style bricks. It has an amazing selection of bricks, you can work with or without a baseplate (you choose the dimensions and colour) and there are downloadable instructions and model examples you can follow or look at for inspiration.
You can change the view, rotate and flip the model, zoom in and out and save your created models; either as images or as projects you can continue working on at a later date. There’s also an online community, with a forum and gallery, just in case you need a bit of inspiration. You’ve also got the option of removing the bumps and building with smooth bricks if you wish. How about using it to design and build a Tudor house or a Roman villa? Maybe pupils who aren’t so good with pencil and paper could use it to assist them with Design Technology projects that link to buildings or vehicles. As the advert once says (and the name of it escapes me); the possibilities are endless.
There are a few issues I’ve come across that you might want to check out before you start encouraging pupils to build with this application. Firstly, some of the elements that you’ll want to use are not in obvious places. You access the different brick types via a drop down menu on the right hand side of the screen. Some of the categories have really odd names (e.g. New 3, Page 20) and the doors, which most children are going to want to use, are in a category called Antonio Santos! Another potential problem you might want to check out is the way bricks line up. A lot of younger pupils find it easier to build in plan view and rotate it to check their creation. It should work perfectly well in other views but some people I’ve come across have had difficulty getting the bricks to go in the correct place if they’re building in an elevated view. It’s also not obvious that you use right mouse click to rotate bricks! Despite all these potential stumbling blocks it is a program that will give many people hours of enjoyment and could be used in a classroom environment to enhance activities.
Lego themselves have also developed a free downloadable building and designing package: Lego Digital Designer. This is far more stylish looking (as you’d expect from a Lego product) and has all sorts of additional features and options that BlockCAD just does not have. You can run the program as a stand alone offline activity or you can download an additional patch to link to online extensions. You can also choose to develop ideas that link to specific Lego sets, Mindstorms and Creator, plus a Lego Factory option. With any of the three choices you can begin with a starter model or build and design freely.
As with any product, there are pluses and minuses. The layout is far less cluttered that the low tech looking BlockCAD, and the program looks the business. You can link to official Lego designs and products and placing the bricks seems to be easier. You also have the ability to run it on Mac or a Windows PC. On the flip side of this, the product needs a much higher screen resolution than BlockCAD (so if you’re set to 800×600 it will open but most of the features will be off the screen), not a big issue but worth mentioning. Why not have a play with both and see which you prefer.
Finally, why not have a bit of fun with Mini-Mizers. A simple bit of fun that pupils seem to love – just make sure you use the ‘kid-safe’ version‘ when at school, as some of the others have options that just are not suitable for use in school! It’s a fun avatar creator that could also be used to design comic strip characters that you could use in a program like Comic-Life or a simple PowerPoint Comic Book Template. The image above was created using Mini-Mizer 3, not the ‘kidsafe’ version. The version for children creates characters that are a little more clunky looking and simplified, but the fun factor is still the same and there are numerous options for pupils to try out. Just so you can see the difference, here’s another mini me created with the ‘kidsafe’ version.
So, there we have it. A chance to work with a childhood favourite in a modern way. If you’re already into Lego you’re going to love these applications. And, even if you’re not a Lego enthusiast, I’m sure you could find a way to use the in your classroom!