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!

Choosing a Sewing Machine For Your Makerspace

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Sewing machines are a marvelous creative tool to add to your STEAM space.  It can, however, be a little daunting when you try to decide which one to purchase.

There are many brands and price points to choose from.  I don’t claim to be a Sartor, but I have done a great deal of basic sewing; most of that sewing has been with elementary-age students.  No matter the age of your makers, most of what I have to share will still apply.

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General Guidelines:

Basically, any ‘real’ sewing machine will be fine.  I say ‘real’ because there are many ‘Jr.’ sewing machines out there marketed at kids and they are worthless.  They will cause you more grief than joy.  Don’t even bother.  I say ‘fine’ because if you only have one or two, you will only have a few students working on them at any one time.  If you are adding multiple machines, so that a large group can sew at the same time, you’ll want to read on.

Budget:

Sewing machines are like cars.  You can buy a sturdy Honda or a luxurious Tesla.  They both move you from point A to B.  How they do it and what creature comforts you experience along the way are what you pay for.  An excellent machine can be purchased for under $200, and some can cost more than $2,000.

Sewing Machine Diagram

Features:

More is better right?  Why would you go with the machine that has 259 stitches instead of 9? I believe in giving new sewers choices, but not many. If it has a switch, button, toggle or knob, it WILL be bumped, jostled and flipped during a sewing project.  That will mean a lot of seam ripping and frustration for both you and the sewers.

I recommend a sturdy machine that has very few knobs or dials and under a dozen stitches.  One feature that divides some experts is the front-loading vs. the drop in bobbin.  I’ve never sewn on a drop in bobbin so I really can’t speak to their ease. I learned to sew on the machine I bought my daughter a decade ago.  This machine had a front loading bobbin and I’ve stuck with it in subsequent machines. Another feature that some people swear by is the ‘self-threading’ needle.  My new machine has this feature, but I never use it.  I never seem to get it to work correctly and by the time I do, I could have easily done it by hand and so I do.

Brands:

There are many excellent options available today.  The big names are Singer, Brother, Janome, and Juki.  Each of these brands offers a variety of price points to choose from.

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Recommendations:

I have recommended the Janome 3128 to everyone who has asked.  I chose this machine because it is solid, simple and reliable.  I’ve seen it advertised on Amazon for anywhere from $99 to $175.  When we began our IDEA Lab, I purchased three at $99.  I quickly realized that three machines was not enough for a classroom project.  The next year I added 8 more.  Having 11 of the exact same machine saves time and frustration.  I know these machines inside and out.  It is easy for me to make tutorials and instructional videos for my students because all of the machines are the same.  The machine isn’t perfect. Getting the thread tension correct is a challenge, but that can be the case with any machine.  At this price point, it also makes it difficult to justify the service fee of $50 an hour for repairs.  After a few years now of using the machine, I have gotten pretty good at fixing and maintaining the machines.

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When the thread tension spring popped on one of our older machines, the only way to see if it could be fixed was to remove the plastic cover on the machine.  This wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.  In the end, I was unable to fix the tension knob, but I did create an amazing teaching tool!  Now, I can show the students how each of the parts of the machine actually works by showing them the ‘inside’ of the machine.  I think you’ll agree, it’s pretty fantastic!

Whatever machine you end up purchasing, the best and most obvious advice I can give is to sew with it!  If you do, you’ll encounter the same problems your students will and that will help you prepare for a real project with your students. 

No matter how much training you do with your students, they will need your help.  In the middle of a big sewing project, I feel like a member of a Nascar pit crew.  A student’s hand goes up and I slide in, flip open the bobbin door. Rip the bobbin case out.  inspect it.  Rethread and replace it.  Rethread the machine and the needle, sew a practice swatch. Hop up and send them on their way.  All under one minute!  This only happens through familiarity.  I’ve had many nightmares about bobbins spinning and hundreds of yards of tangled thread!

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Good luck!  I think you will find that the sewing machine will ignite new ideas in your students and teachers.  Just this year, every student in our K-4 school completed a sewing project.  After seeing the skills the students had developed the fourth grade team decided to take on an apron project that put all of these skills to the test.