Are Lego sets blocking creativity?

Are today's Lego sets a threat to creativity? In the '60s, as I recall, Lego blocks came in one size and form factor—a rectangular brick—and it was left to the imagination of the child to decide what to build with a collection of the homogenous bricks.

By the time my son reached Lego age in the 90s, Lego sets seem to have evolved into 3-D jigsaw puzzles, with any given set consisting of hundreds of seemingly unique parts that went together in one way to create a space ship or castle.

In “Has Lego Sold Out,” Matthew D. Richtel and Jesse McKinley of the The New York Times note that the Lego bricks of my childhood would seem an anachronism. They note, however, that the company has moved beyond even the Lego sets of my son's childhood and now offers everything from Lego-related video games to a TV spinoff. (Here is a Lego history timeline.)

Richtel and McKinley note that the Lego company suffered financially in the middle of the last decade but has since recovered. “In leading this revival of Lego, and creating a multimedia juggernaut, executives have shown great imagination,” they write. “But some parents and researchers worry that the company’s gain has come at a cost to its tiny consumers: diminishing the demand for their imagination, the very element that made the Lego brand famous in the first place.”

They quote Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at the University of Washington, as saying, “Parents are confusing the brand with the product and, more important, what it delivers.” Lego products, he says, have evolved from open-ended toys to multimedia and bricks with specific building plans. When children play with traditional blocks, Christakis has found, they release more brain chemicals associated with learning than when watching videos.

Here is a quote from a parent writing in a blog called MamaPop that sums up my thoughts on the current state of Lego sets: “I love the Lego company…. But 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.”

Parents seem to be of two minds about Lego sets. Richtel and McKinley in their Times article quote parent Tracy Bagatelle-Black as saying, “When I was a kid, you got a big box of bricks and that was it. What stinks about Lego sets now is that they’re not imaginative at all.” Nevertheless, she bought her children Lego sets this holiday season. And there remain many AFOLs (adult friends of Legos) who resist claims that Lego sets stifle creativity.

Richtel and McKinley quote Joe Meno, the co-author of “The Cult of Lego,” as saying that Legos can help teach children about basics of engineering, despite the products emphasis on “a storytelling angle” that lends itself to what he calls “assisted imagination.”

Indeed, educators and others have adapted Lego sets for a variety of purposes—including teaching college students manufacturing techniques, as I reported earlier. The integration of NI LabView into Lego Mindstorms NXT was an innovative step. And certainly worth noting is the First Lego League, which teaches younger students to solve engineering challenges.

Perhaps the lesson is that it's the role of parents and educators to ensure children and students move beyond the cookbook approach.

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