Curiosity and an interest in how things work are often cited as indicators of a potential future engineer. Creativity can also be good for coming up with new ways to solve complex problems. In contrast, a vital but often overlooked trait that young engineers need is the ability to follow instructions.
We’re not talking about whether or not a child is “good” and does what they’re told, but understanding the importance of working to a plan is key to the safe design and construction of pretty much any structure you see around you. Encouraging children to work to a plan complements the times they explore free play using their imagination.
We have heard people complain about the fixed instructions that come with a Lego kit, but this is actually a great way to develop plan readings skills for all manner of civil engineering tasks when the child is older.
When something is to be built, there is a need to visually communicate the concept of a structure and create the plan in the first place. Construction workers then read plans on site that are drawn up by designers and engineers who are not there to explain things. Plans also need to be kept for future reference, to aid future works or to investigate ahead of repairs. The repairs need their own set of plans to ensure they are appropriately carried out. Our archives contain many such plans covering hundreds of years of bridge engineering, they are a very useful resource.
Plans are also an important part of team work: if children can play together interpreting the plans for their latest toy the end result is more likely to be a successful creation and less likely to involve tears and tantrums. Similar can be said in the engineering world, where different individuals and groups follow different parts of the plan to create a whole. All sides of the task can be traced back to those early adventures in putting together childhood toys (and perhaps later adventures in flat-pack furniture, but that’s not nearly so much fun).
Once children have mastered the plan and created their pirate ship/Millennium Falcon/Tower Bridge, what they do next can be an interesting path to observe. Is the project complete? Or do they take it apart to consider how it works and investigate their own ways of improving the structure?
There’s no right or wrong answer to these questions in relation to future engineers, but the resourcefulness of children can be fascinating to watch when they use their curiosity to develop their understanding of engineering principles.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be Lego, you could also let children loose following the challenges set out in our free resource, Learning about Bridges.