Two UAE-based educators are championing construction play to manage the hardship of getting older and forge closer family ties
In most people, LEGO® bricks evoke happy memories of playing as a child with family and friends. But according to Saira Gulamani, a long-time UAE resident and teacher, these iconic building blocks are not just the toys of our early years. They are also vital tools to stimulate the minds of the elderly.
“LEGO bricks speak a language that everyone understands,” she enthuses. “They enable self-expression, creativity and problem-solving, all while having fun.”
A full-time robotics, coding and AI educator in schools across Dubai, Gulamani is also the founder of doyourbit.xyz, an online platform that provides classroom resources based on the pocket-size coding computer micro:bit for students of all ages.
A trained LEGO bricks educator for the past eight years, Saira has developed a particularly strong interest in using construction play to help the elderly. She explains that LEGO bricks can be used to improve communication, memory, motor skills and most importantly, bonding with younger family members. This is a key consideration in the UAE, where elderly people tend to live with their families rather than in care homes.
“It’s incredible how LEGO bricks can help build memory in elderly patients,” she says. “They’re a great way to stimulate interest in learning exercises and group bonding. Everyone has a creative side and LEGO bricks are a simple and appealing way to bring it out into the open. Not everyone has the confidence or talent to sing, draw or paint. But all of us can express ourselves in some shape or form with LEGO bricks. That’s part of their beauty.”
Global research by the LEGO Group reveals the therapeutic benefits of LEGO play for older people. According to the LEGO Group’s 2022 Play Well Report, 92% of adults in Saudi Arabia and 94% in UAE say that play is fundamental to their own happiness and 95% and 94% of those surveyed in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, respectively, add that playing with LEGO bricks helps to improve their mental health.
The only certified Six Brick facilitator in the UAE – a play method using LEGO bricks to improve memory, cognitive function and motor skills – Gulamani has been holding regular workshops at 4get_me_not, an Alzheimer’s patient support group in Dubai, since February. She also works with two other community groups in the emirate, including one which caters to elderly people of determination.
“Seeing the joy on their faces when they create something with their own hands is priceless,” Gulamani says. “It’s like they’re kids again! The sessions have been extremely rewarding. Initially, we wanted to do a 45-minute session, but the group played for over two hours. In fact, their engagement levels seemed to increase the longer they played.”
Although founded to help elderly sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, 4get_me_not now supports people with other mental health issues as well.
“Neither getting old nor Alzheimer’s can deter our seniors from enjoying the things they used to love as a child,” says Desirée Vlekken, the group’s founder. “At 4get_me_not, we play chess and other popular board games to encourage socialising, boost serotonin levels and improve cognitive function. Thanks to Saira, we have also rediscovered the world of LEGO bricks.”
“So far, we’ve had two group sessions incorporating LEGO play,” Vlekken adds. “Just the sight of the colourful bricks is enough to bring out their inner child! It doesn’t take long before everyone is lost in a happy world of their own imagination.”
“Rediscovering what it’s like to be young again is the ideal way to bring families closer together, especially our seniors, who are such an important part of the family unit,” Gulamani adds. “That’s what I love about the LEGO 0-99 philosophy. With no age and language barriers, construction play is truly accessible to all.”