With Lego pieces strewn across tables and piled in buckets, children grabbing for reds or blues and digging through piles for coveted wheels, it looks as though it's absolute chaos in a small church classroom.
But really, children with autism, Sensory Processing Disorder or ADHD are learning how to interact with one another, practice patience and master conflict resolution, all while creating their own Lego masterpieces.
Some children are there just to make friends and learn social skills, not realizing they're practicing tolerance, only that they're having fun playing with an endless amount of Lego pieces.
But they're actually participating in the Effingham Lego Social Club, which began in September by Effingham resident Patty Hooper, whose 8-year-old son, Danny, has high-functioning autism with his biggest weakness being social skills. Patty and her husband, Bil, were traveling to and from Charleston for Danny to participate in a social skills group through The Autism Program of Illinois.
But because the couple had worked with their son on recognizing facial expressions and understanding what others are feeling, Danny needed a club that was more advanced where he could interact with other children more. In addition, the drive became a hassle and Patty knew there were children in the area who could benefit from a local club, so she decided to start her own.
After a friend told her about Lego therapy, Patty researched and found Lego-based social developmental therapy through the Center for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Health in New Jersey. The drawback was the expense for training, which totaled about $975.
Patty and Bil applied for a Pepsi Refresh grant funding last May and received $5,000. After paying for training, the remaining monies went toward supplies -- boxes upon boxes of Lego sets -- plus card tables, a laminator and laminating sheets for Lego set instructions since they are used often.
Since fall, approximately eight children ranging in ages from 5 to 14 meet the second and fourth Friday evening of the month. They don't just hang out and play with Legos, though.
In the first phase of the evening, the children work in groups of two to three and decide what Lego set to construct. Each child gets a responsibility, such as gathering the correct pieces or snapping them together. Because they have a time limit, the children have to learn how to compromise and come to a consensus quickly so they have more time to construct their set.
The structure helps them learn patience, rules and conflict resolution. Volunteers watch over the groups to make sure no one child is taking over, but volunteers also walk the fine line between leading and lecturing. In addition, the children regulate the groups themselves, deciding who needs a timeout if tempers flare.
The second phase of the night involves free build, or letting the children break out of their groups and build whatever they wish. However, because the club focuses on social skills and interaction, they must always be playing side by side, even if it means asking someone to hand them a Lego piece.
"It's less structured and there's a little more conflict, but they use their imagination and build what they want," Bil said while sifting through an ice cream bucket full of black Lego pieces for wheels and piecing together a green dinosaur at the same time.
The Legos are sorted by color so the children can find what they need more easily, and as any dedicated Lego builder knows, the perfect piece makes all the difference.
Effingham resident Joy Rubin brings her son, 9-year-old Isaiah, and her daughter, 8-year-old Ariel, to Lego club, even though her children haven't been diagnosed with a disorder. Isaiah tried sports, she said, but didn't seem interested. Legos are his thing, and Ariel just likes to be around people. Rubin thought it was the perfect opportunity to improve her son's social skills and teach her daughter tolerance, while doing something they both enjoy.
"It's Lego week, it's Lego week!" Rubin said her children will chant when the week rolls around. With the holidays approaching, now all they want is Legos under the Christmas tree, she said.
Because some of the children have sensory problems, little things like the buzz from a fluorescent light or speaking too loudly to them can frustrate the children, causing them to cover their ears and cry or scream. Not only is it a problem at home, it's an even bigger problem at school.
But in a small room full of energetic children ranging in ages, they have become more accustomed to noise, even handling it better in the classroom.
The safe, nonjudgmental environment could be a contributing factor to the advancements, as well as the consistent one-on-one time with peers during Lego club. It's hard for the children to make friends because some classmates don't understand or know how to deal with disability, so interaction at school can become limited.
During free-build, volunteers are always reminding children to interact and play with one another because some of the children are so used to playing independently. Because social skills are limited, some children seem unsure what it means to play side by side.
Parents bring their children to Effingham all the way from Casey or Salem, commenting that they can visibly see changes in their child, even getting reports from teachers of positive changes.
In January, Patty will begin another round of Lego club after the holidays. Dues are $50, but scholarships are available for those in need. The biggest thing she needs is adult volunteers, as there should be one volunteer per three children.
Spots are still open for children to be in the club, but if there aren't enough volunteers, children might be turned away. Patty is also beginning a teen Lego club, and a children's Lego club in Mattoon is also on the agenda.
In Effingham, the children's club meets at 6:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Fridays of the month at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 905 Holly Drive, west of Evergreen Hollow Park. The teen club will meet at 6:30 p.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of the month at New Hope Church, 2210 N. Raney St., across from Menard's. Children must be registered before the club meets.
For more information on the clubs or volunteering opportunities, contact Patty at 217-347-3785, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or like Effingham Lego Social Club on Facebook.
Samantha Newburn may be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 131 or email@example.com.
©2011 the Effingham Daily News (Effingham, Ill.)
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