As the father of a few boys, Legos are a part of our lives. But Legos today are not what you remember if you’re, say, over the age of 25. They’re anti-creative vehicles for various merchandise franchises. The important word there is anti-creative. They blunt and impair the creative abilities, they don’t help kids create. Legos don’t teach kids that anything can be created. They teach the exact opposite. They discourage the use of imagination and they encourage passive obedience to instructions. Modern Legos teach as much about creativity as assembling IKEA furniture teaches about interior design.
1. There’s Only One Way To Build It
If you have bought a Lego set recently, you’ll know that they come with fiddly little pieces, most of which have only 1 or 2 holes for connecting to something. The minifigure is the ultimate expression of this, because there really is only one way to build it. But even vehicles from the movie Cars, or scenes from Harry Potter, or any other popular franchise all have just a single way to build. The pieces are usually smooth on one side, they have an orientation. Heck, you often get a “left” and a “right” piece for certain parts of the set. You can’t disconnect something from one side and reconnect on another side. It simply won’t make anything interesting. It probably won’t even connect.
You notice I don’t use the word “brick” anywhere in this article. They love to use terms like “brickmaster” and such in Lego literature. But when was the last time a modern, branded Lego set came with a single 2×4 or even 2×2 “brick”?
2. Legos Discourage Imagination
Old school Lego sets built birds, cars, houses, ships, and airplanes from square bricks. You had to user your imagination to fill in the gaps to see a car, bird, ship, or plane. The edges weren’t quite smooth, there were no racing stickers, sculpted bird wings, anchors on chains, etc. If you’re a kid playing with Legos today, everything looks very much like it should. That is, the Harry Potter minifigure has a little scar on his forehead, the Cars vehicles all have smooth sides and edges and stickers to make them look just like their animated forebears. This makes the kids expect everything to look just like the movie. They see Legos as a way to build characters from their favourite franchises. You don’t see (my) kids building random robots and random monster cars and things.
The pieces they got from the Lego Power Miners, Lego Bionicle, Lego Hero Factory, Lego Lord of the Rings, and Lego Star Wars sets simply don’t encourage you to build things that come from your imagination. They encourage you to build what someone else showed you on a screen. You know what’s really lame? I recently looked through the pieces of a Lego The Hobbit set. There was a piece that was the same shape and size as 6 1×6 pieces stacked on top of each other. They could have provided 6 1×6 pieces. But they didn’t. They provided a single, big, flat piece that was the right size. That is substantially less useful than the 6 pieces that they could have sent. Those 6 pieces could have been used in lots of different ways. This single big piece: not so much.
3. Lego == IKEA
There is no more combining of Lego sets in an infinite number of ways to create an infinite number of possibilities. The sets you buy today give you one thing to build in one way. You don’t buy a bunch of IKEA furniture and think to yourself “how can I combine the pieces from all these sets to make one really cool piece of furniture?” Likewise, kids don’t think “how can I combine the pieces from all these sets to make something cool?”
I think Lego heard that complaint and made a stupid response. A handful of sets encourage combinations (there were several Power Miners sets that combined) or advertise on the box that they make 2 or 3 different things. Hey Lego: THAT’S NOT THE SAME. If the child has to follow the instructions to make something new, that’s a failure. We want kids to imagine how to build things. The only examples they see are built with specialised parts that are curved into just the right shape for that specific character or scene. They never see examples where something “close enough” is built from rough bricks that someone had on hand. They’re told that they can build multiple things if they follow the instructions. That’s sad coming from Lego.
4. All Single Points of Failure
There’s a classic complaint about holiday lights that if one bulb goes out, the whole string of lights goes out. Modern Lego sets really are this way. Lose one piece and you can’t build what is pictured. Simple as that. Every piece has a single function and a critical function. Now, there are some (like the 6 x 1 x 6 piece I talked about above), where we could recreate it from other fundamental bricks. My kids might not think of that since they’re not used to seeing these thing built up from fundamental bricks. But most of these pieces are so specialised that they simply cannot be substituted. If the dog chews one up, if the baby brother flushes one down the toilet, that’s it. You’ll never build that set again. You can’t get practical replacements, either.
Instead of being an infinitely-combinable set of blocks, a 500-piece modern Lego set is never more than one piece away from being total rubbish. Once you can’t build the thing that is pictured, the pieces are nearly useless in any other way.
5. Legos Discourage Planning
I like the minifigures. They’re cool. Theoretically, they should offer a lot of imagination and possibilities. Every so often, Lego releases a new batch of minifigures. They do this to get the obsessive collecting behaviour started in the kids early. Like so many other things (“Magic: the Gathering” was the first I experienced) they sell them in opaque foil bags and you never know what you will get. Would it be cool to get 2 or 3 football players? Want to have 5 cheerleaders to put on the side of your basketball set? Good luck. You can’t plan on that. You can’t go out and buy them. It’s random.
If Legos teach anything, they teach filing and organization. Since the pieces cannot be used to make other sets, you’re better off keeping the original boxes, original instructions, and all the pieces organised. That way, when you want the thing on the box, you still have the instructions and the pieces to make it. If you make a big box full of parts, or if you lose the instructions, you’ll never build what was on the box.
6. Legos Make You Passive Consumers
You get to experience someone else’s imagination. You can’t plan to build something because you can’t just go out and buy arbitrary bricks (unless you’re arbitrarily wealthy). You can’t buy the minifigures you want, the sets you want, the shapes you want. You could build things from rough, square bricks, but that wouldn’t look as good as what comes in the official set. You want what you see on the box.
None of it is intuitive. There are no patterns that you see repeated from set to set. You cannot learn to build just by looking at what’s on the box. You better save the instructions. That’s the only way to build what that other person thought of.
It’s Not Overt
This is not messaging that Lego sends directly. It’s messaging that is implied. The message is no longer “build anything you can imagine,” it is “buy set X to build thing X.” Of course, as a parent, I can provide lots of general purpose bricks. Of course, as a parent, I can show them how to build things that they imagine. Of course I can control these things. What makes me angry is that I am fighting the toymaker, not working with them. A whole generation of parents worked in harmony with Lego. Lego was a set of versatile bricks and the kids could build anything they could imagine. Parents and the company were in sync. Now, it is in Lego’s best interest for kids to acquire as many different sets that cannot be combined particularly usefully and it is parents’ and kids’ best interests to do the opposite. Parents must counter the message that “the way to build thing X is to buy set X.” We have to send the opposite message: “You can build thing X with the bricks that you have and a bit of imagination.” That is why I hate Lego. My kids love it and I’m forced to fight it. I see myself forced in to a few different corners:
- I can be the sugardaddy, buying everything they ask for
- I can be the bad guy who says “no” when they want new sets
- I can buy general purpose bricks at extortionate prices to supplement the useless special pieces
- I can try to work with them and learn how to build something interesting from all the strange, single-function, oddly-shaped pieces
I do not have the option that my parents had: buy a few lego sets and watch a kid’s natural imagination and creativity do the rest.