This was an article that I originally published in 2011.
I can’t think of a single toy that has managed to span generations in quite the way LEGO has. Mecano, maybe. Airfix models, perhaps, but LEGO truly is a leveller. Essentially unchanged since its introduction, LEGO has maintained backwards compatibility and appeal for decades.
My son loves LEGO. He started with some Duplo (possibly the biggest “compatibility” hurdle faced) but soon grew out of that. I always viewed Duplo as a sort of gateway drug: fun enough to hook kids without the necessary dexterity to manipulate the smaller bricks, but also kinda rubbish. Nobody sticks with Duplo for long, I bet. The appeal of “real” LEGO is far too strong.
So he graduated through to LEGO. The look of glee and excitement on his face at the sound of those rattling bricks behind wrapping paper is matched by nothing else, except perhaps the look on my face. LEGO makes me feel like a kid again, and somehow, it seems to make my son feel like a kid again, despite being one still.
I think that’s a big part of the allure. LEGO lets you drop the mundane and rediscover wonder. I’m starting to sound like a marketing shill now, but seriously, I think that’s the nub of it. It’s a hobby that has no risk, whatsoever, of turning into a job. Most other hobbies that I have (web development, photography, design, writing) I could turn into a paid job if I wanted. There’s always that risk, and hence that desire to get “good enough” that you could go pro if you wanted to. I wonder how much of that is true about most hobbies.
Building LEGO models, though, is unlikely to form the basis of a freelance career. It’s utterly free of that, while still exercising all the bits of my brain and psyche that the other hobbies I mention do: it’s creative, constructive, productive, enjoyable, communicative and so on. And unlike say Airfix models, or Mecano, you typically need nothing but your fingers and your imagination to play with LEGO. Airfix requires paint, requires glue. Mecano requires tools. Both of these provide you with real world manual skills. LEGO doesn’t. The skills LEGO provides you with, as a kata, are mostly (if not exclusively) abstract. It exercises your imagination, your ability to create and mould within constraints, your understanding of engineering requirements (such as what stands up, what falls over, what needs support, load bearing, how many wheels can be used to create a stable platform).
You will go nowhere in life where your ability to click bricks together lands you a job, but you will encounter plenty of situations where your “LEGO mind” helps you overcome obstacles or crack problems like nobody else.
And of course, it’s amazingly fun. The sense of discovery as you follow the instructions, the simple teaching of techniques through showing. Nobody ever “taught” you that door hinges could be used to create smoothly curved surfaces when arranged just so, but some model you bought used that technique and guided you through it on your way to a different goal. You’re continually learning, and then adapting and re-applying that knowledge: learning by doing, with a clear motivation.
Seriously, the LEGO manuals are a thing of wonder. So compelling, with narrative structure some novels struggle to match. A good LEGO manual guides you through while still delighting you with moments of discovery and understanding. “What on earth is this bit for?” you wonder as you’re taken on a detour of component construction. When you turn the page, you find a reveal every bit as striking as the best detective novels. “Ah HAH!”, you think, and snap the pieces into place, with a sense of pride at having constructed something so clever.
It’s difficult to think of an experience quite as close to building LEGO, or one that demonstrates such an ability to exercise the abstract portions of your brain through the manipulation of physical objects. Take complex models, where you receive numbered bags, and build separate assemblages which then form compoentes in the finished whole. This modular approach to problem solving (and make no mistake, the finished model is a problem to be solved) is incredibly advanced, especially for toys aimed at four year olds, yet here it is, being shown, not told, to anyone willing to listen.
The ability to teach is something that fascinates me, has formed a key component of my life thus far. LEGO teaches in a way so radically different from what we usually call “teaching”, but in such a successful way, that I can’t help but think there’s so much to learn from it.
Challenege, play, demonstration, goal. These are the tenants of LEGO’s model. That I’m still excited by that rattle behind wrapping paper on my 32nd birthday is testament to its success.