How to Organize 250,000 Legos!

This piece was originally published in School Library Journal on May 24, 2018.

I remember when I saw my first Lego wall.  It was on a blog called Total Geekdom in 2012.  This wasn’t just a flat Lego wall.  This installation wrapped around the room and extended onto the ceiling.  There were Lego minifigures scaling the walls and structures on the ceiling.  For a moment, I was transported back to 1979 and my ten-year-old self was in heaven.  It was about that time that I read Diana Rendina’s post on how to build an epic Lego wall. Within a few weeks, I had installed a Lego wall in our makerspace. The kids loved it and it remains the part of our makerspace that gets the most smiles.

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We have a lot of Legos. I’m not exactly sure how many, but I would estimate close to 250,000.  Lots of them were donations over the years.  With that many Legos, keeping them organized has been a challenge.  I wondered, how were others organizing theirs? I’ve seen a lot of beautiful storage solutions that might work with one or two kids, but not hundreds of builders every week.  Thus, I set off on my quest to find the greatest Lego storage solution on the planet!

I started by asking my PLN on Twitter for examples of their favorite Lego organizational tools and tips. Interestingly, I didn’t get a lot of examples, but what I did get a lot of people saying, “I’ll be following this post carefully.”  That told me I was on a worthy quest!

We use our Legos for a lot more than just building on our Lego wall.  We have used them for stop-motion animation, mathematical investigations, mosaics, storytelling and of course lots and lots of free building.

My first organizational strategy was to sort by color and I stored them in clear plastic bins.

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It worked fairly well, but clean up was tough.  Kids struggled with sorting due to the small bins and their proximity to the wall.  It was while I was on a school visit in Colorado that I stumbled upon the single best Lego storage solution in the world!

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These beautiful sorters were being used in a makerspace to hold a variety of tools, but I knew that they would be perfect for Legos!  I came home and immediately started searching for them.  It was a lot harder than I thought.  After many hours of searching, I found them online.  They weren’t cheap, but I knew they work perfectly for our space.

The sorters are made by a company called Akro-Mills.  They list several retailers on their site where you can find them.

The sorters are perfectly sized for kids to grab and go; but also for them to sort them when they are done.  We took our organizational game up a notch when my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Calito, found each Lego color’s official Pantone designation.  We taped these to the sorter sections.  This is especially helpful for the kids when putting bricks back after a section was completely empty.

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For other parts, like minifigures, wheels and other odds and ends, I keep them in their own special bins. Minifigures tend to walk away, so they are now enclosed in our display boxes.

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If a student wants to play with a minifigure, they trade me a shoe.  When its time to clean up, I find those kids and trade their shoe back for the minifigure.  Silly, but it works!  We have a ton of what we call people parts from some of our Lego kits.  We store all of these extras in medicine bottles that are labeled appropriately.  These costume parts come out a lot whenever we are doing stop motion or are using the Legos for storytelling.

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For our special Lego sets like Lego WeDo and Lego WeDo 2.0, we’ve broken the kits apart (they never stay together anyway) and have opted for a nut and bolt sorter box.  We hot glue one of what is inside each drawer to make gathering and clean up a bit easier.

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We use trays and small tubs for the kids to grab when its time to build.  NOBODY likes sorting Legos, but our kids have become quite good at it.  We use the ‘smorgasboard’ model.  Whatever you take you either have to build with or put back.  So, we encourage them to start with a few handfuls and they can always go back for more.

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It usually takes our Kindergartners a few gos before they realize it’s a lot more fun to build than sort.  This year I added a tub full of green and blue base plates.  Some kids like to build horizontally and then anchor their base plates on the wall once their creation is done.

Fun Fact:  you can sterilize your Legos by tossing them in a mesh bag from the dollar store and running through your dishwasher or washing them on the gentle cycle.  I purchased color coded mesh bags so that we didn’t have to completely re-sort our Legos after each wash.

I’ve collected tons of great ideas over on my Pinterest Board.   Head on over there to check them out and please add yours as well!

Stop Motion Storytelling

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One of my favorite storytelling tools is stop motion. When I learned that our first-grade students had been exploring story development, I knew it was time to introduce them to using stop motion.

Once I share stop motion with my students, I feel like I’ve opened a new door to creativity for them  Soon after, I get emails from parents clarifying the name of the app so that they can buy it at home for their student.

I start by showing the students this simple video from Boinx iStop Motion.

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This does a great job of introducing both the concept of stop motion and is also a quick overview of the app.

I begin using any new technology with some ‘sandbox time.’  I give my students two geometric shapes and told tell them to animate them.  These are the only instructions.  They had a blast and made all sorts of discoveries that I knew would be helpful for them as they use these tools to tell stories.

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To begin our first class movie project, I read the class, Should I Share My Ice Cream? by Mo Willems. We break the story down using a simple beginning, middle and end chart. Next, I give each set of partners the same three simple objects.  I wanted this project to be about stop motion, not about the props.  Each group then came up with a short story about how these three objects would interact and of course, share.  The students illustrated their stories with simple drawings in each of the three boxes.  After a quick conference about their plan, each group got to work.

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Here are a few tips I discovered while working with some of my youngest animators:

  • Planning out the ‘story’ is critical, especially when working in groups.  The beginning, middle and end chart helped a great deal.
  • Having the stations pre-set helped the students focus on animation rather than dealing with the stand, set, etc.IMG_3353
  • Simple objects are best for beginning animators; this takes the focus off the object and puts it on the animation.
  • Keeping the ‘camera’ in one place is helpful in creating a smooth animation. Use a bookstand to hold your tablet if you don’t have a fancy stand.IMG_5156
  • Put a little tape on both the stand and the ‘set’ to keep it in one place.  Excited animators move EVERYTHING around a lot!IMG_3449
  • A simple file folder makes a great set, and helps the animators have a sense of the limits of their ‘stage.’
  • Two Lego baseplates also work well as a stage. (Bonus: if you use a green file folder or a green baseplate, you have an instant green screen!)
  • Lego base plates also make it easy to ‘climb’ the wall or ‘walk’ around the space.  IMG_5153
  • I found putting the camera in a vertical orientation helped frame the set better than a horizontally.
  • Use a bookend and a little tape to ‘anchor’ your set.IMG_5150

Boinx iStopMotion has some powerful features that help students create high-quality animations quickly and effectively.  One of these features is the ‘onion skin.’  It sounds odd, but this allows the students to see a ghost image of the frame before.  This makes it easier for them to make incremental moves with each frame of their animation.  There are many features that we do not utilize with our youngest animators, which makes this an excellent program for students to ‘grow into.’

I typically have the students export their animations to iMovie where they can record voice-overs, add sound effects, titles and background music.  One last export and their films are done.

Here is one of my favorite examples from our recent stop motion projects.  Watch until the end and notice the characters bow!

Resources:

This book is a mind-blowing exploration of all types of animation for kids.  Once your students have the basic skills I’ve illustrated, this book will empower them to tell any story!

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Animation Lab For Kids

 

Do you use stop motion with your students?  What are your favorite tips?  What apps do you love?