How Legos Can Save the World

As published in The Rye Record on March 1, 2013

I had a pretty productive stay-cation over February break. I cleaned out three closets, gained two pounds, and rekindled my love affair with Legos. My 6-year-old pulled out that beautiful old box of colorful bricks, and I heard Peaches and Herb singing “Reunited.” It really does feel so good.

When I was a kid, Legos were pretty much the only things I played with. I could sit for hours and build utopian cities out of these plastic cubes, running my thumb along the sharp edges as I planned where to put the next piece. It was the kind of play that they now give a name because it’s so rare. They call it “flow,” because you are so deeply involved in the creative process that you are unaware of time passing.

I can attribute a big chunk of my adult skill set to the hours I logged with my Legos. At an early age I knew that three was a multiple of 12, mainly because you need three of those little four-top cubes to cover a longer brick of 12. Legos taught me about spatial relations and balance and patience. The best way to learn how to honor every step in a process is to have one poorly affixed brick at the bottom of your tower. You learn pretty quickly to take the time to go back and repair something if you want it to last.

As a kid, building with Legos was what writing is to me today. It is the process of making something out of nothing, something that only you would have thought of. Of course, the Lego bricks and the words already existed, but not the way you put them together. The creation sometimes works and it sometimes crumbles. If it doesn’t work, you tear it down and start again. Eventually, you learn that what you made doesn’t matter as much as the joy you felt in the process of making it. I can think of few things as satisfying.

You would think that this love affair with Legos would have been burning strong over these past 14 years that I have been raising boys. A younger me would have imagined motherhood taking place in an environment that looked more like Legoland than an actual home. But Legos and I had a falling out when my first child was 5. All he wanted for his birthday was the coveted Spiderman Lego set. I was emotional as I bought it, anxious to see his childhood unfold in front of him as he started to play. But when he opened it, out of the box poured all these tiny pieces, specific only to Spiderman. There were webs and hooks and lampposts. There were also a few of the familiar building bricks, but certainly not enough to build a house.

As if to deliver the final blow, my son handed me the directions. Directions?! For Legos?! I was horrified. You might as well have handed Van Gogh a paint-by-numbers set. Why not take Lady Gaga to Party City to buy a Halloween costume? There were 32 carefully outlined steps for my son to follow to create Spidey’s web lair. When he got to step 17, I was despondent. My son wasn’t being trained to think and create. He was being trained to work on an assembly line. From then on, I turned my nose up at Legos the way my mother turned her nose up at store-bought cookies.

Conventional wisdom is that the next economic boom will be fueled by the kind of innovation that comes from thinking outside the box. Some big idea, bigger than the iPhone even, will spur job growth and exports and tax revenue. We are looking to the younger generations, the ones who know how to design websites and upload to YouTube, to create something new. We’ve got to get the directions out of the Lego box.

The discovery of those old Legos made our week. My 6-year-old built a house that was too wide to put a roof on; he built a car that was too big to fit in his garage. He got frustrated and then he started again. He built a basketball court with a trampoline next to it so that it would be easier for little kids to dunk. He put a chair nearby so that old people could sit and watch.

I want to live in a world where little kids can dunk and old people have a place to sit. There are Legos all over my house again, and all is right with the world.