In one of the newest Lego sets under development, the bumps that hold the toys together have a second purpose: They also help children learn Braille. The series of dots on each brick represents a different letter of the Braille alphabet, the numbers zero through nine, and a handful of math symbols.
It’s a way to make a challenging writing system more fun to learn. “Children are used to playing with Lego bricks and therefore immediately take to the idea and intuitively start testing, playing around, and learning through play–often without realizing they are even learning to read Braille,” says Stine Storm, the Braille Bricks project lead at the Lego Foundation, the Lego Group’s research foundation arm, which is developing the set through its new ventures department. “It adds a lot of fun to what can otherwise be a challenging task.”
The Lego Foundation and Lego Group had been approached twice in the past by organizations for the blind about the concept of Braille bricks, inspired by the fact that Lego bricks already use a Braille-like series of raised dots. (One organization, the Brazil-based Dorina Nowill Foundation for the Blind, worked with designers to develop prototypes for a similar tool of its own, and now is collaborating with Lego.) In 2017, when the new ventures department launched, Lego had the resources to start working on the project.
“As we engaged experts within this field, we realized just how important it is for all kids who are blind or have low vision to learn Braille, even with increased access to technological advancements such as audio voice,” says Storm. Digital tools can help, but students who can read and write are more likely to be independent, reach higher levels of education, and be employed. A science textbook with diagrams doesn’t translate well to an audiobook. Neither do math problems. “There are some subjects where an audio format just doesn’t work that well,” says Craig Meador, president of American Printing House for the Blind, which will help roll out testing of the set in the U.S. later this year.
The bricks, which are compatible with other Lego toys, are also printed with visual letters or numbers, so sighted family members and students can also learn Braille. “We know that in many classrooms, children who are blind or have low vision learn alongside sighted kids, but often lack inclusive tools that allow all students to work side by side,” says Storm. For blind students, the toys are also more flexible than something like a Braille typewriter, which permanently imprints paper and makes it impossible to correct mistakes. In a classroom that is currently testing the set, students previously learned math with Braille symbols on tiny pieces of paper that they had to move around with tape. The system didn’t work well.
The company has developed more than 50 new molds for the bricks so far and has been testing the design of the set in both homes and classrooms. A few schools have been testing the toolkit for several months. “The children have immersed themselves in the project and have been extremely creative bringing forward ideas for consideration–a true testimony that they are the builders of tomorrow,” he says. Lego is currently testing the second round of prototypes, and expects to soon have a final toolkit along with a pedagogical toolkit for teachers. The bricks, which will be available in several languages, will launch in 2020 and will be given to partner organizations.