Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Way We Play Part 2: LEGO

In a recent post I discussed some of the ways that we, as a society, have changed the way we play, from a free-form do-it-yourself style to more the structured and rigid play typical of organized sports and computer games that force us to play 'by the rules.'

I just received my Sears Christmas Wish Book in the mail today (yeah, in September, I know...) and as I was flipping through the toys I paused to carefully examine the LEGO pages and I noticed something odd: in the four pages devoted to LEGO products there was not one set of basic LEGO blocks.  Everything was a themed set, many of them licensed properties like Star Wars or Toy Story, with specially-designed blocks that pretty much force you to build the picture on the box.

What the hell?  This isn't LEGO, this is a model kit.  What are you supposed to do with it when you're done, take it apart and build it again?

When I was a kid my best friend had an enormous collection of LEGO blocks and we used to commandeer his basement rec room and spend hours building countless creations, including fleets of invading alien spaceships, bunkers and fortresses, and just about anything else we could imagine.  There was never any preconceived notion of what we were 'supposed' to build with the LEGO, it was just a whole bunch of blocks that we could use to build whatever we wanted.  What ever happened to that?

I was curious; does LEGO even make basic blocks anymore?  I visited the official LEGO website to find out.  It turns out that they do, but finding them isn't easy.  I thought I would find sets of blocks on their 'products' page, but all I got was an endless list of their sets based on licensed properties.  I tried searching for 'basic blocks' but got no returns.  Finally I tried shopping 'by age,' and found basic blocks on the first page of the youngest age category, 3-4 years.  LEGO still makes two sets of basic blocks: the Basic Brick set has 280 pieces and the Basic Brick Deluxe set has 650 pieces.  Interestingly, as you search the older age categories the Basic Brick sets appear further and further back on subsequent pages, disappearing entirely by the time you get to the 9-11 year old category.  Apparently, using your imagination is only for little kids; older children aren't supposed to think for themselves - they need to be told what to build and how to play.  This is the age when they need to be expanding their creativity and critical thinking skills with more sophisticated projects, not crushing it by conditioning them to play by rote.

So, are we organizing and structuring all the imagination out of our kids?  I wonder what would happen if we dumped a bunch of random toys on the basement floor and told them to amuse themselves.  This type of anarchic play might even lead to some of them picking up ball gloves and going outside to play for a change.  One can only hope.


Daddy Grognard said...

My seven-year-old son enjoys building the very LEGO kits that you describe - and as soon as he's done them the way the instruction book says, he breaks them up and builds models from his imagination, using the pieces for an end far removed from that originally intended by the designers.

So yes, kids can still build countless creations of their own using the 'specially designed' blocks. It's a question of imagination. The good news is that today's kids have got it in spades.

Sean Robson said...

That's fantastic. I was afraid that the pieces in the sets were too specialized to allow kids to build their own creations.

Aaron E. Steele said...

The kits are also bloody expensive. Were they that expensive when our parents were buying lego?

Sean Robson said...

I don't think so. I've been planning to buy my daughter LEGO for Christmas this year, and I was shocked to see how expensive they are. The basic brick sets aren't bad, but the kits are outrageous.

Desdichado said...

Specialized pieces have been a regular part of LEGO sets for over thirty years. The ones I had when I was a kid were chock full of them. And yes, LEGO's have always been expensive toys.

Like Daddy Grognard's kid, we used to always build the sets we got (several big ones each Christmas) according to the instructions, then immediately dissassemble them, mix the pieces in with our existing batch of pieces, and build whatever we wanted to, happily integrated the new specialized pieces in new ways.