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Lego’s Innovation Won’t Stop Children’s Creativity

LEGO logoThe New York Times has a great story about Lego’s resurgence as a profitable, growing toymaker. In Beyond the Blocks, the newspaper asks: “Lego has rebuilt itself, but does it risk losing a sense of wonder?”

Lego is a universal toy for all of us, across generations. As kids, we played with canisters of those multicolored bricks. As parents, we pass along the tradition to our kids. The free form nature of Legos is part of their attraction. Build whatever you want, exercise the creativity muscles and wonder that’s so prevalent in young children.

The company, however, was running into challenges of slow market growth and poor internal operational discipline. To combat the malaise that was setting in, a new CEO came in and made two big changes. He instilled a key performance indicator (KPI) mentality and greatly expanded the product line beyond the free form blocks. It is a story of success and innovating to become a stronger company, as the New York Times notes:

But the story of Lego’s renaissance — and its current expansion into new segments like virtual reality and video games — isn’t just a toy story. It’s also a reminder of how even the best brands can lose their luster but bounce back with a change in strategy and occasionally painful adaptation.

A key point made in the story is that the theme-based Lego toys have a downside. Toy sets based on Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Toy Story rob children of the creative aspects that the traditional plain bricks. With a plain set of Legos, there are no instructions, no pre-set pictures of what the end result will be. It requires that the child think about new possibilities and dream up their own structures. The themed toys, on the other had, are more about following someone else’s directions and creativity. Indeed, here’s what psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Sinowitz says in the New York Times article:

What Lego loses is what makes it so special. When you have a less structured, less themed set, kids have the ability to start from scratch. When you have kids playing out Indiana Jones, they’re playing out Hollywood’s imagination, not their own.

I think it’s a point well-made. But I want to offer a counterpoint. It’s not from any deep research background on childhood creativity. Rather, it’s as a father of a 5 year old boy. Here is my son’s current favorite Lego creation:

Lego flying machine contraption

Lego flying machine contraption

What’s that? Ask my son, and he’ll tell you, “It’s a secret.” What did it used to be? A helicopter. A Lego helicopter that came with specific instructions for how to build it. Which we did together. But soon thereafter, he decided to make it his own thing. He can tell you all about the different parts of his magnificent flying machine. What they do, and where the people climb in and how they operate it.

What this tells me is that creativity is an intrinsic part of all of us. Sure, my son made a helicopter into a variation of something that flies, instead of turning it into a castle or bridge or something. So certainly, the theme of the toy influenced the direction of his creativity. But I actually think that’s a good thing. Give him some direction for his creativity.

Can’t wait to see what he does with the Grand Carousel.

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