The Lego Dilemma
Do Lego’s instructions hamper kids’ creative play?
by Connie Jeske Crane
January 6, 2010
For my five-and-a-half-year-old son, Zachary, it’s all about Lego. After obsessions with Thomas the Tank Engine, Disney’s Cars and the sea creatures from BBC’s Blue Planet series, he has turned all of his attention to the iconic Danish bricks. His love of Lego has seen a Tribble-like explosion into all corners of the house. We have handed out Lego at his birthday, when he graduated from Junior Kindergarten and just because - as in just because he pleaded so much at Walmart and the promise of a quiet play date was just too tempting. Of course, Zachary’s Christmas wish list consisted almost entirely of Lego.
For the most part, I like having a kid who’s Lego-obsessed. I’m always pleased at the rapturous approval I get from other parents when I tell them about Zachary’s passion. Lego is seen as creative, educational, great for developing fine motor skills, and there’s a whiff of nostalgia about it all.
But I’ve been following the current debate over the evolution (some argue devolution) of Lego. And I’ve begun to wonder. Is there a dark side to the “wunder” toy? Do creativity and imaginative play still rest at the heart of the Lego experience? Or have marketing ploys and bossy instructions squeezed the joy right out?
Give a Lego box even a cursory glance, and you’ll see things aren’t what they used to be. Pieces now come in colors like chartreuse, and shapes such as skeletons, monsters and space missiles. There are bombs, evil villains, and every sort of teeny, tiny weapon. According to Time magazine, change came by necessity. In 1998, the Lego Group posted its first ever losses and then sales dwindled for years. In 2004, the company reported a $374 million loss but also enacted a drastic turnaround plan. This involved more Lego sets with lucrative tie-ins including more of the Star Wars line first introduced in 1999, Batman in 2006, Indiana Jones in 2008 and a series of videogames. On the business end, the company drastically cut its work force and outsourced packaging and production to Eastern Europe and Mexico. The plan worked: In 2006, the Lego Group boasted $281 million in profit and sales have been robust ever since.
The current backlash against Lego was stoked by Michael Chabon’s recent book, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Re-connecting with Lego while playing with his four children, Chabon found himself chafing at “the authoritarian nature of the new Lego” and its “provided solution.” What Chabon and other parents I know object to is the corporate branding and rigid instructions provided in the sets, which, they argue, stanch imagination and discourage the construction of random, teetering creations.
This might be true but it hasn’t hurt sales; parents are buying more Lego than ever. “Even as other toymakers struggle, this Danish maker of toy bricks is enjoying double-digit sales gains and swelling earnings,” said a September article in the New York Times. Amidst the clash of messages, adult fans of Lego (or AFOLs as they call themselves) have attempted to bring some clarity. Roy T. Cook, a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota and one of 14 officially sanctioned Lego ambassadors in the U.S., posted a response to Chabon on an AFOL blog. Cook calls Chabon’s essay a “significant contribution to the debates about the nature and role of LEGO as a medium.” However, the real question, insists Cook, is whether the changes to Lego “constitute an improvement, in that it gives creators more resources with which to carry out their creative projects, or is it regressive, eliminating many of the challenges which creators need to overcome or circumvent - challenges which, when overcome, result in superior creations?”
I think the kvetching about corporate influence and lost creativity is overblown. (Even Chabon told the LA Times, “: I recognize the possibility that I might be overstating my objections.”) I don’t know what’s so bad about by-the-book construction. My son is five years old. If he wants to sit for three hours and painstakingly put together a new Mars Mission ETX Alien Infiltrator, I’m in - that kind of focus on anything is admirable. I also don’t think Zachary’s commitment to building using the instructions signals a surrender to corporate designs. He’s simply learning to build. As Chabon points out in his essay, inevitably, all Lego construction ends up a fantastic, crumbled “stew” anyway. The pieces get mashed together and something new rises up every day: the Lego camper morphs into a rock monster-mobile. Indiana Jones dresses up like a pirate.
I can appreciate the critiques. And, with our overflowing bins, and a stream of new releases, I wonder how much more of the stuff we need. Yet, it became clear to me recently which camp we’ve joined. Just before Christmas, Zachary and I were in a small toy store pondering Lego sets. Beside us a woman dismissed the towering wall of options and huffed at a clerk: “I want a set with bricks. Just bricks! Do you have any of those?” My son stared at her, incredulous at her lack of enthusiasm. For him, Lego is hands-down the most captivating toy medium yet. Since Christmas, he and his friends have shared hours of fun, reveling in their new Lego sets. And there have been amazing quiet times too, Zachary absorbed in play. The other day, he was building his new Lego Coast Guard ship. With pieces scattered across the living room floor, he looked up and said: “Mommy, I’m in Lego heaven.” After a quick smile, he got right back to it.
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This article was written by Connie Jeske Crane for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.