The stay-at-home shutdown of 2020 has been anything but boring at the house of Ina Turpen Fried.
A popular technology journalist, she is also is a Lego fanatic and has opted to keep her 7-year-old son, Harvey, occupied by creating elaborate Lego challenges.
Some of Ina Turpen Fried’s challenges are inspired by segments from the Fox television show “Lego Masters,” a reality-style program that crowned a champion and wrapped its first season earlier this year. Others come straight from her imagination. The goals of the contests are straightforward: to encourage creativity and to pass the time.
“We see them as an opportunity to spend time together and invite his imagination to run wild,” said Ina Turpen Fried, who lives with her partner, AJ Turpen Fried, in San Francisco. “The grown-ups have benefited, too. What’s going on in the world stresses me out, and I’ve noticed a calming effect of building something with my hands.”
Setting up similar Lego challenges in your house is easy — get some blocks, set a time limit, start the clock and let the fun begin. Need inspiration? Lego has been posting challenge ideas on its website.
Here are five other ideas to get you started.
Make books come to life
Every child has favorite stories, and most feature recognizable characters. One of the most common challenges in Ina Turpen Fried’s house is when she and her partner have Harvey tap the family collection of “tens of thousands” of Legos to bring some of these characters to life.
In recent weeks, the family has erected Piggie and Gerald in a scene from Mo Willems’ popular Elephant and Piggie children’s book series, Sesame Street’s Grover from “There Is a Monster at the End of This Book” and the five main characters from the 2015 movie “Inside Out.” And that’s just naming a few.
Ina Turpen Fried said these challenges have revealed how her son perceives the characters in his mind.
“It’s such wonderful insight into how his brain works,” she said. “The process is not only fun but it’s also fascinating.”
Build a vehicle and race it
Lego challenges can be open-ended, too. One of the regular challenges at Ina Turpen Fried’s house tasks participants to spend a set amount of time building their own vehicles. They can be cars. They can be trucks. They can be flame-throwing three-wheelers with giant airplane cockpits on top. Really, so long as they have wheels, they can be anything.
Once the vehicles are finished, family members go head to head in a card full of races to see which creation can go fastest down a ramp, and which can go furthest down a smooth and unobstructed surface.
In addition to naming winners for performance, Ina Turpen Fried and her partner usually dole out awards for the most creative entry. (Not surprisingly, their son usually wins this one.)
Create your dream vacation spot
Especially at a time when public health officials recommend that we stay relatively close to home, a challenge that tasks family members to build a dream vacation spot can be a great way to fantasize about the future.
For Ina Turpen Fried’s family, this means using Legos to erect their favorite escapes — places they would most like to go if they could go anywhere in the world. Submissions for this contest can include representations of actual places, manifestations of imaginary places or Lego creations that depict overall vibes, she explained.
“This can be as much a play on where we want to go as it is on how we’re feeling that day,” she said. “The basic idea is to use Legos to express yourself.”
Take the ‘Ziploc Challenge’
Serious Lego nerds may embrace slightly more technical challenges, including one designed to prevent participants from touching blocks directly.
Tim Sams, senior designer and model shop supervisor at Legoland California, a theme park in Carlsbad, California, called this one the “Ziploc Challenge.” To play, family members must place blocks into a zip-top plastic bag and seal it. From there, participants can build whatever they like, but they must do so through the bag — a layer that Sams said “makes everything more difficult.”
For this reason, this challenge is best for older kids, Sams admitted. He added that families can come up with their own penalties for those players who open their bags.
Play Lego ‘Pictionary’
Another innovative way to approach Lego challenges is to play the game Pictionary, only with Legos.
In the regular game, teams get a series of clues and, within a specific period of time, one team member must silently draw each clue until teammates guess what it is. With the new approach, players use Legos to build out each clue, and others in the house must make guesses as the creation evolves over time.
Sams, who recently has filmed a series of tutorial-style building videos for the theme park, said families can use clues from an actual game of Pictionary or they can make up their own topics instead.
“Especially if you have a bunch of LEGOs at home, this can get really entertaining,” he said. Sams added that families can choose to incorporate time limits or not, depending on skill levels and the number of participants.
It’s important to keep at-home Lego challenges light and positive for everyone involved.
Both Ina Turpen Fried and Sams said “rules” must be flexible to guarantee that the exercise stays fun. Sometimes this might mean giving younger competitors a few extra seconds to finish an idea. It also might mean suspending a sense of disbelief as you and other family members judge finished products for creativity and originality.
“I have to remember to let [my son] lead with his own creations and remind myself that it’s not about having the creations look exactly like the things they’re supposed to represent,” Ina Turpen Fried said. “It’s more about the process and the experience than anything else.”
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Sams agreed, noting that around the shop, where he has nearly 5 million bricks at his disposal, he likens the process of building with Lego bricks to making circles out of squares.
“There’s no right or wrong,” he said. “Unlike Lego sets, you don’t need instructions for this type of thing. Look at objects in the real world, mimic what you see the best way you know how and let your imagination take care of the rest.”
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Northern California. He is spending the summer in and around the house with three Lego-obsessed daughters who use their bricks to build houses for imaginary cats. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.