LEGO and Forms of Play

The Ancient Greek concepts of play (paidia) and education (paideia) were closely intertwined, and the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was an early proponent of the possibility of play and learning not being mutually exclusive. Locke in this way demonstrated insights into the inner workings of human nature: a fundamental part of play is freedom, and what is imposed upon learners as a chore might instead be something freely sought and explored for its own sake.16 A century later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) would advocate for a kind of spontaneous free play for children as part of their formal and social learning, although within structured conditions. In that sense, play and learning are entangled in a positive sense: “as children, we learn how to interact with the world through playing.”17

In fact, with its emphasis on the inherent value of creative free play, LEGO is connected to learning and education as perhaps no other toy company in the world. LEGO Education’s global efforts have included the “LEGO School” in Billund, Denmark, a scientific research lab at MIT (the origins of LEGO Mindstorms® can be traced to MIT Media Lab in 1998), as well as a LEGO Professor of Play at the University of Cambridge. A prevailing theme in present-day educational philosophy is the study of how play is closely interwoven with our learning process; play is both a means to an end and an end in itself. The words of Mr. Rogers seem especially relevant: “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”18

Play is a form of learning, and when we engage with play in its various forms, we push against the boundaries of the possible. We might think of creativity as being defined first and foremost by curiosity— creativity is also about asking the right kinds of questions. Creativity can sometimes mean not fixating on the one “right” answer to our questions but instead engaging with our imaginations to think laterally and from different angles and approaches. Sometimes the most important questions in life have no one answer, after all.

Creativity also means different kinds of play, including LEGO free- building, creating something new from nothing. In the memories of some longtime LEGO builders, it’s interesting to note that even following instructions in a playset can become a compelling kind of constrained creativity in its own right:

What excited me most was following the instructions. I loved watching how many small and simple steps resulted in a single beautiful and complicated piece. I found it thrilling that I could take the instructions— simple pieces of paper—and figure out what they were telling me to do.19

With instructions, or without, there is no single way to go about LEGO building. The same can be said of philosophical thinking. Curiosity inspires us to ask “why?” whereas playfulness moves us to wonder “what if”? Both LEGO and philosophy enliven our inner worlds by instilling a kind of structured free play through which we come to learn new ideas by trial and error, and new ways of looking at familiar things—and sometimes the mistakes we make along the way are when we learn the most.

In a related way, some fascinating recent research has suggested that free-building with LEGO leads to more creative thinking than following the instructions found in LEGO sets.20 Of course, creative play can take on many forms: perhaps as the creation and recreation of experimentation; the systematic planning of breaking things down into their components and then creating something anew; or the free play of ideas by dreaming up connections in completely new and different ways. (Speaking of LEGO creativity, did you know that the first Google server rack was built out of LEGO bricks? LEGO represented a relatively inexpensive, heat-resistant and endlessly reconfigurable solution, and was thus the perfect tech geek life hack.21)

The different forms of LEGO also encourage different kinds of play. Nowadays, themed and specialized LEGO playsets far outnumber the more free-form building oriented sets we might see on store shelves. Everything from the themed (and totally awesome) LEGO Space and LEGO City to extensions of the imaginary franchise universes of Star Wars®, Harry Potter®, and The Simpsons® suggest a kind of play experience where purely imagination-driven building becomes secondary to the kinds of storytelling and narrative play that LEGO play- sets encourage.

Narrative is not only an essential component of play, but also a vital way in which we structure our thoughts. We make sense of so many things through stories (either real or imagined), which Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) observed as a type of play:

Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it. The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.22

A LEGO builder remembers her childhood experience of themed playsets compared to free building: “I didn’t understand their appeal because you could make only one object with each kit, with only minor possible variations ... I did not enjoy playing with the finished product.” For that builder, the nature of play was derived from the “heart of the analytical attitude I developed toward building.” “Unlike my sister, I did not immerse myself in fantasy. I stayed on the outside.”23

On the one hand, we can view the playset, narrative-driven kinds of play as a limitation on imaginative play. On the other hand, we can imagine play-as-narrative as a different sort of play within boundaries—the narrative structure of playsets can provide a sort of structure to our imaginative play. This is what Seth Giddings describes as the difference between “imagining how the bricks can be connected to solve it” and “LEGO’s potential for the exercise of symbolic or performative imagination.” “Children building towns or worlds through which to tell their own stories and invent their own characters would epitomize this preferred style of play.”24 But definitions of play in themselves are tricky to place within absolute categories, and one kind of play doesn’t preclude the other. Just as boundaries or constraints do not necessarily hinder creativity, the same can be said of play.

We might compare the different kinds of play experience between, for example, LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game and the 3,803-piece LEGO Death Star (set #10188). Kevin Schut makes the case that the shift toward video game LEGO is a quite different kind of play, and different kinds of play result in different kinds of pleasure:

But of course, restrictions are a fact of existence, and can even be pleasurable. When a puzzle or challenge in a video game cannot be reimagined or wished away, it has a kind of solidity that makes conquest of it deeply satisfying. So there is a kind of trade-off here: in virtual form, LEGO becomes less of a free-form open toy, and more of a rigid, goal-directed item.25

These different kinds of play—LEGO playset building compared to LEGO video game playing—can be thought of as what the sociologist Roger Caillois calls ludus (more structured, goal-oriented play) and paidia (exuberant, spontaneous free play).26 Not to mention the fact that the LEGO video game genre is best characterized as a puzzle and action-mode game, with a goal-oriented and linear narrative structure. It’s also interesting to note how in addition to puzzle solving and LEGO building, the main game tasks alternate between building LEGO structures in order to advance levels, and destroying other LEGO structures that explode into a shower of LEGO studs (the in-game currency). This provides an opportunity to think about how different media influence our experience of play, noting how the “manual labor of assembling and disassembling bricks, so crucial to how most people play with the toy, is nothing like the video game action of simply pressing a button a few times or pressing and holding one.”27 As further evidence that LEGO is an interconnected play ecosystem, where everything truly does connect with everything else, consider that we can sometimes buy the plastic playset versions of what we digitally play with in LEGO video games.

All of this is of course a roundabout way of saying that our defining experience of LEGO is one of fun. Fun can be the happiness that LEGO inspires during the process of building with bricks—where that happiness might be due to the tangible quality of playing with LEGO that engages our senses, from the sound of rummaging through a pile of LEGO (an “incredibly evocative sound. This is the noise of a child’s mind working, looking for the right piece”28) to the feel of using our teeth to pull apart LEGO bricks. As the LEGO Group perfectly describes it:

Fun is the happiness we experience when we are fully engaged in something (hard fun) that requires mastery, when our abilities are in balance with the challenge at hand and we are making progress towards a goal.29

Likewise, when we are fully engaged in doing philosophy, it changes our mindset and how we look at the world and our sense of self. There’s a truly unique kind of joy that comes from discovering connections between ideas that you never knew existed.

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