Oh Lego, what have they done to you?

chunky homestead
Lego. There was a long stretch of the seventies and a bit of the eighties when my birthday or Christmas wish list was headed up by that brand name, or more likely the incorrect term Legos or Leggos, both officially frowned upon. What a thing those plastic blocks have become. In my day Legoland was a far away enchanted place somewhere in Europe where every roof was topped with rows of squat cylindrical knobs and people had yellow heads. It would be decades before a graft of Denmark was stitched onto San Diego County and the minilands would grow in the Southern California haze.

I hope to avoid making this post a rant about how complicated the Lego sets have become, lousy with special parts and crazy directions, or how so many of the sets are based on one film franchise or another… but they have. The seed thought of this post was about creativity and open-ended construction toys. I wondered if Lego had become closed-ended. There are still clearly open-ended Lego sets available but they seem overshadowed by other sets with glossy photos promising one off models of a chunkified Millennium Falcon or Hogwarts Castle. Even Lego’s “systems” of sets that are designed as parts of imaginary worlds seem to want to be movie franchises. Each set primarily focuses on the construction of one fabulous backdrop or one weird machine. I wonder how many of these sets are used to build only the featured model and then sit on a shelf. I have witnessed kids rooms (and adults’ toy shelves) crowded with these finished models. I have heard tales of frustration when the awkward structure of a Millennium Falcon collapses and small grey blocks scatter under the couch requiring a return to the tedious construction directions. How often do the blocks get recycled into new creations these days? I wish I could make some sort of sociological survey of this. I would hope to find that the majority of Lego blocks in the world are in a perpetual cycle of building and tearing down for recycling… a circle of life kind of thing or one of those diagrams of schistosomiasis making its way from host to host.

My nephew has his collection of Lego blocks in a large storage bin filled mostly with a jumble of individual blocks. He always has one or two constructions that he wishes to save from being scattered into blocky bits, at least for the short term. These sit in the air space at the top of the jumble waiting for the next time the bin is opened. Sometimes these constructions are right out of the direction manuals for a particular model, but more often they are some alien battle cruiser of his design or a skyscraper waiting for the plastic Godzilla’s next attack. Is my nephew’s M.O. the exception or the rule? I hope his way is the rule. It makes me all frowny to think of the gobs of Lego potential going to waste on someone’s shelf. I see those models and struggle against the temptation to modify them… use Yoda as a figurehead on a swamp fan boat or turn Hogwarts into a Tudor cottage…

My second set circa 1975
See the Atari duck?
The conversion of things into Lego language still sort of pixilates them and squeezes details into the limits of small plastic blocks, but the chunkification was much more severe before the addition of wild new colors, slopey roof bits, and articulated figures. Once there were only a handful of block shapes in five colors excluding the wide green foundation platforms. Back then the sets didn’t come with much instruction beyond the pictures on the box and the only special pieces were doors, windows, and wheels with their black axle blocks they fit into one of two ways. Cleverly, these wheels had the standard Lego knobs on their hubs so they could carry a chunky propeller or windmill blade. Building a person or a duck with these early sets produced something akin to a Space Invaders alien or an Atari Adventure dragon. The blocky graphics at the dawn of computer games primed me to be more than happy with my chunkified Battlestar Galactica. It took all the white blocks I had, was devoid of tiny laser canons, and scale problems forced the Cylon Raiders to be represented by paper hole punch confetti, but it flew lots of successful missions none the less. The lack of directions in these early sets didn’t stop me from trying to mimic some of the things pictured on the box. I remember squinting for a long time at that funny looking boat while counting how many little knob-bumps there were from one end to the other. That was the only way to decipher its actual length in Lego world. My second and third Lego sets each had more specialized parts than the last and eventually I had some sets with gears, axles, and universal joints. These last ones indeed came with complex directions for a featured model, but there were always lots of extra blocks and tantalizing other options for building. Making just the one model would be a betrayal to the left over blocks. The bulldozer eventually became a forklift of my own ingenious design and the harvester tractor supplied parts for a dune buggy complete with rear differential and working suspension.

I had other construction toys when I was a kid but none of them had the longevity of the bumpy plastic blocks and the possibilities opened by collecting multiple sets. There was a hodgepodge of hand-me-down tinker toys. They tasted good but the chew marks made the stick-in-hole joints unreliable. There were some Lincoln Logs. These occasionally worked in concert with the Lego blocks for some rustic contrast, but the set was small enough to only make a simple cabin or a one-floor frontier cathouse. Cool stuff, each with merits as creative toys, but they didn’t fire my imagination enough to plead for more sets and an ever-expanding empire.

We never had a big set of the standard wood building blocks at our house, but pop kept me supplied with lots of splintery lumber scrap. I could spend hours bashing bent rusty nails into these struggling to build clumsy bird houses, dog houses, or bug houses. I adored my Lego pile but this didn’t soothe my envy of the smooth wood blocks that one of the neighbor kids had. Nicely made wood blocks still have a strong draw for me. My nephew has a set that is a pleasure to stack and restack. There is something special in the standard shapes with a few wedges and arches. The limitations set by the simple design of the blocks becomes an invitation to creativity, and the possibilities become infinite. It’s something akin to a low-budget black and white film creating dramatic effect using little more than simple lighting tricks.

The new age of Lego with maniacal model building instructions winding through hundreds of illustrated steps has wandered far away from the simple open ended magic of stacking wood blocks. The old sets certainly had a closer relationship to this magic, and they had the added delight of allowing a kid to pick up a creation and fly it around. A rocket made of stacked wood blocks has little option but to blow up on the launch pad. Build it out of Lego and it can go to the moon. The newer sets are exciting and flashy but they may have lost some of their connection to the simple learn-by-playing toys exemplified by Froebel’s Gifts of Kindergarten. These are a series of toys designed to offer children expanding opportunities to learn through physical manipulation of interesting objects. The series begins with a group of soft crocheted balls on strings and grows into sets of, what else, smooth wood blocks! I don’t want to get too far into the details but suffice to say The Gifts are all simple toys that encourage open-ended play manipulating shapes and colors. Back in 1958 when the standard Lego block was patented Froebel might have accepted the sets containing five colors and a few shapes as a logical continuation of The Gifts. The menagerie of special parts added since 1958 make for all sorts of new possibilities but they steal something away too. Still, the creativity that pours out of the Lego box can be wonderful.

I’m a dork for creativity. I get all excited some times just from seeing bursts of creativity in others, like when my nephew balled up tiny bits of a paper napkin for an action figure snow ball fight. My nephew and I will often have Lego sessions, typically ending in an arms race to destruction with layers of Calvin Ball style made-up-on-the-spot rules: “Oh yeah? Well my house has lasers on the roof, see?... and surveillance cameras, so you better keep your Dr. No doomsday juggernaut off the lawn… or else! Oh, by the way, see those little black blocks on the foredeck? That’s the poop your Predator alien left on my veranda last week. You better get that thing house broken or I’m calling animal control.”

If we are at my sister’s house these antics come out of my nephew’s Lego box, but I still have my own old collection of blocks. When my nephew is at our house the old chunky style blocks jumbled with their later cousins, the gears and axles, suffice for our neighborly squabbles. My nephew regularly questions why my blocks are so lacking in sophisticated parts and small articulated figures, but the mechanical and robotic possibilities of all the gears usually make up for the shortcomings of the regular red bricks. Besides, if he thinks too long about the lack of hinged pale green translucent alien space ship wing thingies then my extra chunky Battlestar Galactica will cruise by and drop a teraton nuke on his half completed Neptunian meat processing plant before he can even install the rotating knives. Hey, it’s all part of the circle of life, right?

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