virtual children by Scott Warnock

Lego laggards

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You can do what you want for therapeutic relaxation. I’ll sort Legos. This is fortunate for me, because I have about 20,000 loose Legos in my house. I should say had, because I’m down to about 2,000, as I have, yet again, methodically gone through my boys’ gigantic plastic bin and sorted their Legos by color into gallon-sized Ziploc bags. Those guys are going, yet again, to rebuild their 70+ Lego sets – whether they like it or not.

See, people buy Lego sets and the sets end up in horrible disarray. The pieces slide down heating vents. They cause foot injuries. They lie in drawers and in dusty corners of desks. What’s left, mixed in with crayons, playing cards, and Trouble game pieces, is in some kind of box or bin in the attic. Every once in a while, the kids open the box or bin up and build stuff.

We see this occasional building and marvel at their free play. Who needs the instructions!? Let them build from their imaginations! We see them as if they were plucked straight from the mind of William Blake, proponent of youthful freedom, he of the “Mind-forg’d Manacles.”

Well, with apologies to Blake, that’s all a bunch of nonsense when it comes to Legos. My extensive primary observations of Lego building have demonstrated irrefutably to me that the only reason kids don’t build their sets after the initial box-ripping sessions is because they’re simply too lazy to gather the pieces back up. What they end up doing we call imaginative, and perhaps in some ways it is, but the primary driver of their activities is that they are too slothful to plow through a forearm-deep pile of Legos looking for a red angle plate 1×2/2×4.

Too much work to find? A red angle plate 1×2/2×4.

A Lego set is a complicated and fantastic model. It’s a form. The belief that building outside the form is better leads to cultural chaos, the same path that resulted in all these terrible free verse poets who get away with that nonsense. “Hey man, who needs rhyme? Who needs meter?”  You do. You need forms to create control and structure for your language and thus your concepts. Legos work the same way.

My desire to create a world of lovely Lego order in our front room also stems from a new threat. The laggards now have further incentive not to look under the ottoman for loose angular brick 1x1s. You know what I’m talking about: Minecraft. Minecraft is digital Legos. It’s awesome, imaginative, creative. But I’m — as my students in my ed tech grad class have taught me — a digital immigrant, so I cannot resist seeing this as the laggards’ way out of sorting and building with plastic bricks. While you never step on a virtual brick (podiatrists everywhere should unite with me, campaigning in response to a no-doubt sudden dearth of Lego-related injuries), the agony of the brick-in-foot is a small price to pay for the beauty of order.

Yeah, your kid might build incredible houses or marvelous little ships. But hold no illusions: They should be building their sets. All they need is one obsessive, bespectacled adult ruining his social life and marriage by poring through piles and bins of Legos to help them along. They should… wait a second… is that the right shell 2×6 gray bow/angle I see off in the dusty corner of my desk? I’ve been looking for that…

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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8 Responses to “Lego laggards”

  1. Love it! I’ve done my time separating Legos. In fact, I’ve done my time as the bad mother who sold her son’s Duplos. I’m finally forgiven since I gave my (30-year old) son a set of Duplos for Christmas to replace them. At least, I think I’m forgiven. I’ll find out when he gets irritated with me and I hear (again) how I sold his desk chair, his Duplos, his…..

  2. I swallowed a Lego once.

  3. Ah, Scott, now what you need is a child with Autism. Something about the Autistic mind…my son needs to follow the directions “to the T.” AND if their is a missing piece, he will spend hours looking for it! My suggestion to “move on” and replace the piece with the SAME piece, just a different color, or create something from his imagination has been met with a look of horror! The grass is always greener! lol! Keep the articles coming Scott! Love them all!

  4. Legos are the best!!! Our kids loved building the sets but had just as much fun taking them apart and building their own creations. We just saw the Lego Movie and it brought back so many great memories!

  5. I think our old-people memories of Legos are based on a time when they were a free-play toy. They are not anymore. With the old Legos, it was all about figuring out how to turn them into something you envisioned or that resulted from one-random-step leads-to-another. That was very valuable in the development of young minds. We tend to apply out memories of old Legos to the new ones. Doesn’t work. The new ones are all about following directions. They’re cool. But I wish they would still sell both kinds… [arches eyebrow and looks pointedly over tops of glasses]

  6. I have to think that you did not grow up on Legos. The Legos of my childhood were not “sets.” There was no instruction manual that I ever saw. We had a giant cardboard box full of blocks. And those blocks did not come with angled pieces, little cookie-cutter people shapes and only rarely with wheels.
    But we built houses. Our houses could be stood upon by the littlest of us (me, I was youngest so I was the compression force that locked the walls into impenetrable fortresses.) We built towns. We built forts combined with Lincoln Logs and HotWheels and had epic battles with Lego bombs. We even built our own people – little dog-like figures.
    Magically I now have a large plastic bucket of those classic Legos which has grown with the addition of the Star Wars and skateboarder sets. And is mixed with Lincoln Logs, just as they were when I was a kid.
    I’ve taught my son the art of house building. We will have to break out the Legos this weekend and build a city to share the engineering marvels my older siblings taught me.
    The sets may offer rules of composition as you note but I can’t see Legos as being intended for that role. We had too much fun without the forms. (Though I see the point, a favorite note of mine is that you can’t push the edges of the envelope in any art or skill until you know what and where the edges are)

  7. I hate the new lego sets! I love the old tubs of legos without instructions. You just build whatever you want. Exactly what they were made for. The new legos need to be called something else, they suck!

  8. I want to point out, in response to the vibe arising in the comments, that according to my sources, Lego purists indeed do not like the way Lego sets now involve all of these specialized pieces.

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