Engaged Play with Modular Bricks

When we play with LEGO toys, we eventually realize our creations can be taken apart or knocked down. Heidegger explains that these moments of destruction are opportunities for understanding. When a tool or piece of equipment no longer works, we begin to observe the object in a more detached and objective manner. Heidegger names our relationship with tools when we are engaged and using them as experiencing them as “ready-to-hand.” If we stand back and view the tool at a distance, outside our engaged use, we are analyzing the tool as something that is what he calls “present-at-hand.” Even though our age privileges the knowledge and understanding produced by the detached techniques that turn nature and things into present- at-hand entities, Heidegger thinks the connectedness with things we feel through actively engaging with them is more basic and primordial than the detached mode we adopt in scientific investigations. For Heidegger, our engaged, lived experiences with things tell us about what it means to be human. Thus, it makes sense that we learn more by playing with LEGO bricks than by merely contemplating them. For Heidegger, play is especially important because it reconnects us with the awe and wonder that are foundational to what it means to be human. Indeed, play—especially a capability to remain open and creative—helps us to live authentically.

The open structure of LEGO toys invites openness from creators. Other toys—board games, for example—might create, require, and sustain different moods and modes of play. However, LEGO play reveals moods and desires in a unique way. LEGO play often extends over a sustained period of time, inviting play with the same bricks in diverse environments with different emotional settings.

Unfortunately, the master narratives and Master Builders often cover up our playful moods in favor of what Heidegger calls “cal- culative thinking.” Calculative thinking values efficiency and flexibility; it demands that nature and humans be on-call, available, ready to respond to our need for maximum efficiency and flexibility, and adopts an attitude of mastery toward things.5 We assume we can use things, use them up, in any way we see fit. Everything shows up as a resource that can be manipulated, mastered, and controlled by humans.6 Play—perhaps especially when our creation needs to be built again and again—can awaken us to ways of relating to things without seeking mastery over them. Such play is marked by an openness, where we do not need to completely understand and control things, though admittedly play can also fall back into more inauthentic, mastering attitudes.

Existence is fundamentally for Heidegger “without why,” without a definite purpose, meaning, or ground. Even time unfolds in ways that are not completely under our control and mastery. Our everyday play can show traces of this deep sense of play. In engaged play, we let things be and let ourselves be with others in ways that follow Heidegger’s call for more meditative thinking.

Instances of boredom—that often arise prior to engaged play— show that contemporary life has become preoccupied with consuming, producing, and mastering things. When things show up for us in only one way, dominated by the rhythms of familiar patterns, our capacity for boredom increases. Our bored moods help awaken us to the dangers within closed-off thinking that does not embrace creativity.

When we attend to our moods during play, we focus on the shared values that arise during LEGO construction. LEGO builders, filled with moods of care and wonder toward nature and our built environments, are in an ideal position to transform LEGO bricks into recyclable pieces.

Too often, we regard play as a break from the more important aspects of our lives marked by work, especially work that conforms with societal norms. It is important to become aware of how our moods and values influence whether our play becomes transformative or merely follows pre-packaged instructions. The modularity of LEGO bricks allows for the expression of multiple values on different occasions.

Heidegger uses the word “play” to describe even the most serious aspects of how history unfolds and how we should respond to those aspects of life beyond our control. Play has a dual structure that can involve everyday playful encounters with others and the more serious play of time and history that is also always just outside our control. Our existence is fundamentally and foundationally characterized by play. For Heidegger, this means that meaning and truth always have mysterious aspects—not unlike our mysterious friend Batman—that remain hidden.

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