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Building Blocks and Coloring Away Stress Reduction

The Building Blocks and Coloring Away Stress Reduction research project was aimed at determining the validity of LEGO® therapy in stress management and coping skills within college students.

Dr. Maggie Shields, assistant professor of health promotion, first became interested in the effect of LEGO® bricks on stress when she noticed the effect it had on her own stress levels. “There was joy in taking time to slow down,” said Shields.

She started to wonder about the effect LEGO® therapy would have on college students and found that there was no research involving LEGO® therapy and adults. After further research it was decided to compare LEGO® therapy with coloring – an activity that has been proven to reduce stress in adults.

The project was perfect for college students. According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems on college campuses.

Shields also wanted to show her students that research doesn’t have to be something in a lab or involve people running on treadmills. Research can be creative.

Why LEGO® Research?

Bill Hunnell, a health promotion major who graduated in December, was one of the student researchers on the project.

“When my university professor asked me if I’d be interested in researching LEGO® therapy, at first I thought she was crazy. However, as I’ve learned through many life lessons: sometimes the craziest ideas are the sanest ideas.

“Our goal as aspiring public health educators is to be multidimensional, not self-limiting: to explore all avenues of approach rather than traditional, possibly self-limiting approaches. Through this study we hope to determine the efficacy of LEGO® therapy as a stress management tool as it is easily accessible to the public at large.

“LEGO® therapy has already been proven successful in other venues such as teaching social skills to individuals with developmental disorders such as those found on the Autism Spectrum. So, why not see what it can do for stress management? Besides, who doesn’t like to play?”

It wasn’t until she was working on her doctorate that Shields began building with LEGO® bricks in earnest. “What was most interesting to me was the fact that while schoolwork and my multiple jobs seemed to be spinning out of control, the step-by-step instruction book had the opposite effect. It was about adding the five bricks that were on step #90 on page #59 that helped me to build a foundation for everything else to come. LEGO® became its own type of therapy similar to the colors and small pieces that coloring may afford others.

“Was I the only one that was seeing the benefit of LEGO® therapy? The short answer is that there really isn’t any research on it. There is research on children with autism and education with STEM emphasis but much of the research ends shortly after middle school. So, for the past year, I have been working with a team of students to conduct a LEGO® noninferiority research project to compare stress reduction of LEGO® with coloring. The research was grant funded through the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities.”

Connor Brown and Annie Price, health promotion majors, were also student researchers on the project. This spring the results of the study are being presented to SCICU, at a national conference in Denver and at CSU’s annual Spring Symposium.

Project Details

With the funding of the SCICU grant, LEGO® bricks and coloring supplies were purchased. CSU students were invited to participate in the study and were divided into three groups: coloring, blocks and control.

Each individual took pre- and postsurveys regarding their stress level. Over the course of one month, the coloring and building groups met twice a week for one-hour sessions. They were required to unplug their phones. They couldn’t play music, but they could talk to each other.

The project was performed as a noninferiority trial:

  • Hypothesis 1: Participating in some creative form of stress reduction strategy (i.e., coloring or building blocks) positively affects emotional stress during the academic semester.
  • Hypothesis 2: Building blocks are a noninferior or superior form of stress reduction strategy when compared to coloring.

Building with LEGO® bricks and coloring are both considered directed creativity – The LEGO® building blocks and the picture to be colored are already present. Activities are completed step-by-step and have clear directions yet still provide an opportunity for creativity.

“This generation is stressed out by being overstimulated and overwhelmed. They are overstimulated by the phones they have in their hands,” said Shields. “Culturally, we are creative beings, and we are going to have to address the challenges of technology in relation to stress.”

“Stress. Everyone knows something about stress. It’s how stress is handled that makes the biggest difference in health. I could bore you with how stressful situations produce cortisol, and unregulated cortisol can affect your body negatively in the form of reduced metabolism (fat buildup) and such. Instead I’ll leave it at this: it’s not good to have excess cortisol production,” said Hunnell

Result: The research discovered LEGO® therapy is the same and similar to coloring therapy. The data showed that LEGO® therapy did help to improve stress components and had positive results in lowering stress.

Student Response

I participated in building a LEGO® set.  Each of my LEGO® sessions impacted my stress levels and general mood drastically.  Along with the normal stress from school, I also had a handful of personal/family issues weighing on me too.  I seemed to forget all of the stressors going on during each LEGO® session.  My stress levels also remained much lower after completing each session.  I was even able to focus on my studies much better after LEGO® [therapy]!  Each session was like a time-out or reset allowing my brain to catch up and get on track. I will definitely continue using LEGO® [therapy] for stress relief.  I have two young children that also love playing with LEGO®, and it seems to calm them down as well.

Jeremy A. Parrish, senior, psychology major

I participated in building a LEGO® modular. Every time I would go into a session, I was usually really stressed out, and I was amazed how much LEGO® [therapy] affected my stress level. I would become much more relaxed, and I could notice the difference in my body. I never even thought about adults building them as a destressor. Since this research project, I have been more involved with LEGO® [therapy], and I enjoy building the more complex ones because they have more instructions and pieces to build. It is a better accomplishment when I see the result of something so detailed. I am so happy Dr. Shields shined the light on something I didn’t even know I enjoyed.

Sarah Myers, sophomore, psychology major

I was in the LEGO® group, and it really affected my stress level and reduced it dramatically. Being a part of the LEGO® research project allowed me to set aside two hours a week to relax and unwind. Occasionally, I play with my LEGO® bricks, but I mostly use the coloring books that were given to us for relaxation. 

Elizabeth Evans Smith, junior, health promotion major

Stress Management Techniques

  • Identify the major stressors in your life and learn to practice coping techniques
  • Establish a network of supportive people in your life
  • Spend time on your spiritual life
  • Get the proper amount of exercise – exercise releases endorphins, which can improve mood
  • Get adequate amount of sleep each night – considered one of the most beneficial ways to deal with stressors
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet – overeating and undereating can cause distress in the body
  • Make time for yourself and learn to manage your time

Fun Facts about LEGO®

  • LEGO® is a Danish company, but LEGO®  is known worldwide and is a universal toy
  • LEGO® has moved beyond a child’s toy to pop culture status
  • According to Stackitevents.com, there are 86 LEGO® bricks per person in the world
  • Name is based on the Danish letters “leg godt” and means to “play well”
  • The LEGO® Learning Institute researches the future of play and is defining the role and value of play in the 21st century

CSU Magazine is the official publication for alumni and friends of Charleston Southern University in Charleston, South Carolina. For more information about the university, visit us online at CharlestonSouthern.edu.