Many people, both young and old, think of LEGO fondly. LEGO embraces its varied audiences and often launches programs for specific age groups, meant to benefit them. One project LEGO is working on right now is LEGO City Hero Academy. This campaign “aims to inspire parents to encourage their children to become the heroes of tomorrow.” With the help of child psychologist Sam Wass, the campaign has been designed to help kids nurture their “hero gene” by using the “reality-based” LEGO City toys to act out scenarios where they can play the hero in any form.

I had the opportunity to talk with Wass a little bit more about this interesting campaign recently. To start, I asked what the inspiration for this campaign was.

I’m… a child development psychologist. You may recognize me from The Secret Life Of 4 and 5-Year-Olds. I’ve teamed up with LEGO City to investigate what it means to be a hero in the modern world – to find out who do children think are heroes, what makes someone a hero and what traits might they have. We want to inspire parents to encourage their children to think about all these things from a young age – because if children can identify a hero and then act out being one they will develop valuable skills that will be invaluable in later life, whatever they grow up and aspire to be.

The LEGO City line consists of all types of everyday town and city life, from hot dog carts to police stations.

Because LEGO City is an existent product line of LEGO–ongoing since 1978–I was curious as to whether this campaign was partnered with the LEGO Company or simply using its products.

It is very much in partnership with LEGO City. LEGO City is a range of real-life based construction toys based on buildings, vehicles, and scenarios that are familiar to those that children encounter in their everyday life. The range is designed for builders aged 4-6 years old and lets them be the hero in their own city, whether that’s a firefighter or a police officer.

The skills that children develop through building and role-playing with construction toys like LEGO City aren’t just building imagination, motor skills and confidence, they also help them to develop the emotional understanding, too–such as what it means to be a real-world hero. We call this unlocking the ‘hero gene!’

Bravery, imagination, resilience, curiosity, a clear understanding of right vs wrong and the ability to work collaboratively are all desirable attributes for heroes–whether they are fictional or real. All these attributes make up the ‘hero gene.’

Wass went on to explain the “hero gene” in more detail.

Research suggests that there are elements of [the ‘hero gene’] that are inherited – but through this campaign, we are focused on encouraging parents to nurture their children’s ‘hero gene’ through creative play–championing for little ones to aspire to be everyday heroes. 

Dr. Sam Wass, Greg Rutherford, and LEGO Certified Professional Kevin Hall at the LEGO City Hero Academy, an event held at the London Transport Museum

It may look as if children are just bashing together a couple of figurines when they play – but in fact, research suggests that children are thinking themselves into the characters’ perspective while they act out imaginary scenarios. They’re really feeling what the world, and what a particular sequence of events, feels like from their character’s point of view!

If they try on playing a character in LEGO City who helps catch the baddies and do good then they are learning behaviors that will help them throughout life, in everyday situations, not just when there’s a fire or there is a crime to solve!

Wass also shared some of the results he and his team have gotten from a focus group with four- to six-year-olds to see what being a hero meant to them. They found that children “readily grasp the idea of an infinitely powerful superhero,” like, say, Superman, who help save the good guys, arrest the bad guys, and keep the bad guys in jail. But real-world heroes who are “vulnerable, [require] bravery, and [make] sacrifices,” are harder for them to grasp.

The team also found that “unstructured, imaginative play is a hugely important, naturally occurring and fun way to reinforce the positive attributes of a wide variety of everyday heroes and heroic acts for children.” Parents can help foster these “heroic ambitions” in their kids by allowing them to take part in this sort of creative play.

Invoking a child’s favorite superhero can help them find courage in situations that make them nervous, like the first day of school.

Some of the ways Wass and his team came to these results was interviewing children about topics like real-world heroes, such as someone who might help a lost child. They not only described situations, but they also described positive attributes of these real-life heroes, many saying they want to be able to help or make a difference for others in “a worrying or scary situation.” Social play (playing with siblings or friends) was cited as being something that helps children develop an awareness of socially important and desirable attributes and behaviors.

Wass also had tips on how to help parents inspire heroic behavior in their young children. His number one tip was to “encourage them to ‘try on’ emotions while they play” by helping them “develop a mental narrative of what the characters that they are playing with are thinking and feeling.” This can involve asking a child how they might feel in a certain situation.

He also suggested that parents praise the everyday heroes that they see, everyone from a nurse caring for someone to a firefighter rescuing a cat from a tree. This can help children contextualize and empathize with the challenges others face. Even parents explaining to children how they might sacrifice for them or showing them heroic acts, no matter how small, can have a big effect on the children.

Lego Diorama Record
Collaboration between adults and children can help develop the children’s “hero” gene, and of course strengthens their bonds.

On a related note, Wass encourages parents to praise their children’s heroic acts, “reinforc[ing] that acts of bravery can happen on any scale.” Parents are also encouraged to remind their children that “all heroism doesn’t have to be physical“: more complex problem/resolution scenarios are better to develop and more effective in the real world than, say, the Batarang. However, if kids are really stuck in these scenarios, you can ask them what their favorite superheroes might do to get the ball rolling to think about being brave and strong in all ways. This can also help them “link stories that they hear with the real world.”

Before Wass signed off, he wanted to make sure we understood the purpose of the Hero Academy fully:

We are not looking to recruit more people in the fire or police forces, but instead stress the importance of role-playing to let children try on the hat of some of these characters and think about what it means to be a hero.

These skills developed through building and role-playing with LEGO City will help children be the heroes of every day, from helping their little sister cross the road to diving into the pool for the first time.

Parents should encourage and get involved in playtime with their children and watch as they grow up to be the heroes of tomorrow.” 

If you’re interested in learning more about LEGO City Hero Academy, you can take your hero “entrance exam” here. There have also been some events and experiences for families to take part in in-person related to the Hero Academy in London; however, there do not appear to be any coming up soon.

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