I can’t remember a time before I was building with bricks. As a child, I loved spending afternoons with my brother constructing sets and then planning our cities to stitch together different baseplates to create anachronistic societies where pirates could be warded off by knights defending a space ship.

But while following the steps was a fan starting point, we really started playing when the sets came apart. As a kid, it was the open-ended collaborative and creative play that pushed me to construct new worlds and stories for my minifigs and my imagination to run wild.

My affection for LEGO sets never diminished as I got older, although my relationship with them did. I am the third-oldest of ten cousins on one side, and as more members joined our family’s fold, I found myself both defending my creations from the lesser-skilled baby builders as well as teaching my up-and-coming LEGO enthusiasts the tricks of the trade. Eventually, we donated me and my brother’s tubs of LEGO pieces as we moved on to college and out of the house. It was during that time that I entered the brick dark ages.

However, that period was short-lived, and I soon found a different purpose for my lifelong passion for LEGO’s. While my hobby first revolved around stimulating my brain through play, I found that interlocking bricks could calm my thoughts through routine. During my sophomore year of college I drove to a nearby Toys”R”Us, compelling by a hope that perhaps nostalgia would help me unwind the ball of stress that had consumed me for weeks. As I meandered down the aisles exploring my childhood through Hot Wheels, the ever-relaunching Transformers, and other reminders of simple fun, I found myself lingering in the LEGO aisle, staring at the sets that didn’t seem quite as gargantuan as when I couldn’t reach them (although the prices still felt astronomical). While many of the sets now were anchored by various licensing agreements, I was happy to recognize some classics like “City” and “Medieval.” I decided to buy a castle (probably the only time I’ll ever be able to do that) and headed for checkout.

As I gleefully returned to my dorm room, channeling the excitement I used to feel when my grandmother used to drive me to the toy store when I’d visit her in Albany, New York, I couldn’t help but feel a connection to the waves of memories that crashed against my post-exam anxiety. The adrenaline came as I opened the box, but building the set brought a very different and surprising experience.

As I sat on my bed with the pieces strewn in front of me a familiar sense of purpose guided me as I began construction. My mind slipped into a calming cadence as I embraced the guidance of the instructions and saw my castle rise one block at a time. After a period tense academic energy, going through a process on autopilot helped lift the pressure off of me and created a mindful space where I could relax and clear my head.

After my first success using a LEGO set as a therapeutic tool, the building blocks began to represent something materially different in my life. While bricks used to be the atomic units of my imagination, they morphed into a means of both rewarding myself and providing a fun way to enjoy some playful zen.

While model building as a hobby is not a discovery that is unique to my own experiences, it seemed revelatory to me that a LEGO bricks were actually malleable enough to both stimulate and quell my mind. Some people have yoga, others meditation, but for me, I have my minifigs.

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Written by Max Engel, from Awecelot, Brickd, and The brickly Team