CNN Contributor, Jake Wallis Simons, recently wrote a opinion piece, Why Is LEGO Ruining Our Kids’ Imagination. Here is our response.
I recently read your opinion piece on CNN about Why LEGO Is Ruining Our Kids’ Imagination.
As an adult who plays with LEGO, an uncle of kids who play with LEGO and as someone who is part of an organization that teaches engineering concepts to kids using LEGO as the primary teaching medium, I completely disagree with you. In my experience, LEGO continues to expand the imaginations of kids all around the world.
Tablets, TV shows, and video games are constantly competing for a child’s attention. Surrounded by all this technology, we somehow have more children than ever before choosing to play with small pieces of plastic in a pretty similar way to what kids did back in the 1950’s. I’d consider that a win.
Sure, kids these days now have themed sets, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars. But when I watch my 8-year-old nephew flying Harry Potter on a Ninjago Dragon to Hobbiton, I realize that he is still using his imagination. He just asked his grandfather to buy him a 2000-piece LEGO Simpsons House for Christmas, even though he has never watched The Simpsons. Why? Because the LEGO kit looks cool and seems challenging to build. Completing such a complex, big build will not only boost his building confidence, but teach him subtle building tricks like how to build an angled roof, which I never learned with my 80’s LEGO sets.
Like a writer who needs inspiration by writing someone’s else words before starting to write their own, these kids are simply starting their creative process, and these sets help them get there. These themed sets are bringing in more kids that otherwise may not have gotten involved with LEGO before, as they feel a connection to Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, and Spiderman.
It’s true that, for a certain kind of kid, a bin of bricks by itself can be an amazing springboard for creativity. But that’s kind of like assuming that the Mona Lisa can be painted with a box of twelve crayons by any child with no prior experience in the arts. Sure, someone can do it. But there is more than one path to finding out just how creative you can be. For some kids, continuing down that path is easier when you have something really cool to show for all that hard work.
As adults and educators we know the skills, experiences and values that we want to share with children but part of what creates a life-long learner and a well-rounded child is empowering them to discover those things on their own. That means that to a certain degree, we have to meet kids where they’re at and not send the message that the things they like are somehow wrong or bad. The truth is that kids love Super Heroes and Harry Potter and if we can use that love to foster an appreciation for science, engineering or learning in general, we absolutely should.
When you speak of kids having their creativity stifled, it ignores the fact that kids come to building with LEGO in a variety of ways. If you are trying to help them find their creative confidence to build, you need to know and embrace where they are coming from.
In our engineering classes, we get kids of all building persuasions. There are some kids who love to build a set and are adamant about leaving it on the shelf never to be touched. There are the kids who choose to build based on whatever pops into their heads. And we have seen kids who aren’t confident building at all. For all of these kids, as they build increasingly sophisticated projects over a 5-day camp, you can see their confidence and creativity getting stronger simply through the sheer act of building.
I’ve watched students in our classes start by simply making the projects we ask them to do. As soon as they have accomplished that task, they can get into the good stuff, where we provide open-ended building challenges for them to solve. Because of the small wins of building the easier projects, they are more willing to take on more difficult builds.
LEGO Sumerian Ziggurat built by students.
It’s easy to say that this or that thing just isn’t as good as it used to be. All the fear-driven articles we saw last year about the evolution of LEGO faces is a good example of that. I, like many, have a tendency to use the “kids these days…” argument when talking about popular toys. I really shouldn’t judge though, since I grew up in the 80’s, when some of the most popular toys were He-Man and My Little Pony. Talk about gender stereotypes. It’s gotten better. It’s far from perfect, but overall you have more kids building and playing. Isn’t that what we want?
As for LEGO Friends, we have seen kids who love it and kids who shy away from it. We have learned ourselves that we must include the whole rainbow in our teaching kits because despite what “society” tells us, all kids like all colors. This is a complicated issue, but again, you are getting more kids to build who otherwise might not. And where LEGO may have misstepped with some of the less than stellar LEGO sets of the 80’s and 90’s, they made up for it with some encouragement (I.e. LEGO Scientist).
Kids are still kids. Just like previous generations, they still play to create, to express themselves, and to solve problems. And there aren’t many toys out there that allow kids to do that anymore besides LEGO. That’s why I teach with this toy and not with others.
So to answer the questions posed in your article, what sort of adults will today’s children become? What sort of world will they create? And what are their toys actually doing to them?
My answer to that as an educator would be to tell someone who is worried to first just breathe and relax. My confidence in the future is reinforced everyday in the classes I see. Kids amaze me constantly by coming up with solutions to building challenges that I would have never come up with. They are just creative as kids of the past, if not more. They are curious about the world and want to be challenged.
Just like with any of us, that palpable, creative energy that children have for building just needs to be encouraged more. And LEGO plays a crucial role in helping to cultivate that. We witness kids building their futures worlds in our classes on a daily basis. If what they create in class is any indication of what the future may hold, the future is going to be pretty awesome.