More on Legos, less on gender

Yesterday I wrote a nice long post about Legos and gender-segmented marketing, and I mentioned that the Lego Friends line was one of a few relatively recent developments I didn’t like. Today I’ll be writing a shorter post about some of those other things I think Lego has been getting wrong lately.

One of the big ones, which I mentioned briefly in yesterday’s post, is Lego’s reliance on specialized pieces for ever-increasing proportions of their building sets. The first Lego set I ever had–well, the first that didn’t come with a Happy Meal–was pretty much a big collection of colored bricks. There were a base plate, a mini-figure, and a few pairs of small wheels in the kit, but for the most part if I wanted to build, say, a boat, I’d have to use my own ingenuity to come up with a design.

Then various relatives started giving me vehicle sets, then space-themed sets, then castle-themed sets. I liked all these, but even in those days I noticed a pattern. There were a few really nifty specialized pieces in those sets, pieces that were shaped like struts or tail fins or rocket thrusters or tree branches. I liked those pieces and the new creations they let me build. But by the time I got to the pirate-themed “Forbidden Island” set, the specialized pieces made up so much of the set that when I tried to create a new structure of my own design, I very nearly couldn’t. The only thing that could be built with “Forbidden Island” was the thing on the front of the box. It wasn’t a building set; it was just a model kit.

Mind you, I have nothing against model kits. That’s just not what Lego sets are supposed to be.

Another big problem I’ve had with Legos the last few years is the proliferation of sets based on movies, comic books, and other licensed properties. I have nothing against licensed properties, either, but there’s a way in which they inhibit creativity that isn’t true of a set with, say, a generic space theme. However many pieces there are and however versatile those pieces, there are an awful lot of kids out there who won’t see a Hogwarts Castle set as anything other than the pieces of Hogwarts Castle. Again, what should be a creativity-stimulating building set becomes, all too often, a model kit.

Now, to their credit, the folks at Lego have also been doing some impressive stuff lately, and they seem to be drifting back toward sets that rely on more versatile pieces or that use existing pieces in interesting ways. Some friends of mine recently received this rather impressive specimen, and they were pleased to note that most of the structure and details were created with standard-sized and -shaped pieces–so, for example, the walls are built with layered bricks rather than large wall slabs. Lego is well on its way to earning back my respect.

The guiding principle in what I’m saying here is that toys that are supposed to stimulate creativity and imagination fail at their core purpose when they (a) don’t give children the means to create what they want or (b) steer children’s imaginations too heavily in one direction. Lego forgot that principle for a while, but they seem to be remembering it again. Other toymakers would do well to keep it in mind.

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