Building blocks toward better mental health
A Manitoba teacher is leveraging his students’ love for Lego to help them build emotional intelligence and stress-management skills.
Since the start of the 2022-23 school year, Starbuck School’s newest club has attracted more than 75 children — just under half of the K-8 building’s total population.
“I’m trying to educate kids that there’s outlets for everybody — and it doesn’t have to be Lego. it could be reading a book, it could be watching a movie, it could be talking to friends. My outlet happens to be Lego,” said Tim Morison, a phys-ed teacher in the rural community, located about 50 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.
Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, the challenges of working outside in all conditions — owing to physical distancing requirements in schools — prompted the educator to begin experiencing symptoms of burnout, exhaustion and depression.
Morison said those feelings reached a new height in March 2020, when he received a call from the hospital that his wife, who was pregnant with their second child, had a stillbirth.
Following a brief leave from work, the teacher said he returned to find himself constantly reminded about the child he lost. Morison said it was around that time, after school and on the weekends, he found comfort in rediscovering Lego while spending significant downtime constructing miniature models with his son.
During a spring unit on mental health and well-being, he decided to share his struggles and disclose how Lego had become an unlikely tool for personal perseverance.
The phys-ed teacher said he realized his openness was a valuable lesson in it shattered stereotypes about tough male athletes, made students grappling with their own anxieties feel validated, and started conversations about healthy coping mechanisms.
The student response was overwhelming and engagement skyrocketed, Morison said, adding he began bringing in colourful bricks and trinkets as teaching tools.
Grade 8 student Ethan Mosset is now among the dozens of learners who participate in the extracurricular club Morison runs over the lunch-hour Mondays and Tuesdays.
“I thought it was a great idea to be able to meet new people, talk with friends — it’s just a giant stress-reliever for me,” the 13-year-old said.
Ethan said he admires “Mr. Mo” for being honest about his mental health with students; it has made the middle schooler feel more comfortable sharing his personal struggles — including his challenges adapting to school without one of his closest friends, who recently moved to the U.S.
“(Lego club) makes everyone more comfortable and makes school more of a safe place to be,” the eighth grader added.
Students of all ages gathered in a Starbuck classroom to build and admire their Lego creations — all of which will eventually be compiled to make a model town, featuring roads and street lamps — on midday Monday.
In one corner, Ethan and a handful of peers started building the base of a gas station scene. In another, Grade 8 student Caralena Greene helped younger learners put together a tiny bookstore with an instruction manual.
“It’s nice to reconnect with everybody and feel like you’re a big community again because we were spread out into different cohorts and you could only be with those certain people (during the height of the pandemic),” said Carlena, 14.
Principal Dale Fust called the success of the club “the light at the end of the tunnel,” after multiple years of virus-related disruptions and significant student and staff absenteeism.
As an added bonus, students are learning about urban planning, perseverance and how-to follow directions while they engage in a fun hands-on activity, Fust said.
Even though the club has only been around since the fall, Starbuck’s success has already prompted at least one other school to launch its own version. Winnipeg’s Shamrock School launched a similar extracurricular this month.
Both schools have built their programs with toy donations and continue to accept both used Lego sets and random pieces.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press