This weekend, I came across a fascinating history of the powerful tool for imagination, LEGOS.
An unlikely source of poetic inspiration, I came across the article while waiting at my favorite barber's, in the April 2015 issue of Popular Mechanics (it also has Corey Kluber on the cover!). The article, by Michael Paternini, tells a rather extraordinary story.
It began inland, in Billund, Denmark, in 1916, with Kirk Christiansen when he started a furniture business. Wood scraps from making furniture started his toy making business in 1934, which he called Lego, from the Danish leg godt, which means play well. More on that later.
About 11 years later, after WWII, he visited England and came across a plastic molding machine. He was the first person in Denmark to buy this machine and run it in Denmark. The machine at first made hollow rectangular bricks of plastic. But in 1958, Lego patented a plastic brick with internal tube and studded surface that allowed for instant stability, clutch power, and yet a young child can join and separate them.
In 1958 the Lego group has 150 employees, by 1960 the number was 450, and today they employ 14,000 people. The company makes about 55 million separate Lego pieces a year. Paternini goes on to observe that right now there are about 100 Lego bricks for every human on earth. The company has been very successful. Kirk Christiansen's grandson, the current head, is estimated to have personal worth of $10 billion.
So, the numbers are very impressive, but even more so is their celebration of play. Play is fun, of course, but human play is also the highest level of cognitive functioning too. There are few, if any, significant advances in human history that did not rely on play. And play, sadly, is under tremendous pressure, if not assault, in the childhood of American children today. From the first day of kindergarten through the first day of college, today's American child can expect to take over 100 standardized tests, experience thousands of hours of homework, and be subjected to tremendous pressures to conform to very narrow definitions of success.
And so, not only are Lego's a great toy, but a highly unusual opportunity for children to play.
One fact jumps out beyond all others in this recounting of the Lego story: If you are given just six Lego bricks, each with 8 studs, the number of possible combinations of those six bricks, is over 900 million!!
That's right, 6 Lego pieces can generate nearly 1 billion different constructions!
The makers of Lego blocks have since teamed up with cognitive scientists of play at MIT and together they discuss the interesting balance of constraint and creativity. The constraint is that each Lego block has a fixed shape, and none are round. The creativity comes from the staggering variety of shapes, including round shapes that the blocks can form.
Children enjoy Lego constructions in a wide variety of ways. They enjoy mastering reading the non-verbal construction manuals that accompany kits, and they enjoy making up their own designs. Again a great range of possibilities.
Some families have raised concern that their child(ren) focus too much attention on Lego play. Sometimes the issue of hyperfocus which is a symptom sometimes seen in children who struggle with paying attention to school work have, is raised as a problem of play with such toys as Lego blocks.
The evidence to date suggests that having fun with toys such as Lego blocks in not the cause of disinterest in school. More likely, many children simply prefer play to homework.
Lego blocks, like many fun activities that promote play, are great fun and terrific opportunities for our kids to play.
Play is in short supply for many children, and should be celebrated!
To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin
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