I still remember the night my dad brought home my first big LEGO set. He had procured the set through work somehow and it was a highlight of my childhood. I had received a few small sets prior to this gift but the larger sets were simply too expensive. I spent hours that first night opening up the several hundred piece set, giddy with excitement over such novel features as a crane that went up and down and garage doors that could slide open through special groves in the little 1 x 2 yellow blocks.
As best as I can remember, I was about five when my dad gave me that set and it set-off a love affair with the toy. I spent countless days of my childhood (usually starting with a pile of blocks on a Friday night and continuing on through Sunday afternoon) building, destroying and make-believing that I once thought that the ‘80s LEGO commercial was made just for me (“Zach. Zach. He’s a…” You know how the rest goes.)
This past week I read how LEGO had recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of their first patent filing. A slew of memories washed over me while I read about the brick’s humble beginnings and their place in the pantheon of toys. I also took the time to reflect on the lessons I have learned from playing with small plastic blocks.
Creativity. While almost all LEGO builders begin with the instructions included with each set, most will eventually progress to free-form building and modification. LEGOs challenge the builder to visualize what they want to build first and then to work within the constraints of the blocks they have to make their vision a reality. (Disclaimer: Building with LEGOs bricks in the ‘80s took more creativity than it does now due to the lack of specialized bricks that are so prevalent in sets today.) If you could imagine it you could try to build it. There are virtually no limits on your ability to create something new and meaningful and most of the limits that do exist are of your own making.
Planning. As mentioned above, once you have your vision in mind, you have to plan out how you will make your vision come to life. You had to learn how to mitigate risks (What kind of support structures do you need to build in to ensure that your second-story room in the fort you are building does not collapse?) and overcome limitations (What do you do when you run of red bricks for the red convertible you are building?). You needed to plan from the beginning how you would build your creation and then accept the fact that sometimes you had to scrap your original plan and adopt a revised plan in order to accomplish your goal. Planning is crucial but so is knowing when to pivot to a new and (hopefully) better plan.
Patience. Building with LEGO bricks takes patience, especially when you have a large number of loose blocks to sort through while you are building. I kept most of my LEGOs in an old hard sided suitcase. There were literally thousands of blocks of all shapes, sizes and colors for me to choose from. I would often find myself knowing the exact block I wanted to lay my hands yet spending several minutes digging through the pile to find the fugitive piece. Almost always, having the patience to search for and find the exact block I wanted paid off better than compromising on what I wanted to build.
Trial-and-Error. When you are building a LEGO creation from scratch (or building anything from scratch, really) you have to be willing to accept a certain amount of trial-and-error. Today I would call that being willing and able to take an iterative approach to development (of any kind) but when I was seven years old it meant tearing apart whatever it was I had tried to build and starting over; Sometimes more than once. I was not afraid to make mistakes when I was building and every mistake I made was an opportunity to learn what not to do the next time.
Cleaning Up. As I mentioned before, I would often begin my weekend of LEGO building on a Friday night by dumping the contents of that old suitcase on the floor of the living room and not picking up the final pieces until sometime on Sunday. My parent graciously accepted this temporary mess and I was more than happy with the arrangement because it meant that I could keep building right up to bed-time / dinner-time / church-time or whatever other time constraint I was placed under. I did eventually have to clean up, however, and for more reasons than just to avoid the incredible pain that accompanies stepping on a LEGO brick with a bare foot. Creating and building were great but there does come a time when your building has to stop and you have to be happy with your finished product—at least until the following Friday night.
Time has taught me that you can learn valuable lessons from almost any experience: Especially experiences with little plastic, multi-colored bricks. I am so very thankful that my children are developing a love for LEGOs as well. What lessons have you learned from playing with toys that you loved growing up?