‘Branded LEGO kits stifle kids’ creativity.’
I hear this all the time, this claim that Star Wars LEGOs fuck your kids up while plain-jane LEGOs encourage their imaginations. I’ve even made the claim myself. I recant. It is not true.
My 5-year-old son has long favoured Ninjago LEGOs, four (then five) elemental-themed ninja and their wily sensei Wu battling a succession of themed armies: warriors of stone, snake-men, robots and AIs, ghosts from a Lovecraftian hell dimension, pirate-djinn, and a transparent Mortal Kombat tournament pastiche with elemental warriors from all over the world. It’s one pastiche and earnest popcult reference after another, honestly. At first I found the toys and the TV show tiresome; now I love the show even more than my boy does.
He’s also got a large selection of Star Wars LEGOs, naturally, plus a couple of LEGO Friends sets (tween girls in a charming risk-averse fantasy land), several Chima sets (dreadful anime-ish fighting animals), and Bilbo Baggins’s house.
He also inherited hundreds or thousands of plain LEGOs from my brother and me, and from my wife and her brother. Yes, there are astronauts and knights and city cops on motorbikes in there; yes, the astronauts’ helmet are all broken in the same way. (I was The LEGO Movie‘s target audience; its makers were freakishly attentive to any details which might play into my nostalgia.)
Here’s how my son plays with LEGOs:
- He assembles the kits. Lately, honestly, he can’t be bothered with this step.
- Within a couple of days begins cannibalizing the kits for parts for his own improvised creations: multistory houses and spaceships like flying cathedrals.
- He swaps out pieces of the minifigures, including individual limbs (which actually unnerves me). Princesses with stormtrooper helmets, construction workers in lizard masks carrying dwarven axes, etc.
- As a test of my resolve, he leaves the pieces scattered around the house.
He’s not alone in any of this. Five bucks says this is the standard use case for LEGO models among well-adjusted humans everywhere.
My son doesn’t give a Beyoncé (I’ll explain this phrase some other time, it’s actually complimentary to Beyoncé, trust me) about where the pieces actually go after his initial rush of excitement to duplicate what’s on the box. Indeed, per The LEGO Movie again, I’m probably more anxiety-ridden on that score than him; the idea of losing a piece and so being unable to rebuild a model twenty years from now is for me a soul-rending horror.
For a long time I’ve felt that branded media tie-ins were tacky — and they are, they unquestionably are — but they’re also not anywhere near as bad as I’ve thought. The fact that a given piece was once the sidewall of an AT-AT’s weirdly small storage compartment has no bearing on whether it suits my son’s plans for a maximum-security intergalactic dragon prison.
I do agree with one complaint about tie-in LEGO kits: they’re too damned full of limited-use nonstandard pieces. It is known. The way around this limitation is clear: buy lots and lots and lots of LEGO sets so your children have enough limited-use pieces to make something of them. If you’re reading this blog from a workdesk or in your copious free time, you’re probably already doing this, and the Danes and I salute you.