Legos Are Paired With Learning For Nativity Kids With Special Needs

Legos Are Paired With Learning For Nativity Kids With Special Needs


INDEPENDENCE — It took only a few minutes to come to a consensus. The Nativity of Mary Robotics Team, made up of fifth, sixth and eighth graders, were asked to discuss World Class Learning, the theme for the 2014 Lego Robotics Competition, and figure out their project for the competition. The group decided to focus on teaching kids with special needs in a regular classroom setting, in other words, teaching some of their own classmates.

The First Lego League Robotics Competition was established in 1998. This is the third year Nativity has participated in the international competition. Last year they brought home a trophy, and they hope to do so again this year. On their website, First Lego League stated more than 265,000 children in 80 countries were participating in the competition. Nativity’s team, the Nativity Nighthawks #6318, project had to be ready to present to the judges by mid-November.

Nativity of Mary is one of 12 schools in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph that partners with FIRE Foundation. The foundation raises funds to help schools pay the salaries of special education teachers and paraprofessionals and purchase equipment to enable children with diagnosed special needs receive a Catholic education alongside their siblings and friends in their parish schools. Begun in 1996 by parents of children with special needs who wanted them to be able to go to the same schools as their brothers, sisters and friends, FIRE, formerly known as the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education, has grown up, as have the first children who were able to attend school, learning alongside their siblings and friends. This school year, 75 children with diagnosed special needs attend 10 Catholic grade schools and two Catholic high schools in the Kansas City area.

To learn more about the challenges students with special needs faced in a regular classroom setting, the robotics team talked with a parent of a Nativity student with Down syndrome, their teachers and paraprofessionals who work with the students with special needs in the classroom.

The robotics team wanted to enhance learning experiences for the kids with special needs at Nativity of Mary School. And what kid, or adult for that matter, doesn’t love Legos? The team decided to construct language arts and math learning aids using Duplos, the larger sized Lego building blocks. In September a challenge was issued to the student body and teachers: the classroom donating the most Duplo blocks to the team by Oct. 3 would win an ice cream party. The team and their lead coach, Stephanie Hollo, were amazed at the response. More than 1,000 Duplo and Lego building blocks were donated.

Now they could construct their learning aids. Taking a page out of their own learning materials, so to speak, the team designed workbooks for Math and Language Arts games. Using colored illustrations of Lego or Duplo building blocks, they put together Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication and Less than/More than problems to solve. You see, using Legos or Duplos, a student can feel the raised circles on the blocks and use them to count. Number groups were coordinated by color, for instance 1, 2 and 3 would be a particular color, while 10, 20, 30, 40 would be another color.

They did the same with Reading and Language Arts. It’s estimated that the same 100 or so words make up more than 50 percent of the text that students read. Those words are termed “sight words,” recognizable by sight. Consider that those 100 words include small, easily recognizable words such as “the,” “a,” “was,” and some more complex words including “give,” “which,” sleep” and “under,” and “sight words” makes sense.

The robotics team figured out which words to use as sight words: days of the week and weekends, common one-and two-syllable words seen in many of their text and work books, and printed those words on the sides of the Lego and Duplo blocks. Again they were color coordinated. Days of the week were printed on red blocks while weekend days were on green blocks. Single letters were printed on the small square Lego blocks: consonants on blue, vowels on yellow and blended consonants (ch, ck, tch, sh, th, wh and the consonant/vowel blend qu) on larger red Lego blocks.

Targeted toward grades three and up, the reading workbooks were designed to help students learn to recognize words, and build sentences using illustrations of the Duplo and Lego blocks with words or letters printed on the sides. The team planned to teach their teachers how to use them to work with their classmates with special needs, to enhance their learning experience and have fun while learning.

The project was work and learning intensive for the team, but there was more. Robotics is a major component of the competition, combining science, technology and engineering. The teams have to build Lego robots from a kit and learn how to program them to complete a mission. The Nativity team spent a lot of time building the robots, learning how to program them correctly and working out the kinks on a large table in the classroom. The table had raised sides to keep the robots on the table, and the mission was laid out with symbols and roadblocks, reminiscent of an obstacle course. Occasionally collisions with roadblocks or table corners occurred, eliciting frustrated sighs or mutters from the team members working there. Adult assistants were on hand to help when needed.

The team was to present their project and robots to the judges at Olathe North High School Nov. 15. The final touches were attended to. First, students with special needs in several classes were given an opportunity to try out the learning aids the robotics team had formatted. Then, in early November, the team presented their project to the Nativity faculty members. It was well-organized, with posters and photographs explaining the project — problem, research and solution — and how the students worked together as team.

Teachers were able to see and feel the Lego and Duplo blocks, just as students with special needs would, and see how the workbooks would assist both students and teachers.

Nativity of Mary is one of two Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese participating in the Lego Robotics Competition. Our Lady of the Presentation in Lee’s Summit is also fielding teams. The eighth grade team focused on the Civil War in Missouri for their project, which they presented to the Nativity faculty and robotics team. The students had prepared a video of the five battles in the state that had an impact on the future of Missouri: Wilson’s Creek; Pea Ridge; Lone Jack; Island Mound and Westport.

The team attended battle re-enactments, went on field trips to sites and museums and detailed what they had learned in the video.

As a learning tool, it was explained that the video would be accessible to the public online at a later date. The Presentation team was to present their project and robots later in the month.

How many of us would love to be a kid again and work on projects like these?

Stephanie Hollo, lead coach for the Nativity Nighthawks Lego team, excitedly contacted the Key to announce that the team had won for their robot design and placed fourth overall out of 27 teams at the Nov. 15 regional competition. There will be three more regionals, and the resulting 35 or so teams, including Nativity Nighthawk Team #6318, will do it all over again at the Championship round January 17, 2015 at Union Station.

To learn more about the First Lego League challenge, For information about Nativity of Mary School, visit For information about FIRE Foundation, visit

Story by Marty Denzer, Catholic Key