Do Lego Sets Kill Creativity?
My 11-year-old son and I had reached an ideological impasse. Naturally, it involved Legos.
From the moment he wrapped his tiny, toddler fingers around a big red Duplo, Charlie has had a love affair with Legos—one that my wife and I wholeheartedly endorsed. Granted, it’s not the cheapest hobby out there. (I’m looking at you, $1800 Ultimate Collector’s Millennium Falcon!) Nor is it the neatest; thanks to the crunch-coating of little bricks scattered all over the place, I haven’t seen our playroom carpet for seven years. But we can overlook the downsides of Lego-collecting, because the mini-figures are cute, and because playing with Legos fires the imagination and sparks creativity.
I mean… they do, right? At least, they did back in the 1970s, when I was first introduced to the infectious little bricks. Oh, sure, the Lego-folks would provide simple instructions, and I’d follow them—once. But I always found more satisfaction in creating something on my own—a boxy spaceship, say, or an asymmetrical, multicolored house. I didn’t always have the exact right piece I needed, but I improvised. And finally, after hours of painstaking, hunched-over work, I beheld my completed masterpiece… for about three minutes, at which point I took the thing apart and started building something else.
My son Charlie, however, takes a different approach.
Charlie, you see, was born into the age of “sets”—pre-fab collections such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Atlantis, Power Miners, Ninjago. Of course, growing up, I had sets, too, but they were nowhere near as intricate and sophisticated as these bad boys. In fact, the vehicles and buildings contained in these modern sets are almost too intricate and sophisticated—to the point that you don’t want to take them apart. Ever.
And even if Charlie did feel inspired to take apart one of his creations, he may find himself faced with a curious problem: some of the pieces required to make the original contraption are so specific, so particular to that set, he may have trouble using them for anything else.
So, yes, Lego sets have evolved, but you have to wonder: have they evolved to the point where they actually discourage the imagination and creativity that they’re supposed to instill?
Basically, it comes down to a battle of wills: on one side, you have me, a product of the generation that believes that Lego creations aren’t meant to be models or monoliths, that the new sets tend to straitjacket creativity, and that building something once seems like an incredible waste of money. Then, across the divide, you have my son Charlie, who puts his sets together with an engineer’s precision, who has plenty of imagination, thank you very much, and who considers deliberately dismantling something you labored for hours on a waste of time. Besides, why would you take apart something as freakin’ cool as the Ninjago “Garmadon’s Dark Fortress”?
Hence, the ideological impasse.
And this isn’t just me being a crank—or if it is, at least I have some company. A September 5, 2009 New York Times article quotes child psychologist who has my back on this issue: “When you have a less structured, less themed set, kids have the ability to start from scratch,” says Dr. Jonathan Sinowitz. “When you have kids playing out Indiana Jones, they’re playing out Hollywood’s imagination, not their own.”
And a gentleman known only as Seth who writes for the site MoxieBird puts it this way: “When you buy your kid a Lego set today, you’re buying 300 pieces that have no magic inside. They’re created to be used in very specific, singular ways. And by the time your kid is finished building with them, it’ll be attributed to his or her ability to follow instructions really, really well.”
Flanked by these experts and utterly convinced of my self-righteousness, I decided to give my son a patented “when-I-was-a-lad” lecture about the proper way to play with Legos. Before I did, though, I thought I’d look at things from Charlie’s point of view. And I mean, literally: I crouched down and really examined one of his newer sets, the “Portal of Atlantis.”
I survey the black-and-maroon temple, home to the evil, trident-wielding Portal Emperor and his Squid-Warrior goons, finally fixing my eyes on the ominous shark façade in the center. I tug on the shark’s head as its jaws yawn open to reveal a set of stairs leading to the Portal, a circular doorway with eight crystal fangs that can only be unlocked by the turn of a special key, one of five keys spread throughout the ocean. Once opened, the intrepid divers can finally gain access to the mythical kingdom for which they’ve long been searching: the lost city of Atlantis.
And as I toured through this rich, textured world (and read up on the back-story provided by Lego.com), a realization washed over me: what a neat place to play.
See, I don’t really remember “playing” a lot with Legos as a kid. The creating was the playing. Not only that, but our end products weren’t necessarily worth playing with. Look at the sets available thirty years ago. A house. A police station. The occasional fire boat. And another house. Quaint and all, sure… but honestly, how far can you go with those?
On the other hand, this new generation of Lego enthusiasts actually plays with their creations. Just the other day, for example, I overheard Charlie playing with his Lego Slave 1, the infinitely cool spaceship piloted by Boba Fett. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained, “Well, Bossk hijacked the Slave 1, so Boba Fett had to get into a police car to get him.”
The fact is, they do play, these kids. They do play with their Legos. It may be a different kind of play than I’m used to, but who am I to say it’s not “play”? Who made me the Emperor of the Imagination Portal?
So have I softened on my “Legos Kill Creativity” stance? I was suspecting I might be, but then something happened recently that confirmed it. I was trying to unearth something in our perennially cluttered playroom, when I saw my son’s Slave 1 on the floor. The inner geek in me came to the surface (it didn’t have far to travel), and I picked up the hallowed vehicle to marvel at it. Naturally, in the process of handling it, part of the front hull crumbled apart.
Now, I could have left it partially disassembled, in the hopes that it would force Charlie into building something new, something different. But I didn’t. In truth, it didn’t even occur to me. Instead, I immediately and instinctively picked up the fallen pieces and delicately put the ship back together. After all, this is the Slave 1, for crying out loud: How could I let it fall into disrepair? Besides, Charlie may have some unfinished playing to do.
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