The Lego Dilemma. Do Lego's Instructions Hamper Kids' Creative Play?

For my five-and-a-half-year-old son, Zachary, it's all about Lego. After obsessions with Thomas the Tank Engine, Disney's Cars and the sea creatures from BBC's Blue Planet series, he has turned all of his attention to the iconic Danish bricks. His love of Lego has seen a Tribble-like explosion into all corners of the house. We have handed out Lego at his birthday, when he graduated from Junior Kindergarten and just because - as in just because he pleaded so much at Walmart and the promise of a quiet play date was just too tempting. Of course, Zachary's Christmas wish list consisted almost entirely of Lego.

For the most part, I like having a kid who's Lego-obsessed. I'm always pleased at the rapturous approval I get from other parents when I tell them about Zachary's passion. Lego is seen as creative, educational, great for developing fine motor skills, and there's a whiff of nostalgia about it all.

But I've been following the current debate over the evolution (some argue devolution) of Lego. And I've begun to wonder. Is there a dark side to the "wunder" toy? Do creativity and imaginative play still rest at the heart of the Lego experience? Or have marketing ploys and bossy instructions squeezed the joy right out?

Give a Lego box even a cursory glance, and you'll see things aren't what they used to be. Pieces now come in colors like chartreuse, and shapes such as skeletons, monsters and space missiles. There are bombs, evil villains, and every sort of teeny, tiny weapon. According to Time magazine, change came by necessity. In 1998, the Lego Group posted its first ever losses and then sales dwindled for years. In 2004, the company reported a $374 million loss but also enacted a drastic turnaround plan. This involved more Lego sets with lucrative tie-ins including more of the Star Wars line first introduced in 1999, Batman in 2006, Indiana Jones in 2008 and a series of videogames. On the business end, the company drastically cut its work force and outsourced packaging and production to Eastern Europe and Mexico. The plan worked: In 2006, the Lego Group boasted $281 million in profit and sales have been robust ever since.

The current backlash against Lego was stoked by Michael Chabon's recent book, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Re-connecting with Lego while playing with his four children, Chabon found himself chafing at "the authoritarian nature of the new Lego" and its "provided solution." What Chabon and other parents I know object to is the corporate branding and rigid instructions provided in the sets, which, they argue, stanch imagination and discourage the construction of random, teetering creations.

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