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Lego lessons: Pilot program uses plastic, snap-together blocks to help socially challenged children learn life skills

Nikki Bettcher Erickson, left, and Jamin Johnson are eager to launch a Lego Fun and Friendship Club, a two-month pilot program for helping instill social skills in children with autism, attention deficit disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome and other challenges. The club is a project of The Resource Center Program at West Central Industries. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR — A pilot program is using colorful Lego blocks to help develop social skills and confidence in children with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder and other challenges.

While they are building imaginary houses, vehicles and towns, they will also learn how to be part of a group and make new friends, said Jamin Johnson, director of The Resource Center Program, and Nikki Bettcher Erickson, who will lead the Lego Fun and Friendship Club.

“It will be a safe place to work on those skills and to develop active friendships. Hopefully that will carry over into their life outside of the club,” Johnson said.

The two-month program for children ages 7 through 12 starts March 11 and goes until May 22.

The Resource Center Program works with families in the region who have children with special needs. Although many of these children are already receiving some form of services, all too often there’s a gap when it comes to helping them develop social skills, said Johnson and Bettcher Erickson.

A group of parents approached The Resource Center Program last year about offering more opportunities for their children to gain skills in listening, conversing and maintaining friendships. The program helped fund an independent, short-term pilot initiative, then sought feedback from the participants. What staff learned is that there’s a genuine need to do more, especially in instilling social skills that can carry children into adulthood.

“Parents are wanting more right now,” Bettcher Erickson said. “They want long-term benefits.”

Doing it with Legos might sound like fun and games. But there’s a body of research indicating the plastic, snap-together blocks aren’t only, in Johnson’s words, “super fun,” but also a beneficial tool for special-needs youngsters to experience and learn teamwork, sharing, empathy, taking turns and asking questions.

The West Central Industries Lego Fun and Friendship Club is aimed at children who have completed the earliest grades in school but aren’t yet old enough for middle school or junior high.

This is a time when children with autism or ADD or other socially challenging issues can begin to feel left out and perhaps even become targets for bullying by their classmates, Johnson said.

“This is the age when the birthday parties and the sleepovers start to happen,” she said. “We want kids to feel like they’ve got their own cool group they can hang out with.”

Many of these children have high IQs and do well in school, she noted. “It’s their friendship skills that are the most challenged. (The club) will be a tool impacting that in a positive way.”

The Lego Club will divide the children into teams during each 90-minute session and have them build something together.

Children on the autism spectrum tend to think very literally, so the Legos give them a concrete task, Bettcher Erickson said. “At the same time, we’re using our imagination and being creative, so it helps them work on things they may have a deficit in.”

The idea is not “to change anybody,” she said. “We want them to embrace who they are.”

While the kids are busy with Legos, their parents will have their own time together to connect and talk. At each session, families will be given a different social-skills task to work on between sessions. The Lego Club ends in May with an intensive “camp” during which kids can build a Lego city and create imaginary inhabitants with stories and dialogue.

Enrollment for the pilot program is filling quickly, and Johnson and Bettcher Erickson anticipate a waiting list.

“If this goes well and the families feel it fills a gap, we will host a club in each of our four locations — Kandiyohi, Meeker, Renville and Swift Counties — this fall,” Johnson said.

The skills that children can acquire by participating in a Lego club are those that will help them through their teens and into adulthood, she said. “We all want our children to learn practical living skills and one of the most practical living skills is getting along with people and having positive relationships with them. The bottom line is it’s about helping kids and their parents feel more empowered and more in control of their relationship interactions. … We’re really excited. It’s going to be cool.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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