Choosing might be more simple than you think, and to me has 3 main questions:
1. What toys does your child like playing with?
2. What is your price range?
3. What age and ability range is your child?
1. What toys does your child like playing with?
This is the most important question to ask yourself before you buy. No-one would expect you to get your Grandma a Star Wars jigsaw or a Batman colouring book for Christmas, but she might love jigsaws and drawing. In just the same way, LEGO should fit your child. If they like playing with tiny figures and small world play then they will enjoy a set with tiny figures and buildings. If they like cars, then get cars. If it's princesses or Superheroes, camping, boats, Batman, spaceships or dinosaurs, there will be something which suits them. If your child just wants to create stuff, then get a big tub of bricks.
My 5 year old has always been obsessed with minifigures and vehicles. One of his favourite sets is Aira's Pegasus Sleigh from the LEGO Elves range - because it's basically a vehicle that can go on land or air and it fits plenty of passengers (plus it has ponies).
My 7 year old loves bigger figures, and Bionicles (age 8+) have fascinated him since he was 3. They're really robust models that don't come apart easily, but at that age he had no hope of being strong enough to push the ball and socket joints together himself. Now he can, and he likes to mix them up and make himself something even cooler.
2. What Is Your LEGO Price Range?
You can walk into the LEGO shop tomorrow wanting LEGO Star Wars and buy something for £2.99, and you can also choose to spend £274.99 on a 3803 piece Death Star. If your child loves Princesses then you can get a Princess Play Castle for £14.99 or Cinderella's Romantic Castle for £59.99. You really can set your own budget and stick to it (probably).
If you don't want to commit to a big outlay and genuinely aren't sure where to start, LEGO Mixels (£3 each), LEGO Minifigures (£2.50 each) and lots of other small sets are available under £5. They're a good value treat (and a great stockingfiller) that is better than a couple of chocolate bars and really appeal to the 'collector' in your child.
Shop around and offers are usually available with discontinued stock, sales and 3 for 2 offers. Don't forget discounts and freebies can make a difference - LEGO.com offer free gifts and points which add up to free LEGO. Set your budget and never forget that you can always buy a basic box of nearly 600 bricks for under 20 quid, and that will build you whatever you want.
3. Which Age And Ability Stage Is Your Child At?
Completing a LEGO model is rewarding, it gives your child something fun to play with and a massive sense of achievement. Tempting as all those big complex sets are, buying LEGO that is too hard or too fragile is usually a waste of time. It'll be frustrating and often it'll be given up on and ignored, and that bad experience can put your child off for the future.
LEGO is split into age ranges based on an average ability - a large part of this is about how much LEGO experience they have, but it's also about what they are physically capable of. Any child who is used to LEGO or very stubborn may be able to move up a level, but no child can really beat nature.
DUPLO is a perfect introduction to building with blocks. There are no small pieces that can be swallowed, and the bricks slot together and come apart more easily, requiring less strength and precision.
At 18 months a child uses a circular grip, in the same way as you would hold a bicycle handlebar. As they move towards 3 years they change to a pincer grip, and only then can they begin to hold a pen or a LEGO brick with their fingers and thumb.
It's also very hard for them to separate their hands - so they will mirror one hand with the other, making it really hard to hold something still while the other hand is busy.
Until your child has perfected their pincer grip around around 4 years old, small LEGO will be frustrating and although your child may try, it's more likely you'll be building it and they'll be practicing their skills by repeatedly taking it apart.
At 18 months your child plays with their DUPLO as a brick, an interesting, tasty object that you can attach to another one. By 3 years they're beginning to storytell, and DUPLO have reflected this by introducing Batman and Disney characters to extend play value.
By 4 years old your child can move on to little LEGO. They have the grip to hold small pieces, and some of the strength, or 'clutch power' needed to press it together and pull it apart, but they're still perfecting their fine motor skills, and will find it difficult to work on a very small scale.
Instructions are very tricky to young children. We can quickly look and estimate no. of bricks in a grid and position, they can't even count to 20, let alone glance and know 'how many' easily! LEGO sets in the 4+ range have big, clear instructions only adding a piece or two at a time. The builds are easy and sturdy, and it's usually very obvious where to put your next LEGO brick without having to count more than 2 or 3 studs.
LEGO Juniors are great, and there are many of these sets dotted throughout the different LEGO ranges. They're designed especially for younger children to build some more interesting models independently by including large 'quick start' pieces such as a car chassis. This gives a solid base to start with, and children can see their model coming together immediately, so they don't become disinterested and wander off. There aren't many very small pieces, and no tiny flat bits attached to another tiny bit. I've written more about LEGO Juniors here...
At this point the LEGO is mainly about small world play. There are superheroes, knights and spaceships, and regular people who your child might see in their everyday lives - families, police, bin collectors. Children focus their play on storytelling, both imaginatively and repeating everyday events.
With the pincer grip problem solved, children are refining their fine motor skills. These are the skills they need to write, open packets of biscuits and take the batteries out of your remote control.
As children progress through the next few years they become more accurate, they can count by sight rather than actually counting, they have more control of hands and fingers and can manage some trickier builds.
They can cope with the small flat plates which are almost impossible for a 3 year old to place, and can comfortably hold single studs.
Play will continue with more storytelling and less re-enactment - fighting space battles with laser blasters before taking the dog to the vets with Batman. At this age children are more likely to add to what they are given and experiment, so if you buy a themed set, a few extra bricks means the Star Wars Speeder has an extra laser cannon and space in the back for 2 passengers, or even better - another craft to speed along with.
At this point strength is much better and children can easily manage the ball and socket joints. They can line up Technic pieces and have more patience, so they're happier with big builds that aren't obvious until bag 2 just what you are building.
Your child will begin to be more interested in physical appearance, details, and expects a level of accuracy. This eventually replaces playability in importance.
This is grown up LEGO. A part which would be made from 3 elements for age 5+ might be made from 20 instead to give function, movement, more intricate patterns or details. These sets may include tiny parts which require a lot of fingertip strength to remove and incredible accuracy to place, and they may include very fragile builds which only gain their strength when almost complete. This is "I need another hand" LEGO, and builds can look like random lumps until you get to bag 5 or more.
|Base of Ninjago Temple Of Airjitzu|
Occasionally some of the older sets are built for play, and your younger child can have hours of fun with them - plus it gives you an excuse to join in. The Simpson's House (age 12+) is a great example.
LEGO can be an expensive investment, but it's a puzzle, a model and a toy in one, and it never loses most of it's value. If you get your buying right then it can help your child learn to count and write, feed their creativity and imagination, and give them a real sense of achievement.
Have a lovely LEGO Christmas....