Getting LEGO Into Your Classroom
LEGO Classic CreativeWhen it comes to building up a set of LEGO for your classroom, the least expensive, fastest, and most versatile way to do it is with the "Classic Creative" line of sets from LEGO. They don't have minifigures, they don't have licenses like Star Wars or Superheroes, they just have the pieces that kids need to build with. Bricks, plates, wheels, wings, doors, windows. This makes the price more reasonable, and you're able to build a set of LEGO for a price that fits within most classroom budgets.
Here are the sets currently out (2016) that I recommend:
Classic Large Creative Brick Box -- 790 pieces, comes in LEGO-shaped plastic storage container
Classic Creative Bricks -- 221 pieces
Classic Creative Supplement -- 303 pieces
Classic Creative Bright Supplement -- 303 pieces, in "bright" colors, with more pink, purple, pastels
Classic Green Baseplates -- traditional 10" x 10" baseplate
If I had say, $150.00 to spend on a LEGO kit that would be used by my class, I'd buy one each of the large, medium, supplements, and two baseplates. That would give you a critical mass of pieces in every color imaginable -- infinite possibilities for your kids.
Minifigures via LEGO Education
For some projects of course, you do want LEGO minifigures. There are a few ways to get them at a relatively decent price. There are small sets called "starter sets" that typically come with four minifigures for about $10.00. They usually also have a small vehicle or building with them, and the ones out right now include Police, Fire, Construction, and Space sets. (I was wondering about the wisdom of them putting out a set called "Fire Starter Set," but hey. LEGO does no wrong.) That's more minifigures than you get in many LEGO sets--even the largest sets only have about six characters in them these days. So going small in this case may be better. The other option, and one I recommend to classroom teachers, is to buy the sets offered through LEGO Education. They've got two different sets: Fairytale and Historic Minifigures and Community Minifigures. Each comes with 22 characters; "Fairytale and Historic" includes kings and queens and knights and soldiers and bandits and pirates and witches and mermaids and uh, a snake charmer. One of these things is really really not like the others. "Community" means the people in your neighborhood, so police, firefighters, EMTs, mechanics, postal workers...those kinda people. Both sets have a lot of pieces and accessories to make those worlds come to life, so besides the minifigures you're getting tiny castles and swords and treasure chests and skateboards and pizzas and gold mines. If you want an instant classroom set of minifigures, buy one of each of those, and you're done.
LEGO RoboticsIf you're looking at using LEGO Robotics in the classroom, which gives kids more experience with programming and engineering, you're looking for LEGO Mindstorms EV3. The previous iteration was Mindstorms NXT, which is still in a lot of schools, but is no longer available for purchase on the primary market. EV3 uses many of the same pieces and programming, but with more functions. Either option has hundreds of lesson plans and classroom application out there; EV3 is the most current version. I always recommend buying the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Expansion Set at the same time; it adds more gears and pieces that are useful to build more elaborate and more mobile robots and devices. The other add-on most teachers purchase is the Touch Sensor; I also always recommend the book LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Laboratory from No Starch Press. It includes detailed but easy-to-follow instructions for building five additional robot models. Not an official LEGO publication, but that publisher has put out some great LEGO books made by fans and for fans.
So....that's the short version. If you want a rant that explains the choices I listed above, it's allllll here, baby:
The Perceived Problem
One of the most frequent complaints I hear when people talk about LEGO is “But it’s so expensive now!” They have a point, although it may be based on a false perception of LEGO. If they’re saying “it used to be so inexpensive, and now they’re charging a plastic arm and plastic leg for it—that’s not accurate. In fact, Andrew Sielen did an exhaustive study of the price of LEGO and factors that go into its price here: http://therealityprose.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/what_happened_with_lego/ …the short version is that if anything, the price-per-brick of LEGO has been trending downward over the last decade. Of course, that might not be what they mean. LEGO is more expensive than other, similar toys. While I think there’s a definite quality difference between LEGO and some of the knockoffs that have convinced the courts to let them use LEGO’s patented design (MEGA-BLOCKS, Kre-O, a few others), some people compare a box of 200 pieces of MEGA-BLOCKS to 200 pieces of LEGO, and yes, the MEGA-BLOCKS seem to come out on top. Whether or not the toys hold up over time? That’s another question. Personally, when I say I’m buying LEGO, or building something out of LEGO, that’s what I mean. LEGO. In fact, in the circles I run in, even saying the word “MEGA-BLOCKS” out loud is an incredible faux pas, akin to belching in church services or swearing at your grandmother or something. You just don’t do it.
So if you’re looking for LEGO – brand name LEGO – how do you save money? There are some tips and tricks and even a few rules that you can use to help you out.
Do your homework.
If you know the kind of set you’re looking for (Castle, Space, Lord of the Rings, simple blocks, etc.) , visit the LEGO Shop at Home page http://shop.lego.com to find out what’s available, and what the MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price) is. That’s going to be the price to match or beat. There are a lot of retailers that use that as their own price point, so if you’re shopping at Target, Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, or LEGO Stores, you can be confident knowing that you’re getting it at that price. Target, Barnes & Noble, and LEGO Stores have frequent sales that range from 10% to 40% off of that, so the deal is even sweeter. There are bargains out there—but you need to know your prices to make sure you’re getting a good deal.
The Golden Rule of LEGO Pricing.
For many of us who buy too much LEGO, the best way to know if a set is overpriced or a good deal is looking for a certain price point: ten cents per brick. So if a LEGO set has 200 pieces, it should be right around $20. If you’re looking at a set that has a lot of minifigures, they add to the price point a bit – usually about a dollar per figure over that Golden Rule. If the set is licensed (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Spongebob Squarepants), it may add even more to that.
Amazon Bargain Watch.
Amazon is generally the online retailer that stays at the MSRP, and they’ll frequently match the falling prices at Target and Wal-Mart—so if they “roll back” their prices, Amazon will follow. Target and Wal-Mart will also usually price match Amazon’s sales, which can be handy. The best place to follow Amazon’s prices is at Brickset.com, which has an Amazon “Bargain Watch” updated four times daily with which sets are available at which prices, and how much of a percentage discount you’re looking at. http://www.brickset.com/buy/us/Amazon/ if you’re a frequent Amazon shopper, or a frequent LEGO buyer, it’s worth checking out.
The LEGO Store
The LEGO Store has a "VIP" loyalty program where you earn points based on your purchases. Those points turn into dollars that can be redeemed at the LEGO Store. The store runs specials sometimes, like the entire month of October (they called it “Bricktober”) you’d get double VIP points on every purchase. The Friday before Thanksgiving, they offered triple VIP points online. Combine that with free shipping and their MSRP prices, and those points add up. I’ve got $60 of credit right now…I’m not sure yet when I’ll redeem them. LEGO Stores also have something called a “Pick a Brick Wall,” where you can buy LEGO in bulk—filling up a large cup for $16, or a smaller cup for $9. They have a wall with a variety of LEGO elements, and if you know how to stack the pieces right, you can get a lot of LEGO into one of those cups. That's also handy for classroom teachers working towards a specific project -- "I need all green pieces for a jungle biome unit we have coming up" -- things like that.
This includes yard sales, thrift stores, online classifieds and eBay – but it seems like those deals are very hit and miss. You’ll hear about a friend getting a great deal that way – 40 lbs of LEGO for ten bucks – but I know they’re never around when I want it. A go-to site for specific pieces of LEGO is http://www.bricklink.com. Let’s say you’re just looking for a Raphael minifigure from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for that friend who likes to wear red masks and wears a pair of sai to work. A quick search on Bricklink shows a price of $4.99 for Raphael, significantly less than the $12.99 LEGO set that he comes in. Sure, you just get the minifigure, but if that’s all you want, that’s all you need to buy. If you know specific pieces you want, like 20 2x4 red bricks, Bricklink can be the best way to get those pieces.