Since Carnegie Mellon University's February launch, 16 sites around Pittsburgh host the Brick-by-Brick program — a LEGO-based social and emotional learning club. Photo courtesy of Ben Filio for Remake Learning.

A LEGO habit is cutting into researchers’ work at Carnegie Mellon University, but the brick-building craze isn’t fueled by childhood memories or a newly released Death Star set.

In February, CMU’s Center for Transformational Play launched Project Baseplate through a partnership with U.K. social enterprise Play Included. The initiative brings the LEGO-based Brick-by-Brick therapy program to the states, creating opportunities for research on social and emotional development through play.

Jessica Hammer, an associate professor of learning sciences and director of the Center for Transformational Play, says faculty across many departments are conducting research through Project Baseplate — currently the center’s “signature project.”

“Making transformational games requires design, programming, psychology,” Hammer says. “We have, at this point, 22 affiliate faculty from multiple different schools within CMU, because a lot of people are interested in this idea of using play and games to tackle problems that are hard to tackle in other ways.”

Brick-by-Brick was designed to give children with autism an opportunity to collaborate, communicate and connect with peers in a learning environment, but was quickly considered universally adaptable, Hammer says.

Elementary students — neurotypical or neurodivergent — who lack social skills often miss learning opportunities.

“These are some core skills that they’re learning in that age range,” Hammer says. “If you can’t ask a question to your teacher, you’re going to learn less than if you are able to. Our hypothesis is that when we see improvements in these skills, the literature says that we should also be seeing improvements in things like attendance, in academic performance and in kids’ sense of what we might call ‘belongingness’ at school and in academic environments.”

In the Pittsburgh region, 16 “brick club” sites are already active. Some groups focus on neurodiverse kids, but the program is open to “all kids who want to engage with social-emotional learning — and play with LEGOs.”

The Center for Transformational Play’s vision stretches beyond Pittsburgh. Hammer says Project Baseplate’s long-term design is to establish the infrastructure for LEGO-based education and transformational play across the U.S.

“It’s relatively easy — we think, we are going to have to test this hypothesis — to move the Brick-by-Brick program and duplicate it in cities that are similar to Pittsburgh, where there’s a Remake Learning-type organization, where there’s a Children’s Museum that is financially stable enough to run free programs, where there are other kinds of out-of-school educational community institutions,” Hammer says.

Remake Learning is a Homestead-based collaboration network for local educators. In cities that don’t have the educational infrastructure to manage Project Baseplate, researchers are investigating how to adapt Remake Learning’s collaborative principles.

Representatives from the University of Wisconsin, University of Colorado, Western Michigan University, West Liberty University and Big Brothers, Big Sisters Chicago are taking the Brick-by-Brick training. For now, all training sessions are hosted in person in Pittsburgh.

“Part of the reason that’s important is because we’re asking the kids to be doing face-to-face social interaction around physical manipulatives,” Hammer says. “We want to make sure that the people who are leading them are actually prepared to do those things, not just think about them and talk about them.”

The other necessary pieces, Hammer says, are LEGOs.

At so-called “brick clubs,” kids take turns playing the roles of engineer, supplier and builder until models are complete. Some clubs also host freestyle building for smaller groups to design and construct unique models sans pre-written manuals. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

In Pittsburgh “we’ve had generous support from a number of foundations to do things like give free training to low-income schools that serve low-income populations – and to buy LEGOs,” Hammer says.

In the long term, Hammer hopes the program grows its LEGO collection not from additional purchases, but through donations.

“We know LEGO is serious about the climate impact of LEGOs, so we think that’s one really interesting possibility for growth,” Hammer says. “Kids outgrow their LEGOs, what’s happening to them now?”

Local sponsors are supporting Project Baseplate: The Richard King Mellon Foundation’s funding promoted investigating how brick clubs can build relationships between kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“This is a novel piece of research, this is something that people have not tried with brick clubs before, and we know that it’s a wicked and hard problem because behind socioeconomic separation there’s geographic separation, there’s misunderstandings of other people’s experiences, there’s often historical trauma,” Hammer says.

“But the research also shows that these cross-class relationships flourish — it’s actually really good for everyone involved as well as for our shared society, because people feel a sense of solidarity and are more willing to invest in shared community resources.”

Hammer expects that, as the Brick-by-Brick program grows in the U.S., it will evolve and leave behind its age limitations entirely, as puzzle-based and social activities help identify early signs of cognitive decline.

“There are some examples of daycares that share a site with an assisted living facility, and the intergenerational contact again is valuable for everyone involved,” Hammer says.

“In a society where a lot of our systems are set up in ways that isolate and atomize us — that only put us near people like ourselves — can we use the Project Baseplate platform to bring people together and help them connect over LEGO?”

Roman wants to hear the stories created in Pittsburgh. When not reporting, he plays difficult video games that make him upset and attempts to make delicious meals out of mismatched leftovers.